Friday, December 20, 2013

Milestone Moments by Rabbi Julie Zupan

I was stunned when each of my children, on separate pediatrician’s visits, ran from the doctor’s office without even glancing at the sticker bucket. On many, many previous visits, choosing the perfect sticker had been a 20 minute ordeal. Suddenly it seemed, the sticker stage was over.  

One of my favorite questions to ask groups of parents is to share a recent family milestone. My sticker bucket story is the story I love to tell. While I had anticipated many of our children’s milestones – the first step, the move from crib to the big-boy bed, the first day of kindergarten, the first drop-off playdate…there are even more that I didn’t anticipate. These are milestone moments that surprised me: when my kids gave up on the sticker bucket; when they first rode their bikes to the library without me; when they joyfully jumped off the diving board, without drama, again and again; when our cat no longer fled but let himself be petted by their small hands; when they started to wake for school by the sound of the alarm clock.

In Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, we reflected on the life course we anticipate for each of our children. We also reflected on what a Jewish life course would include. This winter, my husband and I will take our children to Israel for the first time. This is a moment I have thought a lot about; I’ve been anticipating this one for years. I want them to love Israel the way I do, to feel a connection to the people and the place.  

The traditional Jewish prayer, shehechiyanu,* acknowledges the passage of time and expresses gratitude that we are alive to experience each new season and new stage. Customarily, this particular blessing is said at the start of each Jewish holiday, when tasting fruit for the first time in its season (like strawberries in the summer), for wearing new shoes or clothing. I try to remember to say a blessing as I enter each new stage of parenting; often I enter those stages without even realizing it.

What’s the family milestone you’ve experienced most recently?  What is the blessing that you would like to say? 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Joy As Sustenance

I was recently visiting my family in Spain. My mother, sister and I were ordering some drinks in an outdoor bar, enjoying balmy Andalusian weather, when my mother, starting a conversation with the waiter asked how the financial crisis is affecting the business. He responded without missing a beat: “As long as there is money for food and laughter everything is okay”. I was struck. Really? All you need is food and laughter? That is all? What about a house? What about health? What about a Jewish education? And then I considered the lesson in this waiter’s words. A complete stranger had brought me to a new understanding of what joy is and the place it can take in our lives. We are all so busy, with long to-do lists, work, social commitments, and responsibilities. Where is there room for joy? If we think of joy and laughter as sustenance, then its pursuit takes on new meaning. It lightens our spirits. How much time do we spend doing things that are fun with our families? Are we teaching our kids the value of being “b’simcha” being in joy? My son came home saying that he learned in school that when we smile it actually makes us feel better inside; it makes us happier. Lately we are making a point of smiling at each other at home. Just because. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It Takes a Village by Behzad Dayanim

There is no concise manual for how to be a good parent. No matter how many hours of pregnancy classes or how many books one reads in preparation for this amazing adventure rife with challenge and revelation, from the first day a child enters the world, s/he changes it. No matter what we think we can expect, rarely a day goes by that doesn’t bring a surprise of one form or another. And parenting doesn’t end once our children graduate from infancy, or childhood, or adolescence. Just as we think we might be mastering a particular stage of our child’s development, a new stage emerges, often with new expectations, and no two children experience these stages the same way. So where does Parenting Through a Jewish Lens fit into the picture?

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began preparing for our first session this year. Having served in a number of educational capacities and worked with diverse populations, I anticipated that this would still be something new and I was certainly correct in that assumption. The past four sessions with my cohort from Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton have been extraordinary. I do not presume to evaluate my impact as the facilitator but rather to reflect on the overall contributions from everyone in attendance. As a modern orthodox community with a diverse population, our cadre is comprised of a range of current and future parents, some with young children, some with teens, some anticipating becoming the parents they hope to be. Each member of our group adds color and depth to our conversations, often promoting deeper understanding and sparking new questions.

I anticipated that this type of learning environment would be different. I did not fully understand to what extent I would be benefitting from the process of learning with such a dynamic group of individuals. Rarely is one presented with the opportunity to truly learn among peers and to wrestle with and sometimes be inspired by the amazing resources that the Torah and our heritage provide. One of the most rewarding aspects of this “chavruta” (learning group) has been the aggregate wisdom shared and the sense of strengthened community resulting from our collective and collaborative learning. We may not become perfect parents as a result of participating in this program but I certainly expect we will become better able to face the exciting challenges and opportunities that parenthood presents. It could be a song, a prayer, an inspiring passage, or any of the many wonderful conversations and stories that we share that reminds us that we are not alone in our efforts.

PTJL is no panacea for the parenting challenges we all face. It is a wonderful outlet to learn and share, laugh and cry as we work together to help foster the next generation. It reminds us of how influential each person can be and how important our roles as parents and as children can be as we strive to be meaningful contributors to the world around us.

Shabbat: A Turning Toward Each Other

What am I grateful for? This question has come up at many of the community Shabbat celebrations I have attended. Sometimes the question comes in the form of a request to name a highlight of the week, to which most people answer, “I am most grateful to be here, with all of you!” And I am sure it is true. Shabbat can feel like a relief, and it feels nice to share that sense of relief with others who value this time enough to have attended such a gathering. Each of us is there, trying, in our own capacity, to press the stop button, to add some sense of humanity, of belonging, and perhaps a little bit of the sacred to our lives, and it feels good.

And yet, I have also felt this expression of gratitude for being together to be low hanging fruit, grabbed out of convenience in the moment the question is asked; if the highlights we shared with people who don't know us were more personal, this might actually make us feel more unique and isolated, just when we were trying to feel connected.

I never suspected, though, that taking the ritual of talking about highlights of the week into the home setting would change this dynamic so profoundly. It helped that in our Parenting Through a Jewish Lens class it was suggested that we might want to use the Blessing of the Children as an opportunity to recognize our kids for one of their personal triumphs that week, and then for parents to turn to each other and share an appreciation of each other. Hearing a reflection of what stood out for others about our behavior set a tone for subsequent conversation that helped bring the sacred sweetness of Shabbat into our relating with one another. It helped us to see the best in each other and focus on the personal strengths we bring to the things we do. Highlights were no longer about good things that just happened to us, but more about actions we had taken that had a positive impact on ourselves and those around us.

May these rituals and conversations continue to help us grow, reflect, and take positive actions that strengthen our relationships within and beyond our families. Thank you Parenting Through a Jewish Lens.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Talk About Jewish Lens

Since my son was very young, and we were very new parents, we have always had a nightly routine. It has changed somewhat throughout my son’s 2+ years, but always includes a bath, one (or many) books, and some iteration of “cuddle time.” In our family, bedtime is one ritual that is sacred in our lives, when sitting at the kitchen table for meals or snacking on healthy food simply falls through the cracks of our working-parent existence. However, since beginning our Parenting through a Jewish Lens class in October, bedtime has changed.

One of the most important pieces of advice I have gotten as a new parent is that just when you despair that your child will never sleep through the night, will never stop pooping in the tub, or will always throw tantrums when they can’t get what they want, things change. Sometimes these behaviors extinguish themselves, sometimes they demand special focused attention, sometimes they get worse, and sometimes they get better. But the one thing we can count on is that they will change.

Every Sunday morning, we get ourselves dressed and out of the house in order to meet with our knowledgeable teacher and other Jewish parents of young kids for PTJL. When we started this class five weeks ago, we didn’t know what it would be like, what we would learn, or how this learning would influence our development as a Jewish family, but we were open, and interested, and motivated, and we made sure to show up.

During the first class, we talked about morning and evening rituals, and ways that Jewish tradition helps us to ease these very present transitions in the day. One way we talked about is by saying the Shema at bedtime. This is our tradition’s way of easing the transition from wakefulness to sleep, by affirming our belief that we will be protected during the night. When we left this first class, we thought that by saying the Shema at night, it would be an easy way to bring Jewish tradition into our bedtime ritual. Five weeks strong, we are saying the shema every night. My two year old asks to say it when he is ready to “snuggle,” and covers his eyes . During this moment, everything else stops. My husband and I cuddle our son together as we say this prayer. 

At our fifth class, many parents voiced frustration about time spent in houses of prayer: How can we model Jewish engagement for our young children when we spend the time there chasing them around or keeping them from disturbing others? The other night, during bedtime, my son answered this question for me. After the Shema and before going into the crib, my son and I snuggle while he initiates conversations about his day, such as “Talk about the library,” or “Talk about pre-school.” From there I muster up everything I can about what happened that day, and try to engage him in conversation about it, although he usually just wants me to talk. The other night I was shocked when he said, “Talk about Jewish Lens.”

The funny part is that while we learn during PTJL, he goes to babysitting. He is not there to engage in a discussion of Jewish values. WE are. Yet somehow he knows that this matters. Even our very young children know, can understand and internalize our values. So when our son says Shema at night, even though he doesn’t understand what the words mean, he knows it matters. And when we go to services on Saturday mornings, we may not spend a moment praying, but he knows this matters. And when we snuggle together at night, talking about his day, he knows that our time together with him is what matters. Our children are not the only ones learning, growing and changing. We are too.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pizza: It's What's For (Shabbat) Dinner!

During this crazy time of the year as we’re caught up with Chanukah and Thanksgiving, it’s easy to forget that we actually get to celebrate a holiday every week: Shabbat! I love that our tradition gives us this weekly opportunity to press the pause button on our hectic lives and encourages us to spend time with our families. For those of us with young children, though, this can seem more daunting than enjoyable. In my work with families, I try to help them see that there are so many things they are already doing from day to day that are Jewish.

One of these family rituals is Shabbat dinner. There is overwhelming evidence showing the benefits of eating together as a family, from better long-term academic performance to improved health for all involved, and most importantly the relationship building that happens when we eat with the people we love, spend time together and talk about what’s really important to us.
            I know that at the end of a busy work week, putting together a nice dinner for your family can seem especially challenging. Many of us have in our minds that Shabbat Dinner = Roast Chicken. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a leisurely chicken dinner, but with 2 working parents, a 1 year old and 3 year old, we don’t always have the time and energy for that. More often than not these days, Friday night dinner at our house is homemade pizza. It’s a great way to use up the leftovers in your fridge, and even if you live with picky eaters, if it’s on a pizza, it seems to be more palatable. Some tips on getting this meal on the table:
  • If I make pasta with tomato sauce earlier in the week, I reserve about half a cup for the pizza.
  • Keep some frozen pizza dough in the fridge, it’s just as easy to double or triple the recipe.
  • Trader Joe’s has some GREAT prepared pizza dough, whole wheat, spinach, etc.
  • Involve our kids in preparing dinner, they can help roll out the dough, place the topping on the pizza, sprinkle the cheese, etc.
  • Whatever leftover veggies you have in your fridge will work great, throw some cheese on top and bake away, don’t over think it!
  • Serve with a simple salad, if you have a salad spinner this is another great way to involve young kids in helping to prepare dinner.

Once you sit down to dinner with your family, make a point to mark this meal as something different, something sacred. By saying the Shabbat blessings over the candles, bread and wine, we have the chance to show that Shabbat is different from the rest of the week, and that the time we have to spend together over the next day is special. I love the tradition of incorporating a blessing over our children into our Shabbat dinner ritual. It doesn’t need to be formal, just a moment to reinforce how much we love them and how important family is.
Sometimes Friday night just won’t work for your family, and that’s OK! Find another time during the week to be together, there’s nothing special about dinner, breakfast works too, or a Saturday lunch. Just making the point to be together is what truly matters.
Here are some of my favorite resources for making Shabbat dinner a little easier for all of us:

The Family Dinner Project- Great information on why it’s so important to eat together. Helpful hints on conversation starters and easy recipes as well.
100 Days of Real Food- Suggestions for meal planning with HEALTHY food. Terrific recipes.
French Food Rules- A fabulous jumping off point for thinking about what’s important when it comes to eating in your family
Real Simple Magazine- A great all around recipe resource, especially this easy to follow month of meals

Sarah Ruderman Wilensky is an experienced Jewish educator and founder of JewFood. She specializes in teaching about Jewish identity, holidays and culture through food, and has worked with every age group, from toddlers and preschoolers to elementary-school students, teens, adults and families. Sarah is a Jewish Educator at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston and runs the families with young children program at Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley. She lives in Newton with her husband, two young children and cat, Brisket.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens Opened Our Eyes to New Ways of Thinking

Life changes when your first child is born.  All of a sudden you are whisked into a world where focus and priorities are forever altered and everything you do is accompanied by the thought “what is best for my child?” During the first year, there is so much to learn and do that new parents are often overwhelmed with the small things and little questions.  This was especially true for my wife and me as we moved to the Boston area from Montreal only a couple weeks before my first son was born. When that initial parenting stage passed, our lives didn’t become any calmer, rather new activities took over and questions now arise that are often much more complex.
                My wife and I were raised in Conservative Jewish households. While my wife felt comfortable with this branch of Judaism, I never quite did. When life settled down after moving and having a baby, we both wanted to find our way back to some sort of Jewish community and were open to exploring wherever we might fit in.   We joined a Reform synagogue, largely because we liked their kids programs.   Now I felt comfortable, but my wife didn’t.   As our son grew older and began attending the temple’s religious school and our daughter was at their nursery school, the question of how to include our faith and beliefs in our children’s lives became one that was harder to answer. This was especially true being in a community without our family and familiar surroundings to fall back on.  
When we heard that Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (then called Ikkarim) was being offered at our temple during the time my son was in religious school, and with babysitting available for my younger daughter, it was really a no brainer to sign up.   Not only could we tell our son that he wasn’t the only one who had to go to Hebrew school on the weekend, but we felt a need to dig deeper into the role Judaism played in our everyday lives.
                Our class was amazing!   While we read interesting texts, it was the discussions that came out of them that really broadened our horizons and helped both to reinforce ideals we already had and to open our eyes to new ways of thinking.   The people in our group were an eclectic bunch and to our surprise, the majority of couples weren’t made up of two Jewish partners yet wanted to raise their kids Jewish.  Navigating being a Jewish parent from a Catholic, Presbyterian or even Baha’i background is a big challenge and offered an entirely new perspective on our Conservative versus Reform debate.  
The wonderful thing was that the class did not push anyone into a particular path, but instead opened up our minds to how incredibly flexible Judaism can be and demonstrated that throughout history even the greatest scholars and prophets have not always agreed on their interpretations of the Torah. And, even after all the stimulating educational sessions and invigorating discussions, we were left with something that to us was far more valuable: many new friends within a community that we were still getting to know.  Several years later we remain close with a number of families from our PTJL class.

                I recently joined the Parenting Through a Jewish Lens Alumni Advisory Group.   While there are many great opportunities through Hebrew College, synagogues, and other organizations for continued Jewish learning, we still have a bond to PTJL and its concept of learning through the angle of parenting; and we have an even bigger bond to the families we met.   The experience of PTJL does not have to end when the class is over.  While the PTJL Alumni Advisory Group is a relatively new endeavor, there were two great inaugural events last year that we are building on by offering further opportunities to learn, grow and have fun together as parents and families.   I am already looking forward to the Latkes and Light event on December 4th (5-7pm at Hebrew College in Newton), a family Chanukah program for alumni, current families and friends. I hope you’ll join us.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens Gave Me a Sense of Community

            The summer of 2009 was a time of big changes for our family.  My husband and I had made the decision to move our children – then ages 8, 6, and 2 – from Pittsburgh to the Boston area.  We were happy to be moving to a place where we had family just a short drive away, but we were torn about leaving the unique and close-knit Jewish community we had come to love in Pittsburgh.  After unpacking our boxes and reprogramming the “home” button on our GPS, one of our first goals was to look for a Jewish community where we could begin to connect with other families like us.

            The task proved to be more difficult than we had expected.  In Pittsburgh our older kids had gone to a day school with 20-30 kids per grade and in which all the families knew each other; now there were nearly 60 kids in each of their grades, so it was easy to fly under the radar as a new family.  Moreover, since neither child was entering the school as a kindergartner, we missed out on the “getting acquainted” activities tailored for new families.  Our two-year-old wouldn’t be old enough for Jewish preschool for another year, so we couldn’t connect through that venue either.

            We next looked to find community in the synagogue setting.  We attended High Holiday services at Temple Aliyah and began going to Shabbat services there, too.  However, as any parent knows, most of our conversations after services were limited by our children’s needs – especially our two-year-old, who by the end of a Shabbat service and kiddush lunch was ready to nap (if we took him home) or decompensate (if we did not)!

            Some of the young families I’d begun talking to at Temple Aliyah invited me to join a Parenting Through aJewish Lens class that would begin there later that fall.  I decided to give it a try, admittedly more for the chance to get to know people than for the Jewish content.  It turned out that the Jewish content was what made it such a great way to get to know people.  As a newcomer, it can be difficult to move beyond “So what brought you to the Boston area?”  But as I sat in a classroom week after week, talking about Jewish texts and concepts and how they apply to our lives and those of our children, I got to know what really mattered to my classmates, who were gradually becoming my community. 

Because the class met at Temple Aliyah, I got to know not just my classmates and our PTJL educator, but also Temple Aliyah itself.  I saw congregants arrive for evening services and committee meetings; Rabbi Perkins was a guest speaker one evening; and before long I came to associate the place itself with a supportive community interested in Jewish learning and practice.

            What did I gain from my PTJL experience?  I gained a sense of community with a group of people who are parents like me, and I found a synagogue in which I have since celebrated my own adult bat mitzvah, and where I look forward to celebrating when my children become b’nai mitzvah in the years to come.

Heidi Schwartz lives in Needham with her husband and their three children. She took part in PTJL at Temple Aliyah in 2010.



Tuesday, September 24, 2013

With the Smell of Fresh Challah, Shabbat is Here

Each Friday morning, children and families arriving to school at the Bernice B. Godine JCC Early Learning Center are greeted with the smell of fresh challah and are invited to take a small taste of the warm bread.
My office sits next to the entrance to the preschool and I’ve come to anticipate both the glee that Friday morning challah brings, and the oft-repeated conversations of parents and caregivers Mondays through Thursdays, patiently explaining to eager toddlers and preschoolers: there’s no challah today, sweetie, it’s Tuesday.

These repeated exchanges illustrate for me at least a few important points about toddler development:
Toddlers learn through the five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. Spiritual practices that engage the senses have the greatest impact. Toddlers who cannot yet articulate the word “challah” recognize it by sight, taste, and smell.  A simple song like Shabbat Shalom (Bin Bam) indicates that “Shabbat is Here!” (another musical hit with the toddler and preschool set). 

It doesn’t take much to make a big impact. But it does take repetition and routine.  I’ve seen many a toddler sing “happy birthday” to the Shabbat candles.  If Shabbat candles were as common as birthday candles, it will be the opposite. 

Young children have not yet developed a sense of time. “Yesterday,” “next week,” and “Friday” are not yet meaningful concepts. Harried parents already know this: think of the futility of telling your toddler you need to leave in five minutes, or ten. Toddlers live fully in the “now,” in the present (an enviable spiritual state, but frustrating when you are late for work!).  Ritual is one way that we help mark time for young children. Repetitive ritual creates consistency and feelings of safety and security.

What children (of all ages) want and need most of all is the whole-hearted attention of loving and caring parents and caregivers. The Sabbath gives us permission to set aside the to-do list and everyday stresses, to stop being productive. Whether you make challah from scratch using your great grandmother’s beloved recipe or can barely manage to defrost a mini bagel from the freezer, who you are, right now, is more than enough.   

My fifth point speaks not to what is developmentally-appropriate for toddlers, but rather, what is “developmentally-appropriate” for families with toddlers:
It’s natural that parents of young children feel that they have little time for themselves, or for their partners.

Taking time for yourself as an individual helps you to be the loving parent – loving person - you wish to be.  Everyone tells you to get more sleep and exercise. I want to encourage you to pay attention to your intellectual and spiritual needs. Make time to talk with peers and with your partner about what matters most, not just what’s most urgent.  These are the conversations that strengthen your family and feed your soul, and if you’re partnered, will remind you of why you fell in love in the first place. 

Each Fall I meet with parents of young children in the ten week course Parenting Through a Jewish Lens’s never simple for individuals or couples to carve out time to take the class – even with the free on-site babysitting – but once there, they find that the Jewish wisdom we explore can transform their personal and family journeys. 

Rabbi Julie Zupan serves as the Jewish Family Educator for the Early Learning Centers of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston ( and is on the staff of Reform Jewish Outreach Boston ( She is an instructor for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a ten week course offered by Hebrew College.  Rabbi Zupan can be reached at

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Jewish Parenting Group Shapes My Road Map

Five years ago this week I started on my Jewish parenting journey when my son was born.  As an interfaith couple we had decided to raise a Jewish family, but neither of us had specific traditions we felt we had to observe, and therefore we had an open road map for the paths we might take.  We knew we were having a boy, but we didn’t know whether we wanted family from far and wide to come and visit a mere week after his birth, as they would if we held a bris according to the traditional schedule. We consulted with a Rabbi with whom we had studied in a class offered through the Union for ReformJudaism.  She talked to us about the traditions of a bris, and gave us suggestions for how we could integrate them with our family’s needs, beliefs and abilities.  Through these discussions we were able to honor our newborn son in a way that was comfortable for us, and that gave him a starting point for his own Jewish journey.

Shortly after he was born, I started attending a Parenting Through a Jewish Lens class, then known as Ikkarim.  Through readings of a range of Jewish texts and thoughtful discussions with my classmates, our family road map started to take form and my husband and I were able to begin our own family traditions.  As parents, each day we encounter decisions we have to make for our children, and there is rarely only one right answer.  I found PTJL helped me make choices that guided us along a path that was right for us. 

Recently, I was asked to chair the Alumni and Friends of PTJL Advisory Group, working with an enthusiastic staff committed to assisting all who have taken the class, and those considering what the class is about.  We have an exciting year of events coming up for the entire Boston Jewish community, including our Latkes & Light Hanukkah party, and Matzah Matters, our family Passover event.  For those on the committee, aside from planning the events, we use our time during meetings to have text-based discussions with exciting leaders, and to talk about issues with which we continue to struggle with as parents.

When the course is over, the experience is not.  I continue to be involved with PTJL because my family benefits from the learning experiences and support offered through the Alumni Group.  We welcome all who are interested in joining the committee.  Please contact Marcy or Elisha at for more information.

For me, being involved in the Alumni and Friends of PTJL Advisory Group is a way that I can stay connected to learning and continue to be an active part of my son’s Jewish journey.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Moms Helping Moms

Karen Tal-Makhluf, a 2013-2014 PTJL participant, shares her story as a new mom seeking guidance from the Visiting Moms Program of Jewish Family & Children's Service. This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal on Thursday, August 22, 2013.

PEABODY — Like many new mothers, Karen Tal-Makhluf spent the early days after the birth of her first child last fall in a state of exhaustion. Her son — a healthy 7 pound, 8 ounce boy named Ethan — was born after more than 30 hours of labor and an emergency C-section. Although surrounded by her loving husband Joel and a caring extended family, Tal-Makhluf felt lost, confused and unsure of herself. Desperate for some adult interaction, the 29-year-old Peabody mother remembered reading at the hospital about the Lauren & Mark Rubin Visiting Moms program of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, a home visiting program for pregnant women and parents of newborns who want support and companionship, and she decided to reach out. The program was then able to connect her with Arlene Agree, a 61-year old Swampscott mother of three.
Since December, Agree has been making weekly visits to Karen and Ethan, and by all accounts the pairing has been a success, providing muchappreciated support to Tal-Makhluf, and a satisfying volunteer opportunity for Agree.
"I just loved Arlene’s laid back and non-judgmental attitude," explained Tal-Makhluf. "I had never looked after any baby in my life. Everything was a new experience for me, and it was lonely being all day with a baby and not knowing what to do. Nothing can truly prepare you for what to expect during motherhood. I wanted to do everything right, and was second-guessing myself. Arlene has a very practical sense of motherhood and raising children. She is very comforting and soothing. In the beginning you are so tired. It seems like so much work to pack up the baby and diaper bag to go out, and yet you are so desperate for adult interaction. It was so nice to have someone come to my home, and hold the baby and really listen to me. It means the world. What I love about the program is that it focuses on supporting moms."
According to Debbie Whitehill, a licensed social worker and director of the Visiting Moms Program, Tal-Makhluf’s experience is common to new mothers of first or subsequent children. The home visitation program is based on the recognition that parenting is a genuinely difficult job, and that most mothers are unprepared for the magnitude of stresses and new challenges. For nearly 25 years, the Visiting Moms program now available on the North Shore has served hundreds of mothers and babies in the Greater Boston area annually. Trained volunteers visit mothers and their babies at home for one hour a week through the first months of infancy or up to the baby’s first birthday. The free program is open to families of all faiths and races.
"What we are hoping is that the additional support we offer to moms with newborns will help them gain confidence and competence in their parenting role," Whitehill said. "We do that through supportive, nonjudgmental, empathic relationships."
New moms are referred in a variety of ways. Typical issues for new mothers run the gamut from being far away from family and feeling isolated, to being sleep deprived and feeling insecure about decision making, to feeling overwhelmed with responsibility for the care of another life 24/7, to more significant adjustment issues such as post-partum depression and anxiety.
Volunteer "moms" such as Agree receive 10 hours of training before beginning visits, and are continually supervised by clinicians on staff. The ultimate goal is for volunteer moms to play a supportive role for the new parent.
Agree, a seasoned volunteer and now a new grandmother herself, finds the role especially fulfilling.
"This for me has been the most successful volunteer position I have ever held because by working one-on-one with someone, you really feel you are making a difference," she said. "I have found being a mother really fulfilling, and I am pleased to be able to help someone else achieve that."
The Visiting Moms program is continually seeking volunteers. Call 781-647-5327 or go to

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Between Work, School and Soccer Practice

All parents want the best for their children. They want to teach them important core values like respect, kindness and responsibility. But how to even think about such matters when our schedules are so hectic?

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a 10-week class offered at sites throughout Greater Boston, allows parents the time to stop and reflect on a variety of parenting issues, including how to help children internalize core values. Participants enjoy rich discussions with distinguished faculty members; they learn from experts and draw on their own experiences.

As a parent and administrator of the program, I am thrilled to also be a participant in Parenting Through a Jewish Lens this year. For me, I have been curious about how to make traditional Bible stories more vivid for my preschool-aged children. How can I bring those stories into our regular bedtime routine? I look forward to finding out answers to these and many more questions. Join me and other parents who seek to deepen our understanding.

For more information and/or to register, please visit or visit and "like" our Facebook page, 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Back to School Isn't Only For Kids

Margie Bogdanow, a PTJL instructor, shares her summer reflections on being a teacher and a student. This post originally appeared on Margie's blog.

As I sit on the porch in New Hampshire with the sun shining and the pond glistening through the trees in the distance, fall feels very far away. If only there was a way to slow down time.  (So far the only way I’ve found to do that is to “plank” – that tortuous position where somehow your “core” is strengthened – then I take notice of each drawn out second as I try to hold on for as long as possible. But I know that I can only plank for a minute or two a day – the rest of the day, time passes much too quickly). Before we know it, summer will pass and school will start.  For most, school implies children.  Children learn, parents teach.  However, one of the most important lessons I learned early on in my parenting is that children teach and parents learn.

When I first became aware of that, I was awestruck.  It just wasn’t how it was supposed to be.  I had thought that I would impart my vast body of knowledge – acquired through twenty-seven years of living – and that my children would just soak it up. Wrong.  I still had lots to learn.  I began seeking out knowledge about parents and children, and that has kept me learning ever since.

A few years ago, I had the great privilege of joining the Adult Learning Faculty at Hebrew College to serve as an instructor in the program “Parenting Through A Jewish Lens.” I loved teaching the course, exploring with parents how Judaism informs their parenting journey.  Parenting has been going on for many generations and, although there are some differences, in many ways the struggles of parents have been the same throughout the ages; children have always begun as dependent creatures and parents have always striven to help them become independent creatures.  Children have always challenged their parents in a myriad of ways.  Parents have struggled with finding the best ways to teach, to discipline, and to help their children grow – to hold close and to let go. As a living religion, Judaism provides wisdom on these topics.  Participants might not always agree with the “wisdom,” but debating this makes for wonderful discussions, and discussion is an integral part of Jewish learning.  In our course of study we created new Jewish wisdom together and built connections to one another.

I taught, they learned and then a funny thing happened.  They began to teach and I began to learn, just as had been my surprising experience 30 years earlier. And then, as previously, I realized that I wanted to know more. This time my appetite was whetted to learn more about Judaism.  Although I have a strong Jewish background, I realized there was so much more to learn. I asked myself the very Jewish question (found in Ethics of our Fathers) “If not now, when?” So last September, I enrolled in Me’ah, Hebrew College’s two year adult learning program, and began my 100 hours of Jewish study. I became a student where I was on the Faculty.  I went from teacher to learner once again.  Taking a class, being a learner, is a commitment – it takes time and energy.  Yet, the rewards for me have been wonderful.  Being exposed to great teachers, conversing with thoughtful students, and “connecting the dots” of living an authentic Jewish life has been powerful.

And so, as I sit watching the pond, I am reminded that learning and teaching are totally intertwined and that, although challenging, the rewards of learning are immense. I’ll never learn it all, neither about parenting nor about Judaism, and so for me this is a life-long journey. While I’m not able to stop time to understand everything I’d like to understand, or to make summer last forever, I am looking forward to reconnecting with my fellow students after a summer away and diving back in to learning.

[For more information on Parenting Through a Jewish Lens and Me’ah visit

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Introducing Our Newest Member of the PTJL Team

Hi! I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Marcy Leiman and I’m thrilled to be joining Hebrew College’s Adult Learning Department as Associate Director of Parenting Through a Jewish Lens.

To tell you a bit more about my professional journey, I have lived in the Boston area since 1998, when I first began working at Hebrew College’s Adult Learning Department as Administrative Assistant for, and staff member of Jewish InterAction. Since then, I’ve moved on to become a communications specialist in a number of advertising and public relation firms and taught first grade in various elementary schools in the Greater Boston area.

I live in Needham, MA with my husband and two children, ages two and five. They are the best part of me and I love being a mother and partner in their lives. We belong to Temple Aliyah in Needham and are active members of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

I currently serve on the board of Combined Jewish Philanthropies Women’s Philanthropy and I am the co-chair of Temple Aliyah’s Temple Tot committee. In both of these roles, I’ve worked with lay leaders to plan, organize and execute events for families of young children. I have publicized these events through social media and traditional media outlets – skills that I look forward to bringing to my new role at Hebrew College as well.

Over the next two months I will be working with Elisha Gechter to prepare to take on this role. Elisha will soon take on a new assignment herself: she will be moving into a community organizing role for our department that puts her out in the field, meeting with parents in PTJL and young adults interested in Eser.

In addition to helping to organize and run Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, I am very excited about participating in the program and learning with all of you. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about the program and the classes. In fact, one parent described the class as “an interesting and excellent class that addresses my concerns as a person and helps me reflect on my role as a parent.” I know that I will gain further insights into my views of parenting and how I want my children to grow as Jewish people.

Again, I’m thrilled to be returning to the Hebrew College community and to be working with area synagogues and liaisons. I look forward to meeting with all of you in the days and weeks to come and to joining you in your educational journeys.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Resource That’s Even Better Than The Internet (Or Books)

Mimi Borden lives with her family in Lincoln and just completed Parenting Through a Jewish Lens in Newton.

Since the afternoon in high school when my cross-country coach (who was my history teacher, a novelist and a stand-up comedian) shared his philosophy of never being unprepared, preparation has been key to everything I do. Before starting any project, I like to research, investigate, ask questions and then make decisions that are as informed as possible. When pregnant with our first child, our bedroom became a maze of parenting advice. Even though he wasn’t born yet, I had already read books on sibling rivalry, playground politics, and rainy-day crafts. I was going to be so prepared for our child, that all of my doubts, fears and uncertainties would be addressed before they even had a chance to materialize. In retrospect, it seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to guess how successful that strategy was.

Fast forward 10 years and while my inclination is still to research and analyze, most of the time – through work and homework, lessons, play-dates  meals and laundry - I find myself flying by the seat of my pants. There have been days when I felt lucky just to have a clean pair of pants. When I’m being honest, I admit that I remember only passing fragments of what I read years ago, have the time and focus to read just a fraction of what I want to, and know that searching for parenting advice on the Internet invariably ends in a wonderfully chaotic maze of stuff (including more books in my Amazon shopping cart than I’ll ever read). What’s more, interactions with my children so rarely unfold as I would have expected that most of the time my careful planning flies out the window before the conversation has really gotten started. I feel like I have so many unfinished thoughts, so many questions all swirling around at once. And at the center of it all is this desire to slow everything down, for us all to feel happy and nurtured and whole.

As a possible antidote to some of this, my husband and I signed up for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens at Temple Emanuel in Newton this past winter and spring. Despite the fact that our children are 7 and 10, the instructors assured me that the class would be as relevant for us as for new or expecting parents. I’m thrilled that we followed through.

First off, as a parent, I don’t think that there is any amount of reading that could match the experience of having weekly sessions with such smart, knowledgeable, kind, caring and compassionate instructors as Rabbi Michelle Robinson and Judy Elkin. No amount of Internet searching, for example, could replace sitting in a room and hearing how Rabbi Robinson talks about doing morning and evening prayers with children. It’s this Jewish blend of mindfulness that has slowed down our mornings and our evenings. It has made our children more aware of themselves and their worlds and reminded us of all the wonderful possibilities of being a parent.

The small class setting was also integral to the experience. With six couples and our instructors, all who care deeply about their children and the world, a community sprang up – one that supported and challenged one another. Hearing others talk about the relationships with their own parents, fears of being a new parent, questions about faith and Israel and observance, made the class meaningful in a way that it could never have been if we were doing it on our own. Sharing this experience with a close community heightened the questions and the answers and constantly reminded us that we’re all in it together.

The lessons that emerged from the class, I think and hope will make a lasting impression on our family life and our parenting styles. These lessons range from the relatively straightforward to the truly profound, and I know that we will be thinking about their evolving meanings for our family for many years. Parenting through a Jewish lens means to me that we are mindful of special moments and should take the time to mark them, that we are always there for people who are making their way through difficult times, that being part of communities is an essential part of life, as is being true to oneself and nurturing our children to do the same. This view makes a difference in how we parent. Applying these teachings in meaningful ways enriches both the big picture of our lives as well as the day to day.

When I think about how PTJL has had an impact, I am also heartened by the way that Judaism is now positioned for our family. While enrolled in the class, two devastating tragedies took place very close to home. Having class to go to as an outlet for questions and confusion raised by both the shootings in Newtown and the bombings in Boston was invaluable. Our wise and thoughtful guides throughout the process reminded us that Judaism has dealt with tragedies since the beginning of time. Out of this has come wonderful stories of bravery, uncertainty and triumph that can help families talk to children about their fears and anxieties and chart a path for them back to something positive. Talking about Esther’s journey in the Purim story or the people who had the faith to light the menorah during Hanukkah filled the void when we didn’t know how otherwise to talk about what was happening in the world. It balanced tragedy with heroism and gave us all something hopeful to think about in the face of so much sadness.

For us, PTJL has served many purposes and bridged many gaps. For me, it certainly tapped into my need for preparation, and in a way that helped to slow down all the swirling questions in my head and to connect me more deeply to Judaism, a new community and most of all my family. To celebrate all the ‘aha’ moments we experienced during our class – and to all the questions we still have – I breathe and smile and say the Shehecheyanu.

PTJL is being offered at more than a dozen location throughout greater Boston this fall with amazing instructors - we hope you'll join us.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Our Final Class Wasn't So Final

A Needham family shares their long anticipated experience in Parenting Through a Jewish Lens and how their final class wasn't so final.

After six years of wanting to take Parenting Through a Jewish Lens we finally made it happen this year. The 10 week PTJL course at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham certainly lived up to our expectations. It gave us access to Jewish ideas and practices, an understanding of how these can inform our everyday lives, and a deeper appreciation for the things we were already doing in our homes. It allowed me and my husband a chance to explore the “why” not just the “what.”

Forging connections in the busy world of working and parenting can be challenging, but this class provided a perfect space to do so. Not only did we learn about the diversity of backgrounds among the participants, our facilitator, Ronit, brought her own story and warmth to the course. Yet in our 10 weeks together it felt like we were only skimming the surface. We had so much to discuss - so much on our minds as parents – and there was much from our discussions that we wanted to bring back to our homes. As a class, we decided to continue meeting even after the program wrapped up.

We thought it would be fitting to start with a get together and share something from home. My husband and I hosted a Saturday evening potluck (It was a miracle that we found a night that worked in everyone’s hectic schedules) and each couple brought a dish – from a novel carrot mint salad to a familiar, comforting dairy kugel. My husband loves to cook and made a knockout salmon dish that we all enjoyed.

Ronit came with cards, posters and a diverse sampling of sources to spur a conversation on Shabbat. We each picked an image that we connected to, explained why, and shared where we were in our practice. Our conversation uncovered the power of community – for some in the room Shabbat was a regular part of life, while  others are still figuring out if and how they might want it to be. We culminated with an inclusive, musical havdallah service.

For each of us in the class, going to the post-course meeting was a chance to demonstrate – with our feet and as well as with our kitchens – that we were committed to Jewish learning and to using it to inform our parenting. We each made time to have a conversation that mattered to us, and made time to keep up connections with our new friends. Taking the time to educate ourselves as Jewish parents provided an important gift to us as individuals that would ultimately benefit our whole family.

We are thrilled that the group is planning to continue getting-together for peer-led explorations of items we didn't fully have time for in the course (including the Ten Challenges by Felder). If the class provided us with a path of sound bites to follow as time and reality allowed, then we hope this offshoot will continue to nurture our paths. We’ll keep getting together to provide support for one another in Jewish learning – and parenting!

And … I hope you don’t wait as long as we did to sign up for this course.

PTJL Educator Ronit Ziv-Kreger and her family enjoying a fun moment

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ever Been to a Truly Meaningful Seder?

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens Alumni Advisory Group Chair Jessica Boatright reflects on making Passover Seders significant and shares a special family tradition. 

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that we recently had a great event to help alumni and friends of Parenting Through a Jewish Lens prepare for Passover. The afternoon included two short (and inspiring!) classes for parents – one on making the seder meaningful for our kids, led by Rabbi Julie Zupan, and the other on making the seder meaningful for adults, led by Rabbi Natan Margalit.

I have been reflecting on the session with Natan, and what it meant to me as a parent and individual. Natan began our session with a question that really struck me – he asked the group if they had ever been to a seder that was truly meaningful to them, as adults. Less than half the room raised their hands. His assertion, which received a lot of knowing looks, was that as parents we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make holidays and traditions meaningful and fun for our kids, and not very much time thinking about how to make them meaningful for ourselves. Moreover, as we learned as PTJL participants, helping our kids find meaning and connection is dependent not just on how we teach but on how we are – on how our kids perceive our own connection to Judaism. Natan’s Passover class was about nurturing this connection.

Luckily for me, I was able to raise my hand to Natan’s question, as I have been to not just one, but to many seders that have been meaningful to me as an adult. One reason for this is a tradition that we started with my mother’s family of having two very different seders – a traditional seder on the first night of Passover, and a more modern interpretation of a seder on the second night. Each year someone would find a new Hagaddah to use on the second night, usually aligned with a political theme (feminism, the labor movement, etc) or an expression of the seder (the puppet-based “We Tell It To Our Children” is a family favorite). Doing these two seders allowed us to deepen our connection to the holiday – reminding us that the story is both ancient and contemporary, that the seder is to be experienced both collectively and individually, and that Passover reminds us not just of our connections to the Jewish people but of our connections to humanity as well.

As the busy mother of two young children, however, it is easy to fall into the trap of forgetting the grown-ups, and myself, in the seders. While I might decorate the table with plastic figurines of the plagues for the kids to play with, I am hard-pressed to make time to find a new Hagaddah every year. But Natan’s class and my memories have me thinking – perhaps we don’t need a whole new seder to get us thinking. Instead, we can look for moments, maybe even just one, that we can add to help us find new meaning. It doesn’t even need to take much time. Put an orange (or a tomato) on your seder plate for the first time. When you raise each cup of wine, take a moment to tie it to a modern social justice issue. There are plenty of resources online, in print, and elsewhere to get you started in picking something. Below are a few ideas from Natan and me:

Friday, March 15, 2013

Passover Recipes inspired by Matzah Matters

This past Sunday, the Parenting Through a Jewish Lens Alumni Advisory Group put on a fabulous event to help families prepare for Passover. “Matzah Matters” drew 60 people who enjoyed learning, schmoozing, eating and crafting.

The planning group got creative with the menu: everything served corresponded to foods you typically find at a Seder; mini quiches were a nod to the eggs we eat and have on the Seder plate, sliced apples alongside trail mix was meant to mimic charoset, and fresh vegetables with dips were a nod to parsley and salt water. Here we share some recipes to help bring these dishes to your Passover table. Next week watch out for a post with resources engaging adults and children in the Seder that were shared at the event.


Cottage Cheese Mini Quiches
This recipe comes from Alumni Advisory group member Hilda Lief. It is super easy to make so kids can help!

1 lb. cottage cheese, small curds
3/4 cup Bisquick
1/4 cup margarine
1 onion, chopped
3 Tbsp. sour cream (or plain yogurt)
1 Tbsp. sugar
3 eggs

Mix all ingredients. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes in greased mini-muffin tins. Cool in pans 15 or more minutes before removing. Yield: 48

Roasted Potatoes with Lemon, Olives and Dill
Recipe by Associate Director of Adult Learning at Hebrew College, Elisha Gechter – check out her blog for more.

2 lb bag of red bliss potatoes
2 lemons
1 jar of cured pitted black olives
1 Tbsp. of paprika
1/4 cup of chopped fresh dill
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Slice the potatoes in half and scatter on a metal baking sheet. Finely slice the lemons and olives and lay on top of the potatoes. Sprinkle with the paprika and dill and the salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and then bake for 35 minutes until potatoes are golden and crispy.

Alumni Advisory Group member Phoebe Peabody shares her recipe for Matzo Brei as well as links to two new recipes she plans to attempt this year:

Matzo Brei
Adapted from Martha Stewart, a great "french toast" style treat during Passover.

6 matzahs (8 inch squares)
6 eggs
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. sugar (we like it sweet, so decrease to taste)
Salt to taste
2 Tbsp. butter

1. Break each matzah square into about 8 pieces, place in large bowl. Add enough boiling water to cover, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and soak for about 5-8 minutes. Squeeze well with hands to remove excess water.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, beat eggs, cinnamon, sugar and salt. Add softened matzah and mix.

3. Heat butter in 12 inch, oven-safe skillet over medium heat, swirl to coat. Add matzah mixture and press gently. Cook until brown on bottom and butter bubbles and comes up on sides. Place pan in heated oven and finish cooking, 15-18 minutes, or until brown.

4. Serve with syrup, or fruit puree.

Tip: You can cool leftovers and cut into wedges and warm in toaster oven. We make a big batch to be sure we have happy bellies all week!

For more Passover Recipes visit’s collection

Happy Eating!