FOCUS ON ISSUES Raising Jewish children: A search for spiritual help

NEW YORK, Dec. 30 (JTA) — Becoming a parent is about a lot more than coping with colic and 4 a.m. feedings. It is an enormously transformative experience. After all, a baby makes clear like nothing else just how powerful — and powerless — you are. And suddenly, as you watch your infant sleep his innocent slumber, or look into her eyes as she nurses, you realize that you are responsible for giving your children everything you want them to know. You are responsible for creating the person you hope your child will grow up to be. Oy! Graduate school and late nights at the office didn”t prepare you for this. So where do you turn for help? The question inspires some people to turn back to the Judaism they knew as a child — or may never have known, but want their child to own. For others, becoming a parent vastly deepens an already existing connection they feel with their religious community and with God. It also leaves many people searching for ways that they can make the connection between parenting and Judaism when they”ve lost the tools — the rituals, prayers and customs — that were part of their grandparents” lives. Now, a new generation of mothers and fathers are trying to re-claim some of the practices that connect their appreciation of life”s miracles with their parenting. And a passel of new publications, services and products are becoming available to meet their needs. At least two new periodicals are dedicated to exploring the challenges of integrating the Jewish spiritual quest and parenting: the quarterly Natural Jewish Parenting, which is written by and for a primarily Orthodox and holistically oriented audience, and the newsletter and Website, Jewish Family & Life! Recent articles on the Website (http://www.jewishfamily.com) included “Myths About Raising a Mensch”” and “In the Inner Sanctum of Inspiration.”” In another medium, Bagelhead, a cartoon character, has been developed by Michael Farber and his wife, Anne Klein Farber, to provide their kids with an alternative to Barney, the popular purple dinosaur. “We felt there was a need for a focal character for Jewish kids, because we wanted them to have a fun character that would convey important values and reinforce their sense of Jewish identity,”” Michael Farber said. They created a book and a sing-along cassette tape, titled “Bagelhead to the Rescue!”” and have sold close to their entire first printing of 5,000 copies. Bagelhead can be visited and ordered at his Website: http://www.gisd.com/Bagelhead. The reason for the spate of interest and publications now is that liberal Jews “lost sight of the spiritual”” in the last several decades, which were focused more on the “civil religion”” of Israel and the Holocaust, said Rabbi Nancy Fuchs. Fuchs, a rabbi and director of religious studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia, wrote “Our Share of Night, Our Share of Morning: Parenting as a Spiritual Journey”” (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). “The loss in recent times of a firm sense of extended family and community to support the parenting process, and the loss of an integral tradition of folkways and customs has left people more consciously searching for a way to capture that spirituality,”” she said. Taking “pieces of their past and their future,”” parents are “making up rituals and traditions because they realize what people always intuitively knew: that raising children goes better if there are ways to stop and take note of the wonder.”” Because a generation of American Jews has grown up largely unfamiliar with their religion”s powerful customs and traditions, they sometimes feel inadequate when they feel ready to explore Judaism as parents. Writer Gila Gevirtz created the book “Partners With God”” (Behrman House, 1995) to help 8- and 9-year-old children understand that they can have a personal relationship with God. She is finding that many adults use it as help for themselves. “These are adults who, instead of feeling comforted by religious experience, have felt inadequate,”” Gevirtz said. “The one thing these people are sure of is that they”re not Jewishly authentic, that they are phonies,”” she said. “It”s a very distorted view of Eden, and because of this distortion people are intimidated to put their toe in the water so they never get this knowledge,”” she said. Some Jewish organizations have picked up on the apprehension and illiteracy, and are creating materials to try to counter it. The Community Hebrew Schools of Greater Philadelphia, in connection with area synagogues and Jewish social service agencies, for example, received a continuity grant from the local federation to start “Making Connections,”” a project that publishes a newsletter and kit of activities and information about four times a year. Each of the graphically contemporary and appealing newsletters is linked to a Jewish holiday or celebration, and has articles in it about “doing Jewish.”” A newsletter whose opening article was “Starting Your New Year Jewishly”” contained articles on creating an ethical will and celebrating Sukkot. Tucked inside was a sheet with New Year”s postcards kids could color in and mail and another with a list of synagogues offering free High Holiday tickets. Coupons good for a free day at the local Jewish community center and discounts on adult education classes have been inserted into other issues. About 1,200 families get the kits, said Rabbi Philip Warmflash, who heads the Community Hebrew Schools. “People are looking for ways to use the time they have to give their children and themselves something they find valuable. “Judaism has that to offer if we can communicate it in ways people can hear it and see it,”” he said. Some Jewish rituals seem particularly comfortable integrated into family life no matter what a parent”s level of observance. Samuel Barth, a Conservative rabbi and father of a 1-year-old son, has found the traditional blessing over children on Friday nights to be particularly meaningful. Parents customarily place their hands on their child”s head and ask God to give their son the blessings of the biblical Ephraim and Manasseh, or their daughter the blessings of the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Then the prayer asks that God “bless you and guard you, turn his face to you with favor and grace, be over you with kindness and peace.”” “I”ve spoken to teen-agers who have had that blessing their whole lives”” and never felt that it”s hokey, said Barth, who serves as the dean of The Academy for Jewish Religion, a non-denominational rabbinical and cantorial seminary in Manhattan. “It gives children access to what it really is to be blessed. It”s easy to read in Torah that God blessed Abraham, but when someone puts their hands on you, it”s incredibly powerful,”” he said. Shabbat evening dinners are another point of comfortable access for many, especially for those who have not been at all observant. The night can be distinguished from the week”s others in many ways: by sitting down together at the same time, by lighting the Sabbath candles, by blessing wine and challah, by wearing special clothes or setting a special table. Gevirtz, who began doing Friday night Shabbat dinners with her husband and two adolescent stepsons, calls it “one of my most powerful parenting tools.”” “We always say a `misheberach,” or request for God”s healing, for people we know and all people who are ailing physically or spiritually. Sometimes we say poetry, and we always sing `Shalom Alecheim,” ”” Gevirtz said. “Once it”s Shabbat, we let go of all things that didn”t work in the past week and try to bring forward our best selves,”” she said. In the view of Blu Greenberg, an Orthodox writer, mother of five and grandmother of 11, observance of God”s commandments is a mysterious and magical thing for families. “The rabbis gave us a great gift, the way they expanded the idea of holiness and integrated it with family life, and a perfect jewel came out,”” said Greenberg, referring to Shabbat. “In this age of dual career families, there”s probably more of a need for the jewel than at any other point in Jewish life because it connects and anchors family members to each other and gives them a strong sense of identity and parameters,”” said Greenberg, the author of “How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household”” (Simon and Schuster, 1983). “If the joy and the pride is there in the celebration within the family, it imparts a very powerful sense of self that kids carry through their whole life,”” she said. “Ritual is connection to self, to family, to community and to God. It affects the psyche in so many ways.””

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