Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Our PTJL Blog Has Moved!

Hello Everyone,

We wanted to let you know that our Parenting Through a Jewish Lens blog has moved. You can now see all current and past blogs at

Come and visit us there to read more about our writer's experiences with PTJL.

Marcy Leiman
Associate Director
Parenting Through a Jewish Lens

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Our Children Are Not Us by Rabbi David Jaffe

In the 1990s film classic, Austin Powers, Dr. Evil has a clone who he calls “Mini-me.”  The mini-me looks just like Dr. Evil except he is one eighth his size.  When my first son was younger I had a secret hope that he would be my mini-me.  He would love playing soccer and studying Torah.  He would be active politically in his elementary school and of course be an avid reader.  If I let myself indulge this fantasy, I wanted him to be exactly like I was as a young person! A Mini-me. 

Of course, our children are not mini-me’s.  But really accepting this fact is harder than it seems.  My son is a fun, wonderful, delicious boy .  He is a late reader and likes baseball instead of soccer.  He likes science and math and is a kinesthetic learner.  He is not particularly fond of learning Torah.  These differences cause me more pain than I like to admit.   

In our Arlington Parenting Through a Jewish Lens class we just studied the great Reb Zusia story.  The Hassidic master Reb Zusia is lying on his deathbed crying. His students ask him why he is crying since he has been such a faithful Jew his whole life.  He responds, “when I get to heaven they won’t ask me why weren’t you more like Moses.  They will ask me, why weren’t you more like Zusia.  Then what will I say?”

This brief, powerful story cuts right to one of life’s central tasks – to be our true selves.  As adults we all know how challenging that can be given the myriad of expectations put on us by parents, colleagues, friends, spouses and others. 

Teaching this story the other day it struck me how central this idea is for us as parents.  While I may want a mini-me, this is not my job as a parent.  My job is to help my son know who he is, on his own terms.  I need to stop using my own life as a measuring stick by which to evaluate my son.  Really seeing him and his unique Neshama/soul and reflecting what I see back to him is a great gift.  We all needed our parents to do that for us.  Now we get the chance to offer this gift to our children, this gift of themselves.   

Rabbi David Jaffe is the school chaplain at Gann Academy: The New Jewish High School and the founder and dean of The Kirva Institute for Torah and Spiritual Practice. A graduate of the Columbia University School of Social Work and the Jewish Theological Seminary Communal Service program, Jaffe received his rabbinic ordination from the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in Israel. He is a veteran Parenting Through a Jewish Lens instructor and has taught widely throughout the Boston community. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

            “Modeh ani l’fanecha….”
            A group of moms and dads sits around a table in the synagogue library, eager to see what centuries of prayer and rabbinic wisdom can tell us about how to raise our kids. It’s the first day of parenting class, and we are squinting through our Jewish lenses.  The first topic is the Hebrew prayer that greets the dawn. 
As I begin a new day
I thank you God our ruler
For waking my soul with compassion.
You have great faith in me.

            Privately I feel that if God has great faith in me, there are days when I question his judgment.  But there is no doubt His nachas (pride and joy) is a boost to the ego.
            My kids have faith in me, too.  They have no idea how much I am making up on the fly.
            My mother died unexpectedly when I was a teenager.  My father was perhaps not the most attentive parent, especially after that.  Thus, as a mom I often find myself baffled.  Where do I go from here?  What do I do now? 
            No matter your background, however, bewilderment is a given for parenting; which is why we turn to each other.
            No one should have to parent alone:  the task is too vast, too complex.  Until very recently, the concept of solo parenting—the idea that one adult should single-handedly feed, clean, clothe, educate, and ethically guide her brood—would have been greeted with uncomprehending derision.  In most times and places, parents have had lots of help, whether from family or neighbors or religious community.  Today, not everyone has those options, so we build a network as we can. 
            It’s a challenge.
            Our class chips at that challenge.  As we chat our way through Modeh Ani, I mention that my Episcopalian mother taught me the classic Christian “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”  I converted to Judaism, as did my husband shortly after we married.  This sparks a response in Sarah, whose husband is a largely lapsed but occasionally observant Protestant.  Leah and her husband Abe come from a more traditional Jewish background, but the dawn-happy prayer is new for them too.
            “I think one of the strengths of our group is the variety of backgrounds we have here,” says the rabbi. 
            True.  Diversity builds strength, and multiple points of view grant insight.  The struggles of parenting are nothing new, so why not let the wisdom of the millennia do the heavy lifting?  If we have a challenge, let’s see what our tradition has to say about it.
            “What a powerful message,” says one mom as she rereads Modeh Ani.  “It reminds you that each person is unique but ordinary.”
            “And that we all have tasks that are ours alone,” says another.
            “What does it mean that God has faith in us?” says the rabbi.  “How is that different from our having faith in God?”
            “And why is that important to a child?”
            As we discuss, my classmates morph from cheerful strangers to fellow students to companions on the road of Jewish parenting. Bending over text study, a Jewish activity as old as Judaism, we are bound together by words and wisdom.

Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is a teacher and author in the Greater Boston Area.  She and her husband are the proud parents of a son and a daughter.  Her book, Wrong Place, Wrong Time, is a thriller whose central character is a Jewish mother ensnared in a hostage drama.

To find out more about Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, visit our website at

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Do You Have a Box of Grumblies at Your Seder?

By Marcy Leiman 

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens had a fabulous event at Hebrew College on March 30—   Matzah Matters attracted nearly 70 parents, children, educators and community members.  The afternoon included two learning sessions: Rabbi Benjamin Samuels discussed ways to make the Haggadah and the Seder your own, and Elisha Gechter presented various commentators on the Haggadah.  I attended Rabbi Samuels’ session.

Reflecting on our discussion, two points stayed with me:  1. prepare for and invest in the Passover Seder, and 2. keep everyone at the table.  In reference to the first point, in my family, I am the one who invites the guests, cleans the house, buys the food, cooks the meal, sets the table and prepares the dessert. How much more can I prepare and invest? What more can I give to my Seder? Rabbi Samuels suggested that we invest in a good Haggadah.  Ah, this is something that my family has not done. We’ve used the same maroon and yellow Passover Haggadah for the past twelve years. It’s antiquated; there are no color pictures, nothing for my two-year-old and six-year-old children to get excited about. Yes, this is something that we needed to do.  Immediately after coming home from Matzah Matters, my husband and I logged onto Haggadahs-R-Us and ordered Noam Zion and David Dishon’s A Different Night Family Participation Haggadah. I am excited to try this Haggadah out with my family this year, to spice up our Seder and invest /prepare a bit more.

Rabbi Samuels’ second point was to keep everyone at the table. What? My cooking and Martha Stewart-esque set table are not enough to keep everyone at the table? Rabbi Samuels showed us a “box of grumblies” that he uses at his Seder. This box contains little tchotchkes; simple games, Passover-themed costumes, and various knick-knacks. If someone (regardless of whether an adult or a child) asks a good question during the Seder, they get to wear a special costume. If children get hungry or antsy, Rabbi Samuels invites them to pick something out of the box of grumblies. The point:  the mitzvah of having a Seder is for everyone at the table to hear the story of Exodus from Egypt. Everyone must be present and engaged. Some may call it bribery; Rabbi Samuels calls it “box of grumblies.”

So, with our new Haggadot, our ten plagues finger puppets, jumping frogs and Ping-Pong balls for locusts, our family is ready with our own box of grumblies, our own new Seder. I encourage you to re-evaluate your Seder, question what you’ve always done and perhaps invest in your own Passover box of grumblies.

 Marcy Leiman is the Associate Director of Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. She lives in Needham with her husband and two children. 

Recreating Passover Memories for Our Children

By Elisha Gechter

Scallions transformed into the whips of Egyptian task masters, an imaginary suitcase for a journey from Egypt to the Promised Land and someone in an embroidered Egyptian ensemble—these are my childhood memories from the Passover seders my family and I enjoyed with friends in their very eclectic home. Our friends had nine children; the father was from Brooklyn and always ready for a debate, and the mother was from Egypt and incorporated many Sephardic customs that brought Passover off the page for me. Seder evening always felt exotic with them—there were so many differently spiced foods, boisterous songs and lengthy discussions. Plus I was pretty enamored to know someone from that faraway land where the Hagaddah scenes transpired.

created at: 2014-03-21Leading up to the holiday my mom would work on sewing me a new dress that I would anticipate showing off at these seders (it’s a tradition to have something new to wear before Passover!). She would let me select the pattern and choose the material, and then she got to work on her pedal-powered Singer. Now, as a working mom, I have no idea how she had time for this while teaching elementary school full-time. Her efforts certainly made the holiday feel a little more special.

But then one year, Passover changed for our family—our friends and their nine children realized a lifelong dream to move to Israel. They made it to the “Promised Land” and we were left at our much smaller, much less exotic Passover table. Without the banter, costumes and scallions, we felt lost. With only a half-dozen voices joining in on the seasonal songs, it felt less like a celebration. After that first time of us flying solo at the seder, at the age of 8 I asked my dad if I could try leading the seder the following night. In a way that would have pleased Sheryl Sandberg, I leaned in, or rather I leaned to my left side as instructed by the Haggadah, and took the reins. I don’t remember too many details from the first seders under my helm, but they were well-received, and I felt so good leading them.

The head of the seder table was one of the places that I grew to love Jewish conversations, Jewish learning and Jewish teaching. We incorporated some of the traditions from our Egyptian/Brooklyn friends and continued to glean new ideas from various Haggadahs. I instituted changes over the years that at first felt like a departure but are now part of our traditions. For example, we didn’t always read everything out loud; passages were sometimes looked over with a partner. And we didn’t always wait until we finished telling the story to eat the parsley and potatoes dipped in salt water—we sometimes snacked on crudités and dips.

There have been times when we spent Passover away from home at wonderfully adventurous destinations, including Israel, Prague and Puerto Rico. But when we were part of those bigger communal seders, I missed our smaller family discussions and the memories we had built.

Now, as I continue to lead our family seders, my attention turns to not only keeping the adults around the table intellectually stimulated but also to finding customs that will speak to my one-and-a-half-year old daughter, Zoe. She is the only seder guest under age 27! I want to recreate that whole-body experience I had with our Sephardic friends. It’s a lot to live up to, and right now I’m focusing on baby steps. We’ve been singing a lot of “Dayenu” thanks to the PJ Library, using matzah stickers to chat about this new food (she’s a huge challah freak!), and soon I want to pick out a dress with her from her collection that she hasn’t yet worn and designate it as her “seder dress.” So that’s how we’ll start off—we’ll pay attention to props, songs and matzah ball soup and build toward next year, when maybe she’ll be able to sing along to the Four Questions with us and pack something in that imaginary suitcase.

I invite you to join one of the many Parenting Through a Jewish Lens classes that Hebrew College and CJP are offering this fall—it provides an opportunity to discuss with other parents how you make Judaism come alive in your home.

Elisha Gechter is the associate director of community engagement at Hebrew College’s adult learning department. She also does community organizing and teaching for Eser and Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Sam, and daughter, Zoe.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Do You Have a Red Bandana? by Rabbi Emily Mathis and Rabbi Deborah Zuker

Rabbi Emily Mathis and Rabbi Deborah Zuker are Parenting Through a Jewish Lens instructors at Temple Ner Tamid in the North Shore. 

Purim is by far the silliest, most playful holiday on the Jewish calendar. Children in particular enjoy the customs of Purim - dressing up in costumes, cheering the heroes Mordechai and Esther and booing the villain Haman, eating hamantashen (be they poppy-, apricot-, or chocolate-filled). It may seem amid all this silliness that Purim is a holiday primarily for children.

Actually, there are many aspects and themes to Purim that are very much intended for adults. Purim costumes customarily include gender-bending; the humor of the Purim-shpiel (an amateur play that tells the Purim story) is often adult and full of timely and inside jokes, and there is a commandment to drink alcohol to the point where one can no longer tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman (not for children!). For the intellectuals among us, the story of Purim includes many nuanced and mature themes: What is the role of God in human affairs? What is the experience of Jews living as a minority amid a majority culture? Do we hide our Jewishness? Do we try to 'pass'? What is the appropriate moral response to the suffering of our enemies? How do we reveal the hidden or uncertain aspects of who we are?

As parents, we think an awful lot about what behaviors and values we model for our kids. We say 'please' and 'thank you' so that they will learn politeness. We clean up after ourselves so that they will learn cleanliness. In the realm of Jewish modeling, we say blessings on Friday night so that they will learn to value Shabbat. We refrain from eating bread during Passover so that they will learn Jewish history and narrative, and identifying with the stranger. We help them with their Bar or Bat Mitzvah studies because we want to show that we value Jewish learning and engagement.

But in addition to the important but more serious aspects of life, do we also pay attention to modeling silliness and playfulness for our kids – in our Jewish lives? Or do we model breaking out of our familiar ways of being in the world, developing flexibility in who we are? They dress up and enjoy Purim, but do you, as a parent, also dress up and enjoy Purim? When we model Jewish living for our children, we must be conscious of modeling ALL of it – no part of Judaism is only for children. Jewish living is a life-long pursuit. It is a full-bodied experience.

So do you have a red bandana? You don't need a fancy store-bought costume to get into the Purim spirit along with your kids. A red (or any color) bandana, a plaid shirt and jeans, and you are instantly transformed into a farmer for Purim. Voilà! Happy Purim!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens - Reflection

My experience in parenting has been a mix of small triumphs and an unexpected and often overwhelming sense of love and pride…. coupled with the somewhat ongoing question of whether my husband and I are doing this “right” at all.

Five months ago my eldest son (age 5) asked me about G-d. Who was he? Who made him? What happens when you die? Is there really a light inside of us? Does G-d live in your heart? (He asks a lot of questions). And when I found myself staring at him caught between what I “think” I believe, what my parents taught me, what my husband believes, what his family taught him, and what we want our sons to believe – well I basically replied with a giant “hmmmmmm…I need to think about that overnight.”

I actually need to think about that over many nights – and Parenting Through a Jewish Lens has given me that gift over the last twelve weeks. I have greatly enjoyed the chance to speak with other parents who are considering how to bring together their upbringing, personal beliefs, partner’s beliefs and hopes and dreams for their children’s futures. The class has provided historical context, the understanding that asking the question WHY is critical in Judaism, and a safe group of individuals who are open to sharing the joys and fears that arise in parenting. For me, a particular gift has been taking the class with other people who are in interfaith partnerships.

For many years I’ve worried about how to make a Jewish home with two different family backgrounds, but through this class, I’ve been able to tease out the parts of my Jewish upbringing that feel most critical to replicate, and that I can change and adapt for my home. I also better understand now which of my personal values are rooted firmly (and unchangeably) in rich Jewish tradition. This class has given me the tools to speak to my children about the universal religious values that my husband and I share – while understanding the importance and power of Jewish practice in our home so our children can live and experience what it means to be Jewish, and ultimately part of a Jewish community.

My eldest son asked me last week if I had gotten the answers to his questions. (I told him my class was helping me with that). While my answers may not be very polished at this point, I can answer the questions with much more information and joy than I did that night a few months back. I can also tell him that there is often more than one answer to some questions, and that -in our tradition – we learn by asking and talking and asking again (and talking and asking AGAIN). With the freedom to learn in this class, and also in Jewish life, the path of parenting feels just a touch easier to navigate -- and I now look forward more confidently to the questions that lie ahead.

Jill Kantrowitz Kunkel