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.