Forget annoying helicopter parents. Helicopter kids are way worse.


There are parents who hover over their kids like a helicopter. And there are parents who generally leave their kids to their own devices. Each side insists their way is the right way. I’m not here to judge other parenting styles, though I assume, as is often the case, that the best way is a healthy mixture of both — allowing your kids some independence, coupled with giving them the security of boundaries and a loving home base. But what do I know? Figure it out yourself, and I’m sure you’ll let me know when you do. Because every parent seems to be a maven in all things parenting.

But I’m here to talk about something entirely different from helicopter parents: helicopter kids. When I take my kids to the park, I struggle to shake them off of me like a ragdoll in the jaws of a tenacious pit bull. They’re clingy, they check in constantly, and they compete for my attention — when all I really want is for them to get the hell away from me. “Go on the slide. Go bounce a ball. Go keep that homeless guy company who’s talking to himself and could probably use a conversation partner.” 

I pick up my kids from preschool and look around the playground. There are kids on slides, kids in three-wheelers, and kids chasing each other. My kids? My daughter, Sydney — almost 5 — is getting her hair braided in the lap of her cute young teacher with the pink highlights; my son, Asher, 3, is helping to clean and rake the sandbox with his teacher. This is a playground filled with kids — why are they hanging out with the teachers?

My kids are well-liked by their peers. They’re socially adept and smart. But given the choice of chasing a kid up a hill or sitting with my wife and me on a park bench, they choose us, even when their friends are begging them to play. They might occasionally run off with another kid for a few minutes, but they’re not gone for long. There is an ongoing societal debate about kids watching TV — should they, shouldn’t they, should TV time be limited? We don’t have that issue. My kids have never sat through a whole movie. We throw on “Annie,” sneak away, and 20 minutes later they come running down the hall to our bedroom and climb into our bed. I beg them to go away. I insist. “You’ve never gotten past the first act. Keep watching. Annie gets out of the orphanage. It’s not always a hard-knock life for her!” But they don’t care. I plop them down in their room to play with each other. They come back to ours. No matter what I do, they always come back. 

“I love you guys, but leave me alone,” I beg. They play for a few minutes, which quickly turns into a wrestling match, or a tug-of-war over a toy. And then they’re back again, running to us for help, one or both of them in tears. I say, “Solve it yourself. You don’t need us.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, they have managed to worm their way back to us.

I’m flattered that my kids like their parents so much. And I know it won’t be long before they want nothing to do with us. I know this, and yet I feel like if these nerds don’t start making friends they’re not going to have anyone to hang out with when it comes time for them to hate us. They’ll just be angry, and stuck at home, locked in their room listening to whatever version of The Smiths is around for sad teenagers.

At birthday parties, they take a long time to warm up. They spend most of the party with each other, and within inches of my legs. At one party in the park last week, a parent, Monique, walked over and gave me a kiss hello. “Have you seen Dash?” she asked. I looked around for her son. He was climbing a tree, albeit not very well. What he lacks in coordination he makes up for in confidence. I pointed in his direction. Monique looked to my kids. “They’re always on top of you,” she said. She wasn’t criticizing. She was just pointing out the anomaly. “It’s good they think you’re so fun.” She thinks I’m a clown, perpetually happy and silly. She doesn’t know the side of me who broods, and worries, and gets frustrated with my kids. She’s never heard my daughter yell out, “You’re a bad daddy!” So I went along with the ruse. “I wish I wasn’t so awesome,” I said with a wink. She playfully hit me on the arm and then took off after her kid.

A week later, I was picking up the kids from school, and my wife called to tell me she was going out with her sister for the night. I saw Monique on the playground and made impromptu plans with her and her husband to take the kids out for pizza and ice cream. Dash jumped into my car and asked if he could ride with us. There wasn’t enough room, so I asked Asher if he wanted to ride with Dash’s baby brother. He ran right over to their car and hopped in. He doesn’t know Monique well but I assume he must have sensed that she’s Argentine and was all over that like blanco en el arroz

Meanwhile, in my car, Sydney and Dash were sitting in their car seats talking to each other. I leaned my head back to talk to them, but they weren’t that interested in what I had to say. There was a moment where I wasn’t even sure what they were talking about — and I was actively trying to eavesdrop. Dash has a slight speech impediment and he’s a little hard to understand — at least to me. Sydney didn’t seem to notice. She laughed at his joke, but I didn’t get it. What was the joke? I asked them to explain it to me, but they just giggled. I felt left out.

We parked on Larchmont Boulevard and headed toward Village Pizzeria. The kids ran ahead of me. They ducked into a store, but I was distracted by a text message and wasn’t sure which one. Monique and Asher came up behind me. “Did you see where the kids went?” I asked. Monique pointed to a little boutique. I walked in. A woman with a sourpuss face was speaking on the phone. She was indifferent to the two kids standing at the jewelry case. I walked over to them, as I overheard Sydney tell Dash she liked the gold necklace with the long charm hanging from it. Dash waved his hand over all of the jewelry — “I’m going to buy you all of them.” Sydney laughed. I defensively said, “Sydney, you don’t need a man to get you anything. You’ll buy your own jewelry.” She looked at me, confused. So did Dash. Then they ran off to the pizza place without me. 

I heard Asher chasing after them — “Wait for me!” And even though I was only a few paces behind, something in me ached as my helicopter kids stopped hovering and learned how to fly.


Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids. You can see more of his work on his website, sethmenachem.com.

Bonding at Baby U


For new parents, having their first child can be scary, stressful and utterly stupefying. 

Westside Jewish Community Center hopes it will be a little less so thanks to Jewish Baby University, a five-week class designed to prepare people for what parenthood is really like.

The program, which launched this spring and begins its second session July 28, is open to anyone expecting his or her first child. It incorporates Jewish themes and teaches parents how to plan, in both a practical and spiritual function, for their incoming son or daughter. 

“The class is attractive to people who have a Jewish background but need a reminder and to those who really don’t know where to start,” said Lauren Friedman, program coordinator of the Westside JCC. “This is their starting point into Jewish life.”

Jewish Baby University is based on existing programs at Jewish community centers in Phoenix and Denver and funded by a grant from the Maurice Amado Foundation. It’s taught by Rabbi Dalia Samansky, a mother of two from Woodland Hills, who focuses on pastoral work and assists with baby naming ceremonies in Los Angeles. 

“As a young mom, it’s a great class to teach,” she said. “[Being Jewish] and parenting are both such sacred journeys in and of themselves.”

Each class incorporates a new theme and features a guest speaker. In terms of Judaism itself, attendees learn about rituals surrounding childbirth, as well as how to create a Jewish home and find a Jewish community in Los Angeles. Although religious practices are discussed, the class is suitable for Jews from all different backgrounds, Friedman said. “It’s more cultural and traditional. We have couples from all the denominations, so we don’t want to impose anything on them.”

Expecting parents find out about financial planning, medical practices involved in pregnancy and birth, and how to adapt emotionally and mentally to being a parent. Speakers in the inaugural session included Dr. Andrew Shpall, a mohel; Yana Katzap-Nackman, a doula; Debra Markovic from JKidLA, a resource of Jewish educational opportunities from BJE-Builders of Jewish Education; and Dan Feinberg, a financial adviser with Wells Fargo Advisors.

Richard Weintraub, a psychologist, visited the class on the last day to talk about how parents can focus on the present and stay calm about the pregnancy. He described how babies, even before they are born, understand when their mothers are at peace or anxious. Weintraub also stressed the importance of physical contact between parents and children. 

For the first session of Jewish Baby University, which took place from April 14 to May 24 and ended with a Shabbat dinner, seven couples signed up. One of the students was Genevieve Goldstone, a Jew by Choice who said the class made her feel more secure about the prospect of raising a Jewish child. 

“The class validated my knowledge and allowed me and my husband to have some more directed conversations about our practice so that we could be more on the same page going into parenthood,” she said.

Beth Cohan, another participant, said the class was an opportunity to meet other couples who were having their first child. But it was more than that.

“[My husband and I] came from similar backgrounds, but we were interested in figuring out which traditions we’d like to bring into our home,” she said.

It’s especially important to decide upon these traditions before the baby is born, Samansky said, because “a lot of what you do in the beginning becomes habitual. Humans crave routine and normalcy, and to make something like this part of your life and to make decisions ahead of time makes it easier on the family.”

Jewish Baby University was designed by the Westside JCC not only to educate expecting parents, but to connect them and provide a social outlet. Because many of the couples are transplants to Los Angeles, they are still looking for a community and friends, Samansky said. 

Johanna Schmidt, who moved to Santa Monica with her husband shortly before joining the class, said, “One of our goals in taking the class was to meet other couples. We’ve done that, so we’re really happy.”

Now that the first session has ended, looking back, Friedman said that it was successful. “We’ve had such great response from the couples. We’re building something that will feed into all the other JCC programs.”

After reviewing evaluations from the initial group, Friedman and Samansky are going to change and update the course as needed. The next session also will be five weeks long and cost $200, just like the original. 

Other options for expecting Jewish parents do exist — Cedars-Sinai has single-day, three-hour workshops — but Friedman believes that the comprehensiveness of Jewish Baby University is “filling a really important void.”

Parenting: The Torah of motherhood


My road from twice-a-year Jew to Torah-study groupie took 40 years. With the heady days of the High Holy Days, Sukkot and Simchat Torah still fresh in my mind, it’s worth examining how I got here. 

During my youth, my family and I attended synagogue only during the High Holy Days. Even then, like most adolescents, no matter the Jewish preschool, Jewish summer camp, bat mitzvah or confirmation, the rabbi’s sermon was my cue to flee the sanctuary with my sister to find the other kids in the parking lot tearing into a purloined challah snatched from the synagogue kitchen.  

As I got older, I began to appreciate the meditative, communal experience. After every High Holy Days season, the spiritual renewal that filled me had me vowing I’d be back the very next Shabbat. But, inevitably, by the next week the excuses came readily — “I’m too tired,” “We’re out of town” or “I’ll go next week” — until the weeks piled up and the High Holy Days were back again.

So what happened to make me a Torah- study groupie? Eleven and a half years ago I became a parent, which means I am now the mother of a middle-schooler, and I need as much help as I can get. As kids get older, the problems get thornier. I pine for inspiration and guidance, for clues to being a better parent than I often feel equipped to be. When a friend gushed about Torah study, calling it her weekly “vitamin,” I decided I had nothing to lose. And while I have dog-eared my share of parenting books, ranging from sleep training to sibling rivalry, I have found that the biggest questions are answered in The Great Big Parenting Book — Torah. 

It’s a best-seller, but it’s not an easy read. It doesn’t give away its wisdom to those hoping for a quick skim. For example, during the High Holy Days, we read one of the Torah’s grimmest parenting stories — the Binding of Isaac. Those are pretty words for a nightmarish chapter — a father leading his son up a mountain, tying him to a rock and preparing to sacrifice him with a blade through the sternum. What parenting advice could I hope to get from that catastrophe?

At my synagogue, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, Rabbi Amy Bernstein, who is also a mother, gleaned something positive out of this horror story. “God stopped Abraham,” she said, “before he hurt Isaac. Sometimes we need a voice from God to stop us from hurting our kids.” 

To the sanctuary full of well-meaning parents, she wasn’t talking about physical hurt. My mind catalogued those moments when I wished I could take back certain words I’d uttered. Greeting my sixth-grader after school with, “How much homework do you have?” instead of “Hi, kiddo, it’s great to see you.” Nagging my second-grader to finish his homework instead of paying attention to the imaginary world he is creating with Legos. Sharing with my friends stories I considered “cute” but that would embarrass my kids. Telling my children in any given moment what they are doing wrong instead of what they are doing right. These are the times I need an inner voice counseling restraint, an angel on my shoulder advising, “Don’t criticize. Don’t pile on the stress. Bite your tongue.” I know my sons would appreciate it if I were to bite my tongue during baseball games, instead of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from the bleachers. (Restraint is so hard!) I resolved to try harder.

With the new school year well under way, there’s another kind of hurt I am even more troubled by — the pain inflicted by their peers, the slights, ribbing and put-downs that can penetrate guileless thin skin, or even thicker skin. My son’s friends engage in banter that tiptoes along the line of insults, jokes that cut, a contest of one-upmanship, which my son frequently reports in dejected tones. One boy gets made fun of for the color Gatorade he drinks or for wearing glasses. Another is ridiculed for liking the Clippers or for the color of his shorts. They toss the word gay around as pejorative. Did I mention that these are their friends? I struggle with how to handle this not-quite-bullying-but-hurts-just-the-same comments. I need ancient wisdom to tell me how to be a loving guide through pre-adolescence and beyond, to salve the injury of having your feelings hurt by those you know best. 

I think back to the story of Isaac’s near-catastrophe and find two more clues. First, God didn’t intervene until the harm was imminent and irreparable. By the time God stepped in, things looked pretty bleak for Isaac. Barring Isaac pulling some sort of superhero moves, bursting through his restraints like the Hulk, kicking Abraham’s weapon down the mountain and shouting, “What the hell was that, Dad?” God had to intervene. But only at the last possible moment.

Great. I need to wait until there’s a metaphorical knife at my kid’s chest before stepping in? That seems too much. But since my Jewish mother’s instinct is to jump in at the slightest hint of a problem, it’s good to set a high bar. Usually I’m ready to call in the cavalry when he’s over it. It’s not easy to see that kid struggling on the rock, but if my kid can get out of the mess on his own, I have to let him. 

Second, I think about what to do with hurt feelings that linger. I imagine what a modern therapist might tell Isaac to make sense of what happened: “What Abraham did had nothing to do with how he feels about you. He loves you! He had his own issues.” I can tell my son the same truth, that when people say mean things, it usually means they are suffering. It has nothing to do with him. I can show him his power, praise his good heart and instill in him the self-reliance to tell his friends to knock it off, to stand up for himself or to walk away. And the choice is his. 

A of couple months into the school year, the reports of meanness are getting farther apart. I’m quite sure that, as usual, his bruises hurt me longer and deeper than they bother him. I need to remember that he is more resilient than I am. Like Isaac getting up off that rock, brushing himself off and walking down the mountain, he is moving on with the rest of his story. 

I may not have appreciated what Judaism had to offer when I was a child and all I wanted was for the services to be over, but I am grateful to have kept the connection to my family’s faith all these years. It’s there for me now when I need it. Every week, I’ll be back in Torah study with the group of intelligent, curious souls, mining more of our ancient stories for modern parenting gold.


Laura Diamond is the editor of the anthology “Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood” and is working on her first novel. She is a member of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

High Holy Days: Father and son


On these High Holy Days, there will be empty seats in our synagogues. This is a letter found on one of those seats …

Dear Dad,

This year, I’m not coming to shul for the holidays. I know this will hurt you, and you’ll be angry, but perhaps you’ll hear me out.

I have always loved the synagogue. I like the rabbis and the cantors, and the sanctuary is familiar to me, but I just can’t go back. Something is missing; the service feels passive and almost perfunctory. I don’t feel like I belong anymore. When I was young, I appreciated seeing my friends from school, but when I left home for college I met new people who seemed to care about praying. There was singing and dancing, Dad. And then I came back to be with you and Mom, and found nothing in the services that moved me. 

I’m of a generation that expects excellence. I search all over town for the most authentic Indian food, the most authentic clothing, and strive for the most authentic experiences. I think the same should apply to my Judaism as well. I want to experience the presence of God as I pray. I don’t feel the presence of God in your synagogue. You and your generation created a glorious cultural, humanistic, ethical Judaism. But you left God out. I want God back in my life. And I believe somehow that God wants me back. 

I feel that I’ve spiritually outgrown the pageantry of services at the shul. The truth is, I care more about substance than loyalty. Please understand, Dad, this isn’t petulant adolescent rebellion. I’m searching for something … a treasure you told me many times is waiting for me in the Jewish tradition. 

You taught me that the 613th mitzvah commands every Jew to write a sefer Torah. Even if our ancestors bequeathed Torah to us, every Jew has to write his or her own. So Dad, I’m taking you seriously. I’m beginning my own Torah, in my own voice. A few of us are gathering in someone’s apartment for our own services. We won’t wear suits and ties. It won’t be polished and professional. But it will be ours. Please understand I’m doing this because I love you and what you taught me. I will always be,

Your son.

An e-mail sent immediately after the holiday:

Dear Son,

One of the joys of my life is to gather our family together on these holidays. As the years go on, I become more aware of how precious these moments are. Time is an unyielding centrifugal force. As you move into your own life, I miss you, and I cherish the moments we can be together. I look around the synagogue and see the empty seats of old friends who are gone now, and I feel the need to gather us all in together. 

There was a time when I, too, checked out of shul. The issue then wasn’t spiritual, it was political. The country was burning up. We were fighting a war that was deeply misguided. We watched the rise of black power, of feminism and environmentalism; we experienced a sexual revolution. We declared ourselves a counterculture and challenged every authority. We sought liberation. To all this, the synagogue had little to say. The cantor grew a mustache and sang Simon & Garfunkel melodies. But there was nothing in Judaism to answer our yearning. So we left.

Years later, I realized that my generation asked all the right questions. But we didn’t have the resources to find the answers. For a very simple reason — we were only talking to ourselves. Like you, we believed we were the first to challenge what is, in the name of what ought to be. Like you, we believed that our parents were hopelessly lost and only we possessed the courage to find truth. I don’t mean to belittle your search. It’s just now I can see this process at work. To find God, Abraham left his father’s house. Just what I did to my father … and now you to me.

About the time you were born, I realized that I needed wisdom older and deeper than my own. So I returned to the synagogue, and I began to find answers. You’re right — the synagogue does not speak in my voice. That’s what I love about it … the opportunity to listen. There is wisdom here. There are resources for living life. I don’t go to shul to express myself. I go to listen. So don’t build your community entirely of people who look like you, think like you, live like you. Don’t just talk to yourselves. Find the humility to hear wisdom. Open the Torah and listen deeply. 

My generation didn’t banish God. After the Holocaust, it was impossible to talk about God. Jews have always felt the presence of God in history — that’s what the Bible is all about. But after the Holocaust, how could one even entertain such an idea? So we did something else. We stopped talking about God, and we acted in God’s image. We did what God needed done in the world. God creates, so we created schools and synagogues, the State of Israel. God redeems, so we rescued Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. God demands justice, so we fought for civil rights for black people and for gay people, equality for women, dignity for working people and support for the poor. God didn’t speak in the Holocaust, so we were God’s response. God was in our hands.

It saddens me that you do not feel that this place is your home, and that you don’t sense God in the synagogue. I look at the thriving life of this community, and I do feel God is close. Remember that Judaism is an embodied spirituality. There is no Judaism without Jews. And there are no Jews without community. And there is no community without institutions. So be very careful before you dismiss or deride or destroy institutions. They were not easy to create. They are not easy to sustain. If your prayer group grows into something, you’ll surely find this out. 

I wish you a year of blessings, 

Your father.

E-mail response posted at 2:30 a.m. that night:

Dear Dad,

Thank you for the seriousness of your response. 

I am not ungrateful for the institutions your generation built. But you went well beyond protecting these institutions. You got so involved in them you forgot their higher purpose. For me, sitting in a folding chair in a basement praying with real feeling is better than sitting quietly in a cold cathedral. 

In reality, much of your Judaism is about defense. Like the fighters of Masada pitted against an intractable foe, your generation’s sense of purpose is derived from some ever-present, impending crisis — anti-Semitism, Jewish survival, the survival of Israel. 

Deep down, it’s all motivated by fear. And a commitment rooted in fear is bound to bear bad fruit. Out of fear, you pushed away those who intermarried. Out of fear, you pushed away those who questioned Israel. And out of fear, you pushed away Jews who don’t agree with you. Fear is no basis for a Jewish life. Ultimately, that fear will dominate your inner life and choke it to death. Dad, I want a Jewish life based on love, spirit and joy, and not fear. 

You battled anti-Semitism so I would never know that hatred. I’m grateful to feel so much at home in America. And I know there are still people who hate us. But while you were so engaged in fighting those who hate us, we assimilated so much hate of our own. Just listen to the way Jews talk about immigrants, or Muslims. Listen to the way we talk about each other. The hate that crept into our communal vocabulary is more vicious and more destructive today than the hate we face from anti-Semites!

You battled for Jewish survival. You identified intermarriage as a communal catastrophe. I get that. We’re a small people, and getting smaller. But I also know lots of good Jews who fell in love with partners who weren’t Jewish. It wasn’t a gesture of rejection — they still want to be Jewish. They’re all are looking for a way into our community, some as converts, others as seekers. If we keep talking about intermarriage as a catastrophe, they will always be intruders — unwelcome and rejected. Is that what you want? Perhaps we’d get farther with an open door and a word of welcome, no?

When it comes to Israel … Dad, you and I are really going to disagree. You taught me the importance of Israel, how it’s our refuge and homeland. So I chose to go to Israel when I was in college. The Israel I found wasn’t what I had expected to find. When we talk about Israel here in America, it’s always in the high-pitched tone of crisis. There is always an imminent threat, a looming disaster. It’s always about the conflict, the desperate struggle for Israel’s survival. That’s a part of life in Israel, but it isn’t everything. What I loved in Israel had nothing to do with crisis and conflict and struggle. That’s not how I engage Israel … because Dad, that’s not how Israelis engage Israel. What I loved was the life of Israel: Jews creating new Jewish art and music. It was about the Jewish life that thrives there despite the conflict. 

You taught me to be a critical thinker — except when it comes to Israel. I feel constrained never to criticize or object to what Israel does, and if I ever questioned Israeli policy I would be immediately labeled a communal traitor. 

Your generation is concerned with Israel’s existence. My generation is concerned with Israel’s character. Grandpa called himself a Labor Zionist. You call yourself an American Zionist. I’m a Critical Zionist. I love Israel. And I will demand that it live up to my Jewish values … the ones you taught me. I love Israel enough that when it falls short of our values, I’m going to speak out. I’ll support Israel, Dad, by supporting those in Israel who work for an Israel I can be proud of. 

I just hope the fear within you doesn’t keep you from remembering that I am and always will be,

Your son. 

E-mail posted the day before Yom Kippur: 

Dear Son,

The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi says that there are two kinds of Jews — Pesach Jews and Purim Jews. Pesach Jews hear the biblical commandment, “Remember you were a slave in Egypt.” Because we were slaves, we bear a special sensitivity to the rights of human beings. Purim Jews embrace a different biblical commandment: Remember Amalek. Remember there is evil in the world, and remember that you were the object of that evil. The Pesach Jew is the bearer of Jewish conscience and lives by the rule: don’t be brutal. The Purim Jew is the bearer of Jewish resilience and lives by the rule: don’t be naïve. 

You, my son, are a wonderful Pesach Jew. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that you are so adept at finding our flaws and failures. I’m proud of your Jewish conscience. 

I, on the other hand, am a Purim Jew. Perhaps it comes with being a father. The Jewish People is my family. And like any father, I have a keen instinctual sense for the dangers that affect my family. 

When you demand a more ethical Jewish community, I’m proud of you. You’re certainly right that hate has infected us, especially in the ways we speak to one another. But at the same time, I don’t see that our fight against anti-Semitism is over, nor do I see that our continuing vigilance is wasted. I wish you were right, but we’re not done yet with anti-Semitism.

We are not as far apart on Israel as you think. I appreciate your stance as a “Critical Zionist.” You have a right to criticize. It’s the question of the tone you choose when you criticize. When we criticize someone we love, we use a special tone. We don’t want to hurt the other. We want to inspire the other to grow. You want to protest the policies and practices of Israel, that’s fine. But do it with humility, care and love. 

You’re not worried about Israel’s existence. I am. Israel, thank God, is strong, but far from invulnerable. Iran is building a nuclear weapon, and once again the destiny of the Jewish people rests in the hands of others. In the meantime, the world is convincing itself that the creation of Israel was a mistake. Israel is currently engaged in an ideological war for its own legitimacy. That legitimacy has to be earned. I think you and I would agree on this: Israel’s policies are politically sustainable only if they are morally defensible. So I offer you this deal: When you perceive that Israeli policies violate our values, speak up. Your critical voice is welcome. But when Israel acts with reasonable morality and the world unjustly accuses it, you become Israel’s character witness. When double standards and ridiculously biased judgments are cast upon Israel, you must stand up and say: This is not an evil nation. This is a nation striving toward a moral ideal. Do we have a deal? 

You’re right about the destructive effects of fear. The problem is, there are real enemies out there, there is real evil in the world. And we have to fight it. I promise you that I will not let fear separate us. We need to learn from one another, you and me, your generation and mine. We are a people strong enough to accommodate a vigorous debate. We are a people wise enough to learn from one another. I know that your group is meeting on Yom Kippur. Come be with us for Neilah. When the gates close, I don’t want them to close us off from one another. Bring your friends, too, we have plenty of lox. 

Dad.

Text message sent immediately:

Is there really room for us? 

Text message sent in reply:

There is always room for you.

Text message sent in reply:

Then, deal. We’ll be there. Shanah Tovah, Dad. I love you.

Text message sent in reply:

I love you, too. 


This is an edited version of a sermon delivered during the High Holy Days two years ago by Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Noah Zvi Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative synagogue in Encino.

Kidsave changes lives for orphaned children, adoptive parents


Santiago Brown calls himself a “cashew.” It’s his way of combining the words “Catholic” and “Jew,” to refer to his unusual religious background. He lived in Colombia in a Catholic orphanage until being adopted into a Jewish family a year ago, at the age of 12. His mother, Lori Brown, a graphic artist and Nashuva member, says Santiago has Jewish music on his iPod and tells his friends, “It’s awesome to be Jewish.”

Brown first connected with Santiago through the organization Kidsave and its Summer Miracles program. Kidsave founders Terry Baugh, in Washington, D.C., and Randi Thompson, working in Los Angeles, were inspired to start the nonprofit after making visits to foreign orphanages where they witnessed children who were often left alone for hours without personal attention or mental stimulation. Kidsave, which has offices in Bogota, Colombia, and Moscow, is designed to find families for these children, as well as mentors and other sources of support.

Kidsave’s Summer Miracles program brings Colombian children from group homes and foster homes to the United States for four weeks during the summer. The children stay with “host-advocates” who care for the children while they are here, and who take it upon themselves to help find permanent homes for the kids.

Summer Miracles focuses on older children, usually between the ages of 8 and 11, who are often overlooked in the adoption process. Selected children must be legally and emotionally ready for adoption and typically are not more than two years behind academically in their home countries.

“I think there is a niche for these children,” says Sari Weiner, who adopted a child through Kidsave’s domestic hosting program, Weekend Miracles. As an older parent, Weiner did not want to adopt an infant, believing she would be too elderly by the time her child was grown. Other families may not have the energy for younger children or may want an older sibling for their other children.

Once chosen for the program, the children are brought from foster homes and group homes all over Colombia to the country’s capital, Bogota, for two weeks of training, psychological counseling and workshops. They are taught guest etiquette, some English and a bit about U.S. culture.

Estefany, left, and Johana participate in the three-legged race with Kidsave’s Bob Holman.

Host-advocates also complete role-playing workshops before the children arrive to prepare them for how to deal with situations that may arise. Rhona Rosenblatt, who has helped a child get adopted through a hosting program before and is hosting again this summer, jokes, “All the kids are doing great. The adults are constantly checking on them, being paranoid, but they are always fine.”

It costs a total of about $7,500 to bring a child to the United States through Summer Miracles, according to Thompson. Of that amount, host-advocates contribute a hosting fee of $1,250 and an application fee of $275. Host-advocates generally raise money through grass-roots organizing, while Kidsave itself receives grants and large donations.

Once the children are here, the host-advocates’ job is to spread the word about Kidsave and attend weekly events to introduce their visiting children to families. Susan Baskin, who is currently two weeks away from adopting the child she hosted last summer, mentioned Kidsave in her profile in The Jewish Journal’s “My Single Peeps” column. Brown, Santiago’s mother, has used Facebook, word of mouth and even a blurb on the Nashuva Web site to spread information about Kidsave. Brown says she brings up the organization in conversation whenever possible. Once, a teller at the bank who saw Santiago ended up mentioning Kidsave to a friend, and that friend is now in the process of adopting a child of her own.

Kidsave does not facilitate adoptions. Families who wish to adopt Colombian children after their summer visit must go through the normal international adoption process. Lauren Reicher-Gordon, the vice president of Kidsave and director of Family Visit Programs, said, “We are the yentas, the matchmakers.”

However, their success rate is noteworthy. Eighty percent of children from Summer Miracles are now adopted or in the process of being adopted, according to Reicher-Gordon. She attributes the high rate to the time families spend getting to know the kids.

Baskin agrees. Before hearing about Kidsave, she had attempted adoption on her own but was turned off by the lack of information about and time with the prospective children. “As a single woman, I felt I might not have the financial and emotional resources if the match was not good,” Baskin said. Kidsave motivated her to try adoption again because it gave her time to get to know her prospective child and a realistic idea of what it would be like to be a parent. Baskin hosted Johana in the summer of 2011 and will be leaving to pick up her new daughter in Colombia in two weeks.

The risk of any hosting program, of course, is that children’s hopes will be crushed if the adoption does not work out. Marcia Jindal, director of the intercountry adoption program at Vista Del Mar, has worked with Kidsave for seven years, doing home assessments before the children arrive, training the families, providing support and resources while the children are here, and conducting post-placement studies on children who have been adopted.

Jindal says there are pros and cons to every program. In her experience, she said, “The biggest negative that families find in these hosting programs is they feel it’s unfair to get the child’s hopes up. But there’s no way to prevent that, unfortunately.” Even if the families have the intention of adopting, the home countries of the children could at any time revoke permission to adopt. Additionally, a sudden family illness or financial problem could prevent the adoption from going through.

Valentina enthusiastically tosses a bean bag.

Reicher-Gordon says Kidsave has specific instructions for hosting families about how to approach the issue of adoption while the children are visiting. “It is not discussed when the kids are here. They are told they are learning English and having a cultural experience. … We know that kids are hopeful [for adoption], but it is not in the best interest of the children to tell them that before they leave.”

It is, nevertheless, a challenging issue to navigate. Baskin described taking Johana, who was crying and clinging to her, to the airport at the end of her visit. “I wished I could say I was going to adopt her. But all I could say was, ‘I will see you again.’ ”

Jindal stresses, however, that there are more positives than negatives to a program like this one. “Any way that we can get the word out there that children are waiting for permanency is good.” Vulnerable older children do need to be connected with families before they age out of the foster care system, and she says Kidsave does a very good job of matching children with families. “The families are really committed to advocating for the children.”

At the most recent Summer Miracles event, it appeared the hosting families cared deeply about their Kidsave children.

Baskin still remembers the expression on Johana’s face when she walked in the sand and splashed in the ocean for the first time a year ago.

Brown is hosting two more boys this summer, a second boy named Santiago — this one is 11 — and Julian, 12. The visiting Santiago recently learned to ride a bike for the first time.

“My heart is filled with joy and love,” Brown said. “They just need homes; they’re good boys. … The magic in them is amazing.”

I can’t be the badly dressed mom at pickup time


Today, I stopped home to change my outfit before picking up my kid from day care.

What, because you never know who might snap a photo as I lure my child into his car seat with the whispered promise of a Grover juice box? No one cares. Except now that I’m a parent, I care deeply about lots of things that are totally meaningless. For example, what I wear when I fetch my kid.

It’s not that I want to impress the other moms, or the woman who runs the place, or her assistant. It’s that on some level, I need to impress them.

Or at least that describes the urgency with which I want to stroll in wearing skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled brown suede boots with a casual but clearly expensive T-shirt.

It was one thing for me to show up places with a guacamole stain on my sleeve when I was only representing myself. Maybe it was even cute, not Zoey Deschanel in a romantic comedy cute, but I like to think it was close. Now that I’m a mom, for some reason it seems important to look important, or at least like I don’t eat in my car and buy accessories at Claire’s.

Yep, get ready, because this is one of those mom moments triggered by one of those daughter moments. Get cozy, it’s blame mom time!

It may not surprise you that keeping up appearances wasn’t exactly a thing to my mom, and bless her heart for being all free-spirited, but her free-spiritedness cost me big time.

My mom wore what she wanted, regardless of the setting. Graduation from Confirmation class at Temple Sherith-Israel, the other moms wore knit separates and wrap dresses, my mom wore something with a batik feel, something Mrs. Roper might have sold at a yard sale after placing it in her “too loud” pile. My mom never shaved her armpits, but always wore sleeveless. Granted, it was San Francisco and the hippie thing was arguably fashionable, but not at Hebrew school.

Part of me wished she would see that, and bend to the obvious notion that all kids want to fit in, and by extension, they would like their parents to blend.

Blending is an important skill I had to teach myself, the way I taught myself table manners and cursive, because counterculture childhoods kind of skip those stops on the growing-up train.

Looks matter. And by that I mean the sideways looks you get when your mom is sporting an exotic beetle-sized amethyst brooch to the dentist’s office.

What never fails to surprise me is the pressure I put on myself not to make a single mistake my mom made.

No epiphany about perfectionism or how shallow wardrobe is as an assessment of a person’s character is going to stop me from being aware of my wardrobe choices from now until I’m dropping my son off at his college dorm room (or visiting him in prison; I don’t want to jinx anything). I can’t hide how deeply I want to do better than my own mother, because I’ll be wearing it.

Ironically, I’ll be wearing wrinkle-free and appropriate clothing as I make a bevy of other untold errors in judgment that my son will go out of his way to avoid when it’s his turn. That’s how it is. We over-correct. In doing so, we make all sorts of other gaffes. There’s a closet full of ways to under-achieve, so grab whatever is on the rack. There’s something to fit everyone.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.


Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

You, with a kid


I’ll never forget asking my therapist the following question when I found out I was pregnant: “Who am I going to be?”

“You,” she answered. “With a kid.”

That was comforting that day, on that couch, staring at those Matisse prints, being that person who was terrified of mom jeans and my life thrown into a bouncy house to sprain its ankle and barf.

Now, that’s not so comforting.

In fact, there are days I don’t want to be just me, with a kid. I want to be a version of me that knows how to cook, so I won’t be defrosting gluten-free microwaveable burritos and calling it dinner. That’s right, preservatives and cost overruns, my friends. I’m not proud. But I had a baby, and I didn’t become that lady who subscribes to Real Simple, and I don’t understand what it means to “blanch” or even “julienne” a vegetable.

What’s more, I also didn’t become a fun, wildly animated lady. I’m still the pretty serious, reading a book on the history of fonts, inhibited, never even sings karaoke kind of lady. The woman who swings her child upside down over a sandcastle as she does a perfect Cookie Monster voice? I didn’t become her, and now sometimes I want to.

I’ve seen progress, which I’ll get to.

(And by the way, “progress” is just the kind of buzzword therapists love. It’s their catnip. It sounds very self-reflective, but not grandiose.)

The rush of love for your kid, not to mention the constant exposure to other parents to whom you can’t help but compare yourself, can make you feel like a real bummer, like you aren’t doing it right or aren’t doing enough, or having enough fun, or serving enough kale. If you can’t cook or maybe teach the essentials of good pitching technique or tutor in algebra or even play a decent game of hide and seek, you might be hard on yourself, as I can be, because I just want to be good, like a kid just wants to be good. I just want to be ebullient and have a minor in childhood development and maybe another in the art of drawing with sidewalk chalk. Is that too much to ask?

I am who I was before, and I wasn’t exactly making balloon animals and singing songs that require accompanying hand gestures.

What my therapist didn’t mention, because her purpose in that moment was to stop me from panicking about changing, is that what I used to be wasn’t all that glamorous, and that maybe a few changes would do me good.

My son loves rocks, loves trucks, loves being outdoors, loves watching motorcycles whiz by. I don’t inherently enjoy any of these things. The progress is that I’m starting to get it. A pile of rocks has its charm.

Last night, my son stopped his tricycle on the sidewalk and spread himself out on a bed of rocks, staring up at the sky. He motioned to me, and I spread myself out on the pile of rocks right next to him, and we both looked up, saying, “Sky. Trees. Airplane. Birds.” And I genuinely enjoyed the feeling of those rocks against my back, the setting sun on my face. There are times I see a motorcycle and genuinely find myself thinking, “Those are cool.”

Who is this? Did I change a little? Open myself to the little wonders a toddler digs because I want to love him the right way, and to do so I have to get dirty? Am I making the slowest, most imperceptible progress toward being one of the moms I admire? Have I become so lame at expressing myself I just ask a series of rhetorical questions meant to point toward some conclusion? I am still who I was, because I was always decent at experimenting, failing, trying again.

Looking up at the birds, that sounds idyllic and all for most people, but it was just never my thing. Now that my son is my thing, so are his birds and his rocks. I’m just me, with a kid, and grass stains on my heels.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.


Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

At Party Time: Candy is dandy — charity is sweeter


I was struggling to secure a tiny satin kippah with a granny-sized bobby pin when it hit me like a ton of Pampers: One day (assuming we both survive the main event at the bris), this 8-day-old baby will be standing on the bar mitzvah bimah wearing a really big satin kippah!
Determined not to let this postpartum hormonal surge detract from my newborn’s Judaic debut, I tacked on the teeny beanie with some double-sided tape and reassured myself that 13 was still a jillion years away.

Then one day when my son was in fourth grade, I received a letter from my synagogue assigning him a bar mitzvah date. Surely they jest, I cajoled myself. They didn’t. In fact, by the time I’d made my way back from the mailbox the phone was ringing off the hook.

“We got our date, did you get yours?” panted a breathless voice I scarcely recognized as a friend of mine. “The party planner is booking three years out, so you have to call her right away.”

And just like that, a jillion years came to a screeching halt as I was thrown headfirst into the maelstrom of bar mitzvah planning.

As my son’s bar mitzvah day inched closer, I began to see the world in a whole different light — a disco ball light, to be exact — for as my child grew, so did his friends, officially putting us both on the b’nai mitzvah circuit.

And what an elaborately themed circuit it was. From were casino getups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to dance floors flanked with Harley Davidson motorcycles.

How did this happen? My fellow bar mitzvah circuiteers and I would wonder. How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in an age-old Jewish tradition end up playing blackjack and Texas hold ’em? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a custom-designed ice sculpture of Shawn Green?

The answer is not difficult. We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our child’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a secular theme that somehow took on a life of its own. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life.”

But my daughter really has been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life, you may be thinking. We have it all planned out — “Samantha’s Candy Shoppe.” Every centerpiece will be inspired by a different type of candy; we’ll have an 8-foot chocolate fountain in the middle of the room, and the favors will be Hershey bars with all her vital bat mitzvah stats etched on the label in hot pink.

The trouble is that — despite honest parental intentions — following up a meaningful, religious milestone with a glitzy party focusing exclusively on Kit Kats and Jelly Bellies can undermine the entire point of our child having a bar or bat mitzvah in the first place.

That said, I’m not suggesting we bail on our kids’ secular dream themes altogether. I mean while it’s clearly not what the talmudic rabbis had in mind, I think it’s kind of sweet that the bar/bat mitzvah party has evolved into a celebration of the whole child. The trick is in keeping a fluid connection between the morning service and the evening celebration; between Jewish values and kid-defined rules of party cool.

One way to build this crucial bridge is to integrate tzedakah into our party theme.

We added depth to my son’s fun — but admittedly uninspiring — Super Bowl bar mitzvah theme by incorporating an overnight camp for children with life-threatening diseases that was desperately in need of sporting equipment. All the centerpieces were constructed from donatable sports gear, and there was a collection station set up at the entrance to the party room (Brandon had written his guests in advance explaining his cause and providing them a copy of the camp’s athletic supply wish list). The requisite football theme didn’t suffer a smidgen, and the charity received a U-Haul full of brand new sporting goods as a goody bag.

To help you infuse Jewish soul into your child’s dream party, here are some popular secular bar/bat mitzvah themes and sample tzedakah spin-offs:

Theme: Sports

Tzedakah: Jewish National Fund Project Baseball (‘ target=’_blank’>www.specialolympics.org)

Theme: Books (e.g., Harry Potter, Nancy Drew)

Tzedakah: KOREH L.A. (‘ target=’_blank’>www.njcl.net); Jewish Braille Institute of America ‘ target=’_blank’>www.jfsla.org); Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Los Angeles (‘ target=’_blank’>www.hazon.org); Tour de Cure for Diabetes (‘ target=’_blank’>www.livestrong.org).

Theme: Safari

Tzedakah: COEJL: Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (‘ target=’_blank’>www.treepeople.org); Los Angeles Zoo (‘ target=’_blank’>www.ecostation.org); Wildlife Conservation Society (‘ target=’_blank’>jfsla.org); MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (‘ target=’_blank’>www.projectchickensoup.org).

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids” (Broadway Books) will be published in 2007.

Special Delivery – Jewish Lamaze Class Reunion


We were so much fatter then — and younger and more naïve.

We were nine pregnant women, accompanied by our husbands, sitting together on the floor of a Temple Sinai classroom for 10 Thursday nights in the fall of 1983. Strangers to each other and strangers to the concept of becoming parents, we were preparing to welcome our firstborn into the world according to the traditions of Judaism and the techniques of Lamaze.

It was Jewish Lamaze, a two-pronged childbirth preparation program that had recently been introduced in Los Angeles.

On the physical side, we learned about the anatomy and physiology of pregnancy. And we practiced the focused breathing exercises (the “he-hes” and “he-whos”) developed by Dr. Ferdinand Lamaze in France in the early 1950s and optimistically called “childbirth without pain.”

On the spiritual side, we learned about the customs and rituals, blessings and bubbe meises surrounding the birth of a Jewish child. Some of these included brit milah, the almost 4,000-year-old custom of circumcision; brit bat, an innovative alternative ceremony for girls, and pidyon ha’ben, the redemption of the first-born.

But most important, Jewish Lamaze gave us an opportunity, amid the excitement, anxiety and physical transformation, to take a deep breath (not a “he-he” or “he-who”) and contemplate the emotional ramifications of going from a couple to a family and the spiritual ramifications of raising a Jewish child.

Of course, we wanted to do this perfectly. Thus, in addition to Jewish Lamaze, we took baby care and breast-feeding classes, we read “Secret Life of the Unborn Child” and “The Rights of the Pregnant Parent.” We interviewed pediatricians, researched the best strollers and called day schools to add our babies’ names to the waiting list.

And we planned a reunion for February 1984, to show off our 2- and 3-month-old infants.

Tonight, 18 years later, we’re gathered together for a second reunion, joined by our instructors, Fredi Rembaum, then a consultant for Jewish Family Education at the Bureau of Jewish Education, and Sandra Jaffe, then — and now — a certified Lamaze teacher.

We’re five of the original couples, accompanied by our now-18-year-old children and their siblings. (Of the families not present, two are traveling, one has moved to Minnesota and one, when contacted, said, “I don’t even remember taking Lamaze. It didn’t do me any good.”)

We have come to reconnect and to reminisce at another watershed moment in parenting — as our firstborn have begun or are about to begin their first year in college.

We introduce ourselves and catch up. Some of our lives have intersected through the years — in preschool, day school and day camp, at Jewish lifecycle events, fundraising dinners and at Ralphs. Some of us are remeeting for the first time.

We gather around an enlarged photo of the babies taken at the first reunion.

“Yes, that’s Josh. Crying.”

“There’s Nathan, sound asleep.”

“Sharona, what do you think of your tie-dyed outfit?”

We chat informally. And easily. The talk centers on high schools, colleges and other children. The subtext is middle age and empty-nest syndrome.

After dinner, we gather in a circle. The teens formally introduce themselves.

Some are already in their first year of college — at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA. The others are leaving in the fall — also for UC Berkeley and Williams. They talk about Jewish life on campus, about Hillel and about finding kosher food.

“Why did you decide on Jewish Lamaze?” Rembaum asks us adults.

Harriet Sharf answers: “We were having a Jewish baby. Why would we want to go to goyishe Lamaze?”

“I grew up in a nonreligious Jewish family,” Andy Hyman says. “I wanted to learn about the traditions and to instill in my kids a deep love and appreciation of Judaism.”

“I needed help with the Lamaze part,” says Neal Weinberg, an ordained rabbi.

“But that Lamaze bag was worthless,” Debbie Spindel adds. “I remember everything in it — the shoelaces, the tennis balls, the small paper bag.”

“It wouldn’t have been useless if you had needed any of those items,” Lamaze instructor Jaffe says.

“The change for the pay phone was helpful,” Bart Sokolow says.

Jewish Lamaze was first sponsored by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education in the early 1980s and taught in various synagogues until the funding ran out toward the end of the decade.

And while it’s no longer being offered in Los Angeles, as far as anyone knows, similar programs exist elsewhere.

“I absolutely loved our program,” Rembaum says…. The class was not just about birthing but about connecting to the Jewish community.”

Eighteen years ago, together, we welcomed these children into the world.

Tonight we realize we’re releasing them.

“Let’s do this again in another 18 years,” Sokolow suggests at the end of the evening. “With our grandchildren.”

 

Parental Values Do Influence Children


It was 12:45 a.m. on a Sunday, and my 14-year-old son and I were returning from a rap concert. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the entertainers were talented, and it had been fun dancing along with the concert crowd. The occasion also gave my son and me time for one of our many small intergenerational exchanges.

I admitted to my son that I didn’t understand the thrill of people shouting the infamous “N” word from the stage or the responding cheers of the audience. He said that he could understand my bewilderment because he couldn’t see why anyone (meaning me, of course) would listen to the Beach Boys. We both laughed.

By the time we arrived home, we had discussed various musical styles, how music can be an expression of cultural rage, sexual inquiry and misogyny, and how music often tells the stories of lives very different from our own. We felt close. It was a satisfying parental moment.

Having an open dialogue — about things like rap music, Xbox games or Polly Pockets — is essential for raising moral and ethical children. Creating the stage begins in infancy. There are no guarantees about the results of our parenting efforts, but there are ways we as parents can tilt the odds in our favor.

The competition is tough: television, movies, popular music, billboards, computer games, Internet access to almost anything and that most powerful competitor — peer pressure.

We will never eliminate the presence and ultimate access to views and values that we would rather they not have. But we can influence our children by displaying our own values through our behavior and words, and by understanding their world so that we can develop a relationship where anything can be talked about with mutual respect for views and feelings.

We can place our children in a school and community where they are likely to meet families with values similar to our own. But we cannot escort our children to every party, or to every friend’s house, or supervise every access to Internet pornography or even illicit drugs.

As my own children grow into adulthood, I do not want to — and can’t –control their choices; however, I do want to be a part of their internal and external discussions as they make their own choices.

Here are seven tips for creating and sustaining that kind of parent-child relationship.

1. Hold, cuddle, and talk with your children from birth. Look into their eyes; be aware of their body tension and yours — at every age. Bonding with parents is the cornerstone of moral development. Talk about moral and ethical issues in the course of daily life and help them understand the meaning of behaviors and events. While parents often worry about trusting their children as they become adolescents, the bigger issue is whether they will trust you.

2. Empathy is essential for moral and ethical behavior. Let your children know how their behavior affects you and others. Teach them to care for other people and their feelings.

3. Observe Shabbat and the holidays, using them as opportunities to celebrate Jewish values. Invite friends to the Shabbat dinner table and guarantee time and attention for each person’s thoughts and feelings, regardless of age. Use Shabbat to teach your children to make time to just think and contemplate — essential ingredients for moral behavior.

4. When your children are young, get on the floor and play with them. Then talk about these adventures both with your children and with adults when your children are present.

5. When your children become adolescents, listen with them to their music. Get the words to the songs. Talk with them about their music as an expression of their world, as you would talk with your friends about their interests. Do not condemn your child’s taste; this stops the conversation (as it would for you). Share the car radio.

6. Compliment moral and ethical behavior. When they make tough decisions, exhibit pride for their contemplation. Disagree with a choice or a behavior, but don’t attack them personally — and always do this away from their friends to protect them from humiliation.

7. Create “car talks” when you want to talk with your children about something important but which is uncomfortable for them. A car talk is a pre-planned opportunity to say one brief idea. Limit it to about 10 sentences and five minutes. In a car ride you have a captive audience for a few minutes. You and your child know this is going to be over soon. Car talks, of course, don’t always have to take place in the car.

Raising moral and ethical children in an often-immoral world can be difficult. Tilt the odds in your favor by creating the conversation.

Dr. Ian Russ is a marriage and family therapist in private practice, and consults at many Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

 

Bonding Over Torah


On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.

“Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed,” educator Marcie Meier tells the group.

These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.

Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for “pathways.” And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.

“The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful,” said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.

Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.

Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.

“We learn from Shmuel’s mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn’t know that,” says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.

Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.

During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.

“Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength,” Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.

In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.

And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model — usually a teacher, mother or another relative — and present the findings to the class.

“You’re supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that’s happening,” says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.

These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d’var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women’s monthly prayer group at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

“While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that’s become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it,” says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.

Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot’s Seminar, are beginning to appear.

At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.

The girls in Netivot’s Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d’var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.

Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b’not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.

But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.

“This was not around in my time,” Marcie Meier says. “The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today.”

And it’s not only the mothers who appreciate it.

“It’s really cool learning with my mom,” says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. “Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more.”

For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit www.netivot.org or call (310) 226-6141.

 

525,600 Minutes


I was sitting in the AMC theater in Woodland Hills, a captive of a dull series of pre-movie advertisements, when I started to think about my next column. I considered writing about fasting (argue that a tall Starbucks latte might be an acceptable fasting exception, compared to a venti latte which is clearly a fasting faux pas); sitting with your kids in the adult service (discuss pros and cons of having children with shpilkes join you in the main sanctuary); and High Holiday attire (assert that Macy’s should have a High Holiday clothing department comprised of conservative yet fashionable clothes that come in textures appropriate for 100 F temperatures, but in fabrics that say “fall”).

These thoughts were interrupted by a preview for the movie version of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Rent.” A bunch of hip, actors and actresses with soaring voices and dazzling smiles appeared on the screen singing the opening lines to “Seasons of Love”: “525,600 minutes; 525,000 moments so dear; 525,600 minutes; how do you measure, measure a year?”

I mentally deleted my other potential topics and began thinking how as Americans and Jews we take stock of those 525,600 minutes in two very different ways. As Americans, we anticipate the upcoming 525,600 minutes with unbridled optimism, making big, bold resolutions. As Jews, we examine the year that has just passed, searching those 525,600 minutes for wrongs that we may have caused, or mistakes that could have been avoided.

But the differences in the Jewish approach and the secular approach to marking a new year aren’t just philosophical.

On New Year’s Eve 2005, we will make a slew of resolutions that will be kept for a week or two, dress in party clothes that rarely see the light of day, drink like Prohibition might make a comeback and eat like the calories are on hiatus. The most that many of us will contemplate on New Year’s Day, the first day of 2006, are the instructions on the child-proof cap guarding the Tylenol.

For Rosh Hashanah, we will dress conservatively, visit our synagogues in huge numbers, and eat our meals at home. It is a time for introspection, not partying.

What is the best way to move toward a new year? The Jewish method that calls for an intense review of the past year, or the American approach of entering each new year with a sort of reckless optimism oblivious to what has come before? It seems that the answer depends on whether or not one is a parent.

If you have children, you need to approach each and every new year with one eye on the past and the other eye on the future. To look only backward ignores the reality that our children are constantly changing: the baby that was just on our lap is now a toddler painting pictures; the kindergartener who raided our lipstick to play dress up is now a middle-school kid asking for makeup of her own. The child who screamed at us to stay when we dropped them off at preschool now screams at us to leave them alone when their friends are around.

But even though our children are constantly moving forward toward adulthood and a life of their own, we still must look back and consider our past parenting errors, and figure out how to fix them. The punishment for failing to look at our past parenting mistakes is to make them again; the punishment for failing to make plans for our parenting future is to parent a child that no longer exists. We must face each year with the optimism of New Year’s Eve, and the introspection of Rosh Hashanah.

During the Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur, I will consider how I spent last year’s 525,600 parenting minutes. Was I too lenient, or too strict? Did I try to shape my child into my image, or was I respectful of my child’s attempts, however shaky, to design her own identity? Did my child spend more time with me, or with his GameBoy? Did I cheer as loud when he did a random act of kindness as when he scored the game-winning point in basketball?

But I will also consider the gift of a new 525,600 minutes, minutes that are fresh and untouched. How will I respond when my daughter begs for a cellphone, asks for a razor to shave her legs or is dumped by a friend? How many minutes a day should she be allowed to IM? What will I do when she finally talks back? How will I make time every day to actively listen to my son and daughter when so many other things seem to get in the way?

The song from “Rent” continues with this verse: “525,600 minutes; 525,600 journeys to plan.”

This year, lets plan our parenting journeys with the exuberance and optimism with which we approach the American New Year, but with the thoughtfulness with which we approach the Jewish New Year. Let’s keep one eye on our parenting past, and the other eye focused on our parenting future so that we may experience 525,600 minutes of Awe.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Wendy Jaffe can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

Give Some Honey to Apples of Your Eye


The High Holiday Hustle. We know the steps well. It starts with a tireless trek to the mall in search of that stylish synagogue suit. Next comes the culinary juggling act, simultaneously preparing Aunt Sophie’s tzimmes, Bubbe’s killer kugel and a 22-pound turkey, dressed and trimmed. The last step is grooming an entire family and shuffling the whole gang out the door and into the synagogue in under an hour.

The entire dance sequence — minus the shopping — is generally repeated the following day. Scrambling through the better part of October, it’s easy to forget that the true meaning of the High Holiday season can’t be found in Nordstrom or Bloomingdale’s or Aunt Sophie’s tzimmes, but in appreciating and giving thanks for life’s sweetest blessings. So steal a few moments from the holiday hoopla to remind the true apples of your eye just how delicious they are. Even the simplest acts can send children a message, as loud and clear as the shofar, that they’re loved and cherished. The following sweet suggestions will help you show your children the honey this Rosh Hashanah and every other day of the brand new year.

Rosh Hashanah Honey for Kids

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• Take them to a paint-it-yourself ceramic shop and decorate Kiddush cups, apple plates or honey bowls together.

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• Leave Hershey’s Kisses on their pillows on erev Rosh Hashanah, along with a note wishing them a sweet New Year.

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• Celebrate the birthday of the world with a family nature hike.

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• Give the world a birthday present by planting a tree together.

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• Have a honey cake baking party.

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• Let them design the Rosh Hashanah tablecloth and challah cover using fabric crayons or markers.

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• Make a Rosh Hashanah hunt by giving children clues that lead them to different places in your home — i.e., go to the place where you rest your rosh (head) every night. Have a new clue waiting at each stop and a bag of holiday treats at the final destination.

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• Take a family excursion to an orchard for apple picking.

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• Bake a round challah together.

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• Visit ” target=”_blank”>www.babaganewz.com, where little techies can find Rosh Hashanah games and activities.

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• Have a Tashlich ceremony by a lake or river, so children can cast their sins away and start out the year with a fresh, clean slate.

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• Turn an apple on its side and cut it in half to reveal a star in the middle. Dip the fruit in washable paint, and let your little stars stamp away.

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• Steal some time to read a High Holiday picture book together — even if they say that they’re too old to listen to a story. Some noteworthy choices are “Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year” by Eric Kimmel (Scholastic, 2000), “The World’s Birthday: A Rosh Hashanah Story,” by Barbara Diamond Goldin (Harcourt, 1990), “Sophie and the Shofar” by Fran Manushkin (Urj, 2001) and “How the Rosh Hashanah Challah Became Round” by Sylvia Epstein (Gefen,1999).

Year-Round Sweet Stuff for Kids

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• Flip through photo albums and baby books, and tell them stories about when they were little.

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• Have lunch with them at school (note: disregard in case of preadolescence).

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• Have a campout in the living room. Roast marshmallows over candles and tell ghost stories by flashlight.

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• Give them a coupon that they can redeem for something priceless, like going to a movie with mom or a ballgame with dad.

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• Plan a family game night once a week. TVs, cellphones and computers not invited.

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• Have an unbirthday party — complete with a cake — for everyone in the family who does not have a birthday that day.

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• Take them on a “mystery trip” to a place you rarely go, like an amusement park, sporting event or children’s museum.

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• Proudly display their finest schoolwork.

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• Transform your family room into a movie theater, complete with tickets and popcorn.

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• Send them comic books, baseball cards or other goodies in the mail.

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• Create a new family tradition like a weekly pizza-making night.

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• Do something completely out of character, like starting a pillow fight.

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• Pack dinner up in a picnic basket and eat at the park.

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• Watch cartoons with them.

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• Make up a secret signal together for saying “I love you.” (Little ones will love being sneaky; older children will be thankful to save face in public.)

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• Arrange with the teacher to read a book to their class.

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• Host special dinners to celebrate their every day accomplishments, like losing a tooth, scoring a soccer goal or getting an “A” on a science test.

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• Slip a joke into their backpacks.

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• Ask them for advice about something they know well.

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• Tell them you love them — even if they roll their eyes when they hear it — every morning and every night.

L’Shanah Tovah to you and your honeys.

Sharon Estroff is a syndicated Jewish parenting columnist with graduate degrees in education and child psychology.

Gift of Chanukah


 

To my husband, Larry, it’s “Project Yankee Doodle,” a circa-1960 rocket launcher made by Remco Toys.

To me, it’s a generic plastic pickup truck.

We’re talking favorite childhood Chanukah presents. And while Larry also recalls a toy robot and battalions of Army men, the truck remains the favorite — and only — Chanukah gift embedded in my memory.

“That’s it? That’s all you remember?” my mother asks.

I nod my head guiltily.

Perhaps I remember it because of the circumstances — a hastily purchased gift, one that I was allowed to select myself at Doden’s Drug Store en route to my grandparents’ house.

Perhaps I remember it because of the context — in 1956, in Davenport, Iowa, girls didn’t play with, let alone own, toy trucks.

As the mother of four boys and the chief shopper, wrapper and often exchanger of almost two-decades worth of Chanukah gifts, I feel my mother’s chagrin.

And, payback being an inevitable part of parenting, I feel my own.

“What’s your all-time favorite Chanukah gift?” I mistakenly ask my sons.

“I remember when I was 5 and got stuck with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles girl action figure, April O’Neal, because all the good ones were sold out,” Zack, 20, says.

“I don’t know,” Jeremy, 15, says.

“I don’t really like Chanukah presents,” Danny, 13, admits.

Only Gabe, 17, who will be visiting his girlfriend in Boston over winter break, responds positively: “My airplane ticket, of course.”

But here’s the up side. Far greater than that little truck — and the furry slippers, scarf and mitten sets, books and phonograph records that I undoubtedly received — was another gift: a love of Chanukah and a love of being Jewish.

“How did you do that?” I ask my mother.

This is important to Larry and me. We want to ensure that we have Jewish grandchildren, although — and I can’t emphasize this strongly enough — not yet.

And this is important to Jewish spiritual leaders and educators across the country and across denominations who seek to discover sure-fire forces that forge strong Jewish identities.

Maybe the answer isn’t Jewish day school, a bar or bat mitzvah, a Jewish summer camp, a Birthright Israel trip or a subscription to Heeb magazine. Maybe the answer is as simple as this: unmemorable Chanukah presents.

Along with a memorable Chanukah.

Growing up in Iowa, even with only three other Jewish kids in my elementary school grade, I never felt left out or less than. I never felt the desire to sit on Santa’s lap in Petersen’s Department Store or have a big flocked and frosted Christmas tree in our living room. And it wasn’t as if — sorry, Mom — Chanukah was a big blow-out in our family.

“Go and make Christmas out of Chanukah,” my mom always said, quoting her friend, Alice Weitzman.

But she did better: she made Chanukah out of Chanukah.

A holiday of joy and warmth. Of chanting the blessings and lighting the “lion” chanukiyah, of eating freshly made latkes with burnt edges that my mother cooked in the electric frying pan, of playing dreidle with my siblings and parents and betting with gold-foil wrapped Chanukah gelt. Of driving across the river to Rock Island, Ill., to celebrate with my grandparents. Of baking poppy seed cookies using my grandmother’s recipe and the dreidel-, Star-of-David- and menorah-shaped cookie cutters.

A holiday that reflected the anti-assimilationist ideals of the Maccabees, that ancient band of guerilla fighters who, unaware of what an identity crisis was, refused to submit to the Syrian Greeks. Who were willing to sacrifice their lives to continue studying Torah, observing Shabbat and circumcising their sons.

But the threat to Judaism, interestingly enough, was internal as well as external. Many Jews of the second century BCE were easily drawn into the dominant Greek culture. Not unlike today, where, according to the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-01, 42 percent of Jews who define their religion as Jewish describe their outlook as secular. And where we have to work hard to remain Jewish in a non-Jewish world.

Chanukah gives us that challenge and opportunity. Especially since younger Jews already tend to express their Jewish identification through the celebration of holidays, according to “The Sovereign Self: Jewish Identity in Post-Modern America” by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen (Indiana University , 2001). And since, according to the NJPS, 72 percent of all Jews already profess to kindling Chanukah lights.

And so this year, emulating my mother, I will once again try to make Chanukah out of Chanukah. I will go through the ordeal of buying, wrapping and perhaps exchanging all those Chanukah gifts, which dollars to donuts — or, more appropriately, gelt to sufganiyot — my kids will soon forget.

And maybe that’s OK.

As Zack says, “Ten years from now will I remember all of the presents I received? No. But will I remember that magical feeling of celebrating Chanukah? Absolutely.”

And, I hope, that magical feeling of being Jewish.

Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino and has four sons.

 

Scholarship Takes No Vacation


Two local synagogues are offering an opportunity for Jewish scholarship this summer, and a third is offering weekly Hebrew classes at all levels.

Through the Community Scholar Program, Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel will help host a six-day visit by a professor of Jewish history and archaeology from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Professor Lee Levine, a 30-year resident of Israel, is the author of 11 books about ancient Judaism, synagogues and geography. He will hold six talks over six days, July 1-6. Most will be held at either B’nai Israel or an upper school classroom at Tarbut V’ Torah Community Day School in Irvine.

His topics will range from Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" to whether the Passover seder is a pagan invention.

Anaheim’s Temple Beth Emet promises an eight-week class that can turn Hebrew illiterates into Hebrew readers able to follow in a prayer book. Four levels of Hebrew are offered at Beth Emet in weekly classes that will meet beginning July 19 at 7:30 p.m. and run through the first week of September.

"The instruction is highly individualized and offers the freedom to move between classes to meet your personal needs," promised Margalit Moskowitz, Beth Emet’s education director.

Irvine’s Beth Jacob Congregation will host a parenting seminar July 29-Aug. 1 by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, a teaching professor from Jerusalem who challenges popular child-raising theories.

A former Harvard and UCLA student, Kelemen began his career as a ski instructor and worked as a news director and anchorman for a California radio station. He then traveled to Jerusalem to pursue the rabbinate, simultaneously conducting a dozen years of intensive postgraduate field research and publishing several books.

Kelemen teaches at Neve Yerushalaim College of Jewish Studies for Women and is the author of "To Kindle a Soul" (Leviathan, 2001) an authoritative parenting handbook.

The Beth Jacob seminar is $36 per person; $48 per couple.

Further details on the programs are available by calling the shuls: Beth Jacob, (949) 786-5230; B’nai Israel, (714) 730-9693; Beth Emet, (714) 772-4720.

‘Mother’ of the Month


In an American Jewish community in which plaques, scrolls and other forms of recognition are freely distributed, I can lay claim to only one signal honor. Many years ago, when my youngest child was still a toddler, the marquee of the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Van Nuys sported, for a brief time, this bold announcement: “Mother of the Month,” followed by my name.

It was a salute well earned. Since my writing schedule allowed for such an indulgence, I was the dropper-off and picker-up of Ariela, whose need for transportation continued even into grade school and high school, first in Los Angeles and later in Providence, R.I., where we now live.

This responsibility did not end, in fact, until four years ago when Ariela was accepted to Brandeis University.

Ariela is a young woman who has been raised in, and nurtured by, the Jewish community. Her long progression through Abraham Heschel Day School in Los Angeles and a final year at a Schechter Day School in Rhode Island, Camp Ramah and Camp Alonim in California, two visits to Israel and a budding career as an instructor of Israeli dance have all been documented in print by her father here in the pages of The Journal. She objected to most of the articles I wrote on grounds of public embarrassment but, I noted, she always took them to school to show her friends.

When Ariela was born, I was 53, the age of my wife’s parents, and my older daughter dubbed me her “recycled father.” In that exalted capacity, I was invited to address the Association of Jewish Nursery School Teachers in Los Angeles. Having already shared in the raising of three older children, I was full of advice ranging from no television in the house to the need for strict homework supervision. Needless to say, all of this wisdom evaporated as Ariela developed a mind of her own, becoming addicted to watching 1940s MGM musicals on television and, often as not, completing her homework assignments at breakfast.

Ariela’s decision to apply for early admission to Brandeis was entirely her own. Her choice reflected, of course, the Jewish involvement of both her parents, as well as her upbringing in that community.

One of the reasons that Jewish parents send their children to Jewish environments is to try and ensure that they will marry other Jews. Man proposes and God laughs, as the Yiddish expression has it. It turns out that Jewishness is not the only trait Ariela has picked up from her parents — she also has a well-developed sense of independence. So let me introduce you to Clayton, a computer programmer in Boston, the son of two retired Marine officers and, at 26, the father of Isadora, the 2-year-old of whom he has custody.

As you can see, complications arise. But here, too, the experience of Ariela’s parents plays a part. My wife, daughter of two Latin American Catholics, originally converted to Reform Judaism when she was still in college and later, after we met and married, had a second conversion at the Orthodox Bet Din in Los Angeles. (She can, and occasionally does point out that she has written proof of her Judaism, while I can only rely on the word of my parents.)

Anyway, Clayton will soon embark on a one year Conservative conversion program after which, all things being equal, they intend to marry. And we? We are baby-proofing the house.

It is the fate of parents to view their adult children as they were when they were considerably younger, as if the intervening years of growth and maturing had never occurred. And, as Ariela walked up to receive her diploma, I had much the same reaction, tempered to be sure by another. At 21, I was in the Israeli army, having already been in the American Army and then involved with the illegal immigration to Palestine. People had lived or died according to decisions I made, sometimes the wrong ones. But the responsibilities I had were never for those I loved.

Ariela strode up to the platform exuding self-confidence, ready to take on the burdens of a new job, of a new household, of a child and a husband-to-be. Responsibilities such as those I did not assume until I was much older, and I don’t believe I could have handled them at that age. But of Ariela’s ability to do so, I have little doubt. Credit to those who reared her, yes, but credit also to a Jewish community that strengthened and sustained her through the years and, I trust, will do the same for her new family.

Hands Off My Volcano


One evening not too long ago, I strolled through the science fair at a local middle school. The work of the students was not much in evidence, but the fingerprints of their parents were everywhere. No matter how often they are warned by teachers to let their children do the science projects, many parents just can’t let go. They’ve got to jump into the game, using the creaky excuse, “It’s for the sake of my child. Winning a prize here could mean a lot on that college application a few years down the line.”

There seems to be no limit to the parental interference — or subterfuge. I’ve been on a national speaking tour this year and have unearthed some alarming stories, even at wonderful schools. Some of the smartest, most devoted parents are using bizarre, often unethical, nearly illegal maneuvers in the name of protecting their child’s academic standing. A middle-school teacher told me he received an e-mail from a student demanding a point-by-point explanation of her grade on an English exam. Problem is, this was the student’s English teacher. He knew the girl’s writing style and vocabulary. He also knew her gentle nature. The teacher quickly figured out that the e-mail was not written by his student. That’s right, it was written by her dad.

Driven by anxiety that their children will not measure up, parents bend the rules and force their children to do the same. Some have confessed to me that they enroll their children in unnecessary tutoring or test-prep classes and urge them to keep it secret from the school.

Along with lessons in deviousness, children are learning from their parents that actions have consequences. That is, their teachers’ actions do. Frustrated teachers tell me that today’s parents have a very low tolerance for average grades. If a student receives a “C,” not on a report card but on a single test, it’s not uncommon for the parent to phone the teacher and issue a reprimand.

Even “C” students get the message: You are not responsible for your grade, your teacher is. If you don’t like it, it can be fixed — not by working harder, but by complaining.

Why are normally reasonable and ethical parents resorting to such extreme maneuvers? Stock wisdom says that nothing fundamental ever really changes, but our world is fundamentally different from the world we grew up in. The startling and rapid changes we see in the economy, in family life, in religious institutions, technology and education leave us breathless and excited, disoriented and anxious. As sensitive, protective parents, we want to armor our children with a thick layer of skills to prepare them for this uncertain future. We have convinced ourselves that they must excel at every level. If that means tilting the playing field, so be it. We’re ready. But what about our children?

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, the great, uncompromising Chassidic leader, once said, “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah, but will simply instruct their children to do so.”

No parent wishes to leave a child with a legacy of lessons in lying and cheating. Quite the opposite. We care so much about teaching our children ethics and respect that we send them to religious school to study Jewish rules about being a good person. But our children learn far more from our actions than they do from any character-education curriculum. By teaching them to exaggerate, break rules, disrespect adults and be devious, we won’t end up with children armored for the future but with children armored only for a solitary climb to the top of the college-admissions pile. Once they are adults, the bad habits they learn from us are more likely to hurt them than to give them an edge.

When I look at all those science projects so clearly lacking the clumsy, painstaking touch of a young hand, I can almost see Mom or Dad toiling away, their child at their side, begging for a turn with the glue gun. But today’s determined (and fun-deprived) parents are not giving an inch. A papier-mâché volcano! Messy poster paints! Baking soda! Vinegar! Here’s an excuse to play and ensure a good grade for my child. The joy of creation, the satisfaction of doing all that hard work, maybe even the thrill of winning a ribbon — what parent can resist? For the sake of their children, more of them should.

The Tyranny of Carpooling


Sigmund Freud says we owe our children travel, education and nice clothes.

Judaism says we owe them a religious and ethical upbringing.

But who says we owe them carpooling?

Who says that after years of catering to them and carting them around, we aren’t entitled, as Howard Beale, the newscaster in the film “Network,” urges, to roll down our car windows, lean out and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Nope, I’m not going to take being chained to an SUV and a restrictive time schedule. I’m not going to take listening to the incessant bickering over who sits in front, who picks the radio station and whose backpack is blocking whose way. And I’m not going to take using my car as an office, complete with telephone, coffee cup holder and Post-it Notes.

Worse, I’m not going to take the fact that during 12 years of carpooling, to and from school alone, I’ve driven — trust me, I’ve checked the math — the equivalent of seven round trips to New York City. But instead of Mount Rushmore, the Mississippi River and the Statue of Liberty, I pass the Sherman Oaks Galleria, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and six gas stations.

But gripe as I might, I still have to take a couple of more years.

And that’s why 20 moms and one dad from Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School are sitting in my living room and inserting push pins, each representing a respective address, into a 2-by-3 foamboard-backed Thomas Brothers map of the San Fernando Valley.

We are attempting to figure out how to transport our collective 30 children, entering grades kindergarten through eight in September, from the 91436 zip code in Encino to the corner of White Oak and Devonshire in Northridge. We are trying to do this in the most efficient, cooperative and least obviously selfish way possible.

I watch the four moms with incoming kindergartners, who are new to the school. Nervous and naïve, they don’t know what it’s like to find chewing gum stuck to their leather interior. They don’t know what it’s like to wait impatiently for a chronically late kid or to have their own youngster learn new and creative words for body parts and bodily functions. And they don’t know what it’s like to have another mom forget to pick up carpool one afternoon.

“Tell me that the driving isn’t that bad,” one of the new moms says to me.

“It is that bad,” I answer. “But it’s worth it.”

But I wonder, in hindsight, if I would commit to driving my four sons to a school 12.5 miles from my house for a total of 14 years. I wonder if this is really the cruel and unnatural price we have to pay for living in this sprawling city with the country’s worst traffic congestion.

“What do you do?” people often ask me.

“I drive carpool,” I answer in my more whimsical, or wacky, moods. “I have excellent references.”

Yes, carpooling has become my identity and, it appears, my destiny. As a result, I’ve become comfortable with the fact that I’m never going to win the “coolest mom in the carpool” contest. Indeed, with no compunction but with some embarrassment to my sons, I’ve outlawed chewing gum, food, fighting, rap music and excessive noise.

In essence, I’ve outlawed fun.

For me, the purpose of carpooling is merely to transport a group of kids to and from school in a safe, civil and timely manner. Nothing more.

But that’s not entirely true.

For carpooling has enabled me, as Judaism commands, to provide my children with a religious and ethical upbringing at a Jewish day school in which they have thrived.

It has also enabled me, as Freud recommends, to provide them with travel and education. And while the travel is tedious and repetitive, the education, experiential and often unexpected, is not.

Over the years, my children have learned to be prompt, flexible and amicable. They have learned to shut a car door without slamming it. They have learned to say please and thank you.

Additionally, over the years, they have learned to deal with a variety of personality traits and quirks. And they have learned that, while some parents and kids can be rude and manipulative, others, perhaps the majority, can be extraordinarily generous, thoughtful and accommodating.

As for the nice clothes that Freud advocates, those are for me. I’ll need them in exactly six years, when my youngest gets his driver’s license and I trade in my SUV for a two-seater sports car.

A Lesson Plan From Israel


In our hardwired global village, the old curse “May you live in interesting times,” has particular resonance. For local educators, the recent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians have made these past few weeks interesting times indeed. As events continue to unfold thousands of miles away, the conflict has been an ongoing topic in Southern California’s Jewish day schools.

Many day school families have strong familial ties in Israel. Yet even for the majority that don’t, there is anxiety and concern about the violence. Most schools have addressed the conflict within their regular programs. After all, among day schools, Jewish history and modern Israel are part of the standard curriculum. The headlines have now made that curriculum come alive in an urgent and disturbing way, sparking discussion and impromptu “teaching moments” in a variety of settings.

“We’ve brought the discussion to the students,” said Joseph Hakimi, Judaic studies and middle school director at the Westside’s Sinai Akiba Academy. “Our focus was twofold: Understanding the conflict is the first goal. That includes understanding the Palestinians’ position, which really involves putting themselves in the shoes of the other side. I told the eighth-grade students, ‘Think as a Palestinian and then express and defend your position in this conflict.’ Then I told them to do the same, taking a position as a Jew and Israeli. The reason we do that is that we believe that in order to ever achieve any sort of peace, we need to understand the position of the other side. If this model was taught in Palestinian schools, we believe there would be less hate and more progress,” Hakimi said.

At Adat Ari El, a kindergarten-sixth grade day school in North Hollywood, students and teachers are also discussing the moral and political dimensions behind the headlines.

The conflict is treated as both a topical event and as a religious and historical challenge for the Jewish people. “In class,” said principal Lana Marcus, “our staff is discussing the events with the kids in an age-appropriate manner. And at our regular Thursday minyan, we set aside a special time to pray for peace in the Middle East. At our Friday assembly, we lowered the flags in the yard.”

“In other words,” Marcus continued, “we’re really incorporating it into what we regularly do at this point.” In the aftermath of reports that two Israeli reserve soldiers were murdered in Ramallah, Adat Ari El’s fifth-grade students began writing letters of condolence and support to the victims’ families.

In a less formal context, Haim Linder, Adat Ari El’s Israeli-born head of physical education, has been bombarded with questions from the kids since they returned to school after Yom Kippur.

During gym class, Linder said, “the kids would ask me, ‘Did you see what’s going on?’ They really wanted my take on it. I thought it would be an appropriate time to clarify some of the issues in an age-appropriate way. I asked them what they knew and what they would do themselves to resolve the conflict, and we discussed it a little bit. One second grader said he was concerned because ‘all the Arabs are killing the Jews.’ I tried to correct that misconception. When the older grades would come to class and want to talk about it, our conversation was a little more complex, and we talked briefly about the different factions within the PLO and in Israel itself.”

Like other Jewish day schools, Adat Ari El has extensive security measures in place that didn’t need to exist 10 or 15 years ago. Since the violence broke out in Israel, several parents have called the school expressing anxiety, Marcus said, adding that in this instance, it seems to be Israeli-born parents who are doing most of the calling.

At Heschel West, the Agoura satellite campus of Heschel-Northridge where students range from preschool age to eighth grade, informal discussion time has been dominated lately by news from the Middle East. According to the school’s Judaic studies coordinator, Rivka Ben Daniel, “We make recordings of the news broadcasts or bring in articles and discuss what is going on. The students are very, very curious. They ask a lot of questions. They are really disturbed by the news and want to know that Israel will be okay. The upper grades,” Ben Daniel said, “really want to initiate discussion, and they are all very supportive of Israel.” She also said that Heschel students have begun writing to the families of Israelis wounded or killed in the conflict.

Farther south, in the newer suburbs surrounding Mission Viejo in Orange County, Jewish day school students and teachers are also exploring the implications of the conflict. Eve Fein, the principal at Morasha Jewish Day School, said, “Our fifth- and sixth-grade students are now in a current events national competition, which we took first place in last year. So in their current events studies, they are learning about the situation, but it’s really part of the program. It also has been mentioned during our prayers.”

The students “are learning about the situation as a topical issue and also from a Jewish perspective,” Fein said, “and I do think there’s a distinction. One is the purely political approach of what is going on in the world of current events. The other is the Jewish view, which is a little more complicated. We always told the kids that Israel is holy to us. Once you explore that subject, you get into how there is a competing connection to the land. We teach them that it is also sacred to the Muslim world, and that leads us to a discussion of competing rights and values. We end up exploring the very complex idea that this is a place that is sacred to both sides.”

At Milken Community High School, the clash between Israelis and Palestinians has been received as anything but a remote news story. Partly, it’s due to Milken’s unique exchange program. At present, 22 Israeli exchange students are spending three months in L.A., each assigned to a Milken family. When the three months come to a close, the program does a flip: the Israelis go back home and the Milken students who hosted them go to Israel to stay for three months with the families of their new Israeli friends. Among families on both sides, the end result is a tight web of interrelationships that span generations and cultures.

Milken teacher Yoav Ben Horin heads up the exchange program. “There is very intense bonding from all perspectives,” he said, “Not just the kids, but the parents as well. The Israeli kids, by and large, and particularly the ones we select, are very alert and aware. They’re well-informed about what is going on in the world. But as things escalated, and they were in touch with their families, understandably, some became more anxious, and all of them very concerned. There were some tears and some huddling together, and a need for more reassurance, but there was also a sense that they were not entirely out of touch. They were in touch with their parents, and in this school and community setting they were not out of touch, either. There is a yearning for home at a time like this, but not a desire to get on a plane and go home. They have succeeded in staying on an even keel.”

Despite their concern about the ongoing conflict, none of the American students scheduled to go to Israel next expressed any ambivalence about the trip, Ben Horin said. “The only concern I’ve heard among them is a worry that this would affect their program – modify it or postpone or cancel it. I have not heard any second thoughts. I think what is really remarkable in all this is how reasonable everyone has been so far – the parents, the kids and the exchange students.”

Dropping Out


Elliot Maltz had a Bar Mitzvah two years ago, but he says his Hebrew school experience was “really boring” and “discouraged me from future practice.”

Maltz, a West Hartford, Conn., 15-year-old who spends most of his free time playing sports, says being Jewish is important to him, but “since I cannot really see its positive effects, it does not make me excited.”It has become a truism for many American Jews that the Bar Mitzvah is more a farewell ritual than a welcoming ceremony.

But now, amid national efforts in renaissance and outreach, Jewish organizations are looking for ways to reach the Elliot Maltzes.What is at stake, say educators, is keeping teens in the community and showing them how Judaism can make their lives meaningful at an age many believe is key in cementing lifetime values and behavioral patterns.

Adolescence is “a stage of life in which young people are beginning to make really important decisions for themselves and create their own affiliations,” said Robert Sherman, executive director of San Francisco’s Bureau of Jewish Education, which ranks outreach to teens as one of its top three priorities. The other two are family education and professional development for Jewish educators.The challenges in engaging teens are significant, with Jewish involvement – at least for non-Orthodox teens – dropping steadily throughout the high school years.

A recent study of 1,300 Jewish teens and their parents in Massachusetts – one of the only studies looking at a cross-section of teens, not just those who are active in Jewish life – confirmed that Jewish involvement steadily drops after the Bar Mitzvah.

According to the study, 86 percent of Jewish seventh graders participate in Jewish activities compared with 56 percent of 12th graders.

The study, conducted by Brandeis University, defines Jewish participation broadly – from participating in a youth group to attending a Jewish summer camp to using a Jewish community center at least once a year.Although focused on one state, the study, say researchers, likely reflects the experience of most non-Orthodox Jewish teens in America.

Some of the key findings of the Brandeis University study, which has not yet been published, include:

The drop in Jewish involvement is simultaneous with increasing amounts of time spent on homework and part-time jobs;

Girls are more likely than boys to express interest in going on Israel experience programs, and they participate at higher rates in formal Jewish education;

Most report they did not enjoy Hebrew school as much as regular school. (The majority of participants in the study, like most Reform and Conservative Jews, attended congregational schools rather than day schools.) Approximately 25 percent said they never enjoyed being in Jewish school, and approximately 30 percent said they seldom enjoyed it, although the majority said they sometimes, often or always enjoyed regular school.

Parental opinion strongly affects teens’ attitudes on intermarriage: 73 percent of teens whose parents say marrying Jewish is not important also believe this is not important, while 78 percent of teens whose parents say marrying Jewish is very important believe it is somewhat or very important to marry someone Jewish.

The Holocaust, anti-Semitism and “being ethical” are the most important aspects of being Jewish, say teens, while volunteering for Jewish organizations, observing Jewish law and contributing to Jewish organizations rank the lowest in importance. Israel ranked somewhere in the middle.

“There’s no question that the data we have is depressing. We have lost one third of the population before age 13 and another large chunk by the time they graduate high school,” Len Saxe, one of the researchers in the study and director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies told the North American Association of Jewish Youth Professionals, after presenting the findings at the group’s recent conference.

Jewish teens are hardly being lost to the streets, however, with most reporting they spend a lot of time on schoolwork, part-time jobs and other activities perceived as helping them to get into college, said Saxe.”These kids are highly motivated and success oriented,” he said. “After B’nai Mitzvah, their job is to be successful in school and they work hard at it. Also, they take jobs that earn money and obviously this takes away from involvement in other things.”

However, he said, the findings also point to ways the Jewish community might better reach teens, mainly by creating part-time jobs for them in Jewish organizations and selling the importance of Jewish involvement to their parents, who – according to the study – do influence their children’s attitudes.According to Rabbi Art Vernon, the staff person responsible for teens at the Jewish Education Service of North America, Saxe’s research shows that Jewish programs have to be more sophisticated nowadays than in the past to appeal to teens.

“Kids are sophisticated consumers. They shop for what they want, like everyone else in America, and content is important,” he said.

The Class of 2000


In this era of school violence and body piercing, teenagers, never the most applauded demographic segment of our society, have been getting some amazingly bad press. To hear the media tell it, adolescents who aren’t destroying themselves or others are just too lazy and apathetic to be bothered.And if Jewish teens aren’t filling up juvie hall, they’re not filling up the synagogues, either. After Bar and Bat Mitzvah, we’re led to believe, you never see them again. Why would Jewish kids hang out at shul when they can be cruising around in their parents’ Beemers, downloading porn from the Internet, turning their brains into Swiss cheese with drugs?

Are you scared yet?
Well, take a deep breath and relax. As the poet says, it ain’t necessarily so.Remember, bad news always drives out good; that’s why the evening news opens with murders and natural disasters. Hostile, alienated Jewish teenagers are much more fascinating than good, focused kids who do their homework, serve their communities, and go off to college, strong Jewish identities intact.The saving remnant is alive and well, and part of it is about to graduate from high school.

Concerned and committed
The 18-year-olds you’re going to read about are not Everykid, or even EveryJewishkid. They were contacted for interview through college counselors and the Hebrew high school programs run by the Conservative and Reform movements, so they skew toward youngsters who are bright, ambitious, bound for four-year colleges, and committed to Jewish learning and practice. But if you think of them as future Jewish leaders, well, we could do worse.

For one thing, they are not apathetic. The list of social and political issues that concern them includes racism, gun control, capital punishment, gay rights, homelessness and hunger, school prayer and human rights worldwide, to name just a few. “There are too many people walking around today who fail to care about anything, and it is not only degrading to them, but to the whole world,” said Millicent Marmer, a member of Milken Community High School’s chapter of the Junior Statesmen of America, a political debate club.

For most of the students, their interest is personal. “As a Jew growing up in a very Christian society, especially my area, I am very sensitive to the issue of church and state,” said Jackie Bliss, who is graduating from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach after organizing a Jewish Cultural Club at her school. “I do not believe that prayer of any kind belongs in a public classroom& and think that it is imperative that the separation be upheld.”

Beverly Hills senior Shelly Rosenfeld has a grandmother who lost her family in the Holocaust. Now Rosenfeld is a volunteer guide at the Museum of Tolerance. “I am driven by the awareness that the generation that can give a firsthand account of the Holocaust is diminishing in numbers and memory,” she said.

Rosenfeld sees her mission as larger than educating people about the Shoah, however. “Our society is a human kaleidoscope of color and culture,” she added. “The important factor is that one sees the differences as opportunities not to segregate others but as occasions to learn from one another.””There are many issues that concern me, but the ones that affect me the most are the shootings at schools, such as Columbine,” said Yevgeny Plotkin, a senior at Fairfax High School. “As a Jew I’ve been taught from birth the importance of trust and responsibility, and it hurts me to see how many teenagers have now lost this trust from parents, teachers, media, and others.”

No need to get a life – they’ve got them
The students also showed a high level of awareness about events in Israel and other Jewish issues. “Last summer, I went to Israel, which had a tremendous effect on me,” said Reina Slutske of Westlake High School. “My opinion is that my Bat Mitzvah never happened until I went to Israel.& I’m always concerned about Israel, because when I went, I adopted it as my home.”

“Israel does concern me in the way it is covered [by the media],” said Sam Rosenthal, who is graduating from Valley Torah High School, a yeshiva in North Hollywood. “I’m continually seeing Israel holding the red trident and & Palestinians repainted as downtrodden underdogs.”

“I think assimilation concerns me the most, because so many Jews have become High Holiday Jews, or they do not have any Jewish identity besides a Jewish mother,” said Melissa Orkin, a senior at Calabasas High School. Slutske concurs: “I think living in American culture makes you assimilated, and [you] forget who you are in the melting pot.”

These kids aren’t nerds. Many are involved in sports, from water polo to track to baseball. Jackie Bliss surfs, “although not as often as I would like.” Orkin has participated in the Maccabi Games. Jeremy Monosov, who is graduating from Calabasas High School, got his pilot’s license in December. “Flying, in my opinion, is the cure-all for anything from anxiety to depression to stress,” he said. “As you lift off the ground you leave all your problems on the ground for a couple short hours.”

Hanging out with friends and listening to music are also high on the list for these almost-graduates. “Almost all my friends whom I’ve grown up and gone to yeshiva with are into hard rock,” said Valley Torah senior Eli Julian.

Far from the stereotype of kids who don’t have two words to say to their parents, many of these teens expressed a close relationship with their folks. And they’re not rootless; most of them appeared to have lived in the same communities and gone through school with the same kids since way before high school.Maybe that’s why so many of them have mixed feelings about leaving high school and (as most of them are doing) leaving home to attend college. “Leaving school is an oxymoron: happy sadness,” said Plotkin, who was born in Belarus and plans to pursue a joint engineering program at Occidental College and Caltech. “Externally I’m excited, but inside I’m sad, because I’ll be leaving everything I worked so hard to get used to.”

“I worry that I won’t fit in or I won’t make friends or that I’ll shrink all my clothes and turn them pink,” Orkin said of her imminent shift to USC.

“I’m excited because I feel I have earned the opening of a new chapter in my life, and I can’t wait to see what I’m going to do with my life,” said Emily Rauch, a Harvard-Westlake senior who will attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C., this fall. “But I’m scared because the safety net – my house, my parents, my routine – won’t always be there.”

Ready to share their blessings
From all appearances, the teenagers who contributed their insights and opinions to this story (and the accompanying sidebars) are a lucky bunch of Angelenos. Few of them, in their comments, so much as hinted at trauma, grievous loss, or even serious disappointment. Blessed with brains, supportive families, and, for the most part, relative to absolute affluence, headed for some of the nation’s best universities, they have a leg up on the ladder of success. And many of them expect to be successful; no fewer than three mentioned that they’d like to be named to the Supreme Court.

Yet very few come off as spoiled, self-centered, or self-congratulatory. If they’re skittish about leaving home, it’s because they value their parents’ involvement in their lives. Many of them said they want to make the world a better place. There’s little sense of entitlement; they seem to understand how lucky they are. Their hopes for personal happiness and success are rooted in hard work, self-respect, and respect for other people.

They are Jewish kids with Jewish values, and they give every indication of carrying a conscious, active Jewishness into their adult lives. There’s a message here for parents of younger children: What do parents need to do for their kids to turn out like these kids, to have the same optimism, the same work ethic, the same tolerance for the rights and opinions of others, the same com
mitment to Judaism?

True, these teens may not be representative of all American Jewish adolescents, but they are not unique. There are many more like them in Southern California, west of the Mississippi, across the country. If they represent the best of our people’s future, we probably have a future.

Meanwhile, Solomon Mizrahi, graduating this month from Valley Torah, has summed up their anxieties, their dreams and their confidence. “Right now the world seems too big for me to leave a mark, let alone a difference,” he said. “I know, however, that the world conspires to help [people] in their endeavors, so whatever I choose to do, all I need do is work hard and work diligently, and I will succeed.”

Tribal Loyalties

Some Jewish teens are willing to interdate, but a Jewish home and Jewish kids are nonnegotiable.

With intermarriage rates a matter of paramount importance to American Jews concerned with Jewish continuity, Jewish leaders, parents and teens are trying to balance two conflicting dynamics: commitment to Judaism on the one hand and a universalist ethic of tolerance and respect for diversity on the other.Not surprisingly, interdating isn’t even a blip on the radar for Orthodox teens. “Dating a non-Jewish girl is something completely foreign to me,” one Valley Torah student said. “It saddens me to think that it is already so commonplace among Jewish teens that you would have to ask the question.”

Among the other 12th graders who contributed insights, attitudes toward interdating ranged from a firm stand against, at least for themselves, to a willingness to date people from all cultures, usually in the name of experimentation and commitment to multiculturalism – and because they don’t see the dating they do now as serious.

“Yes, I date non-Jews. I don’t think about it; I just do it,” said Milken senior Cynthia Glucksman. “I feel I can learn a lot from non-Jewish people.”

“It’s hard to be raised knowing that all races and religions are equal and simultaneously reject romantic relationships based on religion,” said her classmate, Millicent Marmer.

“I am currently dating a beautiful, sweet Jewish girl and have always dated Jewish girls,” said Jeremy Monosov, who grew up Conservative. “However, I am not against dating a non-Jew.& Our different backgrounds might add fire and substance to the relationship and would encourage my growth as an individual.”

Melissa Orkin says she’s never dated a non-Jew, in part because she’s in a Jewish environment – which includes her public school, Calabasas High – so much of the time. “I guess part of what attracts me to a guy is that he is Jewish,” she said. “It is one of the things that I look for. I’m not against other people interdating, but up to this point in my life, it has not been a possibility for me.”In an interesting twist, Reina Slutske, a graduating senior at Westlake High, said, “I believe that unless you are confident in your Jewish identity and in who you are and where you are going, you can’t date non-Jews, because it’s too strong of an influence and would possibly end up in intermarriage.”In fact, almost all the respondents, from the most to the least observant, said they want to marry Jews, and the majority ruled out intermarriage as an option. And for every single respondent who dealt with this question, the creation of a Jewish home and the rearing of Jewish children in the future was nonnegotiable, even if he or she could entertain the notion of a non-Jewish spouse.

“When you’re young you have to experience the world and all different kinds of people,” said Rebecca Lehrer of Harvard-Westlake, who dates gentiles now. “But I am going to marry a Jew. I just know that’s something important to me. I want to raise my kids Jewish, and I think having a Jewish spouse makes that a lot easier.”

“My religion and its continuity are important, so I would only make a life commitment to someone who understood the importance of my religion and the importance of raising any children we were to have as Jews,” Lehrer’s classmate, Eric Rosoff, said. “I think it is important to distinguish between someone who is Jewish and someone who understands the need to continue Judaism.”Jackie Bliss, a Mira Costa senior, grew up with a non-Jewish dad, and although he participated fully in the Jewish life of their home and finalized a conversion to Judaism last year, she doesn’t see herself following her mom’s path.

“I would love to say that you should marry whomever you fall in love with and you can overcome any problems,” Bliss said. “But if you truly want to raise a practicing Jewish family, you have to have a Jewish husband or wife. Some people are willing to take that risk, but I don’t think I will. My mom overcame a lot of obstacles to raise my sister and me with a strong Jewish background, and I don’t intend to end it with my family.”

Keeping Faith

Not all teens flee Jewish life after Bar and Bat Mitzvah.

In contrast to the conventional wisdom that most teens make a quick exit from Jewish life at age 13, almost all the students interviewed for this story have active Jewish lives, most of them on the institutional level. Even the respondents who aren’t temple-involved said being Jewish plays an important role in who they are.

Rebecca Lehrer, a Harvard-Westlake senior who will attend Columbia University, hasn’t spent much time in synagogue since her Bat Mitzvah at Temple Israel of Hollywood, but her extended family has Shabbat dinner together every Friday night. “Just because I didn’t go to Hess Kramer [summer camp] has nothing to do with my Jewish identity. I strongly identify with being Jewish, and I think my peers identify me that way too.” Like many of the students interviewed, she said she intends to get involved in a Jewish organization such as Hillel once she’s at college.For the students graduating from Orthodox schools, of course, traditional observance is a given. Many will move on to yeshivot in Israel or in U.S. cities. Sam Rosenthal, who will spend a year at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, said he’ll start a Chabad unit at whatever college he attends for his B.A. if there isn’t one there already.

One yeshiva student credits his school with putting him back on the right path. Reared “strictly Orthodox” in Brooklyn, he went through a rebellious spell starting in eighth grade and “decided that I didn’t like religion, not really because of any deep questions or the like, but because it just was a pain and I didn’t want to bother.”

After flunking most of his sophomore classes and getting thrown out of summer camp for smoking marijuana, he asked his father for a change of scene, and his dad arranged for him to live with his grandmother in L.A. “[My school] has been the best thing for me,” he said. “I’ve gotten back into religion, haven’t touched a cigarette or even thought about smoking a joint in two years. I understand much more about Judaism, which has allowed me to really want to be religious, instead of pushing it away.”A Valley Torah senior, Solomon Mizrahi, is bucking the trend by going straight to UC Irvine this fall, but he believes it’s the right choice for him. “Going to a university that doesn’t have the greatest Jewish social opportunities will not detract from my level of religiosity or spirituality,” he said. “My connection with the secular world is important. In some ways it helps me improve my spiritual devotion to God.”

Most of the non-Orthodox students mentioned participation in Jewish youth organizations, Jewish educational programs for senior high schoolers, and involvement opportunities in their synagogues. Lisa Feigenbaum, Harvard-Westlake’s valedictorian, has read Torah at Stephen S. Wise Temple’s High Holy Days services since her Bat Mitzvah. Her classmate, Eric Rosoff, is a madrich (teacher’s aide) at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, working with religious school students, while Judith Spiro, graduating from Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, plays a similar role at Temple
Isaiah in Rancho Park. Jackie Bliss works three days a week at her temple, Congregation Tifereth Jacob in Manhattan Beach.

“Becoming active in USY [United Synagogue Youth] was the best thing I ever did,” said Melissa Orkin, a regional board member and president of Temple Aliyah’s chapter, who also spent six summers at Camp Ramah. “By attending USY events I was able to keep in touch with friends from camp and to make new friends. Spending weekends with other Jewish teens like myself was a great experience.& USY enabled me to stay involved in the Jewish community religiously and socially.”

That doesn’t mean these kids never ask questions, of course. Santa Monica High senior Rachelle Neshkes, who grew up at Adat Shalom on the Westside and just graduated from L.A. Hebrew High School, has been a bit alienated of late. “The void in spirituality hit me much later than most because I was always the most observant, and the most into it growing up,” she said. “But seriously, I don’t know a single Jew who is completely strong in [his or her] faith.& The faith has just seemed to roll out from beneath us.

“Judaism would keep more Jews if only it didn’t project such a, shall we say, outdated image,” said Neshkes, who is interested in Jewish mysticism. “Can’t we keep the Hebrew, and our traditions, and our beliefs, without being 19th-century Poles?”

“I spend Shabbat with my family and friends, keep kosher and celebrate all of the holidays,” said Milken senior Millicent Marmer, who attends Stephen S. Wise Temple. “However, I am also constantly challenging and questioning Judaism, not in a rebellious manner, but simply so that I can practice with kavanah [spiritual intention].”

“Too many Jewish people are only Jewish by culture, and they know nothing about their religion,” Eric Rosoff said. “I have a Jewish soul, and I know this only because I learned about Judaism.”

Being Perfect


Consider the lyrics of Cheryl Wheeler’s song “Unworthy”:

“I’m unworthy — and no matter what I’m doing I should certainly be doing something else.

And it’s selfish, to be thinking I’m unworthy. All this me, me, me, me, self, self, self, self, self.

I should learn how to meditate and sew and bake and dance and paint and sail and make gazpacho.

I should let someone teach me to run Windows and learn French that I can read and write and speak.

I should get life in prison for how I treated my parents from third grade until last week.

And I should spend more time playing with my dog and much less money on this needless junk I buy.

I should send correspondence back to everyone who’s written, phoned or faxed since junior high.

I should sit with a therapist until I understand the way I felt back in my mom.

I should quit smoking, drinking, eating, thinking, sleeping, watching TV, and work harder at getting along.

I should know CPR and deep massage and Braille and sign language and how to change my oil.

I should go where the situation’s desperate and build and plant and trudge and tote and toil.

I’m unworthy.”

Sometimes it’s hard to feel worthy. Most of us expect an awful lot from ourselves and we expect a lot from our children. They’re pushed, coached, tutored and tested to the point that they feel loved for their performance, not their essence. We expect a lot of our parents and spouses, who, after all, do the best they can, just like we do. Yet we have such a hard time forgiving them their human frailties. Sometimes we have a hard time forgiving ourselves for being human, too.

Stand in line at the supermarket and look at the magazine covers. Then look at the people looking at the magazine covers; comparing themselves, their bodies, their lives, to those described in the glossy pages. Imagine what middle-aged men are thinking when they read about “dot com” kids — young men and women in their 20’s worth tens of millions.

L.A. ranks number one in cosmetic surgery and has the neat distinction of having the highest number of parents springing for breast implants as high school graduation presents so that their daughters can go off to college with “enhanced self-esteem.” We live in a city that manufactures and upholds superhuman images of perfection, raising the standard of what it means to be worthy — to its most ridiculous.

The Torah knew better; all of its heroes are imperfect. Abraham is a lousy father and husband but he’s called “the friend of God.” Jacob plays favorites with his sons. Joseph is arrogant. Moses loses his temper. Virtually every family in the Torah is dysfunctional. When God creates the world it’s called “good,” not perfect, just “good.” For God, good is good enough. God does not expect us to be perfect.

The rabbis make it clear through the special name and Torah reading assigned to this Shabbat. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. On it, we read one of the weirdest stories in the entire Torah. It has to do with when a person feels contaminated by something he has done wrong and is therefore unworthy of coming into God’s presence. That person can cleanse and purify himself by undergoing the ritual of the Red Heifer. A cow with completely red skin, without a single discolored hair or blemish is sacrificed and its ashes made into a paste that is applied to the person to purify him.

What’s this bizarre ritual really about? Here’s what one rabbi thinks. “The Red Heifer represents perfection. It is slaughtered to make the point that perfection has no place in this world. Perfect creatures belong in heaven, not on earth.”

Despite what we might surmise standing in line at the supermarket, L.A. and the rest of the world is for those of us with imperfections. God does not expect us to be God. God does not expect us to be perfect human beings. God only expects us to be humane.

The writer Anne Lamott put it this way: “I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up, I found that God handed you these rusty, bent, old tools — friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty — and said, ‘Do the best you can with these, they will have to do.'”

To Anne Lamott, to Cheryl Wheeler, to all of us who feel unworthy, our ancestors speak across a thousand generations this Shabbat Parah; slaughtering perfection and grinding it to a pulp. Reminding us that friendship, prayer, conscience and honesty might not be perfect, but they’re good, and good is good enough.


Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” published by Behrman House, Inc.

Traditional Home


Becoming a Jewish Parent: How to Explore Spirituality

and Tradition with your Children

By Daniel Gordis

Harmony Books, $24

When my daughter was very young, a relative gave me a copy of a classic book, “To Raise a Jewish Child,” by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. It was a well-meaning gift. The only problem: Though Donin was clearly a sensible man with much to say about Jewish values in the modern world, I could not connect emotionally with his message.

Donin’s book (published in 1977) makes an interesting contrast to a brand-new work by Daniel Gordis, “Becoming a Jewish Parent.” Both cover essentially the same terrain — how parents can introduce their children to Jewish tradition — but their manner makes all the difference. Like Donin, Gordis is both a rabbi and a professor. (Until his recent move to Israel, he headed the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.) Whereas Donin writes in the voice of a religious leader speaking to congregants, Gordis is able to communicate parent-to-parent. He understands that today’s moms and dads often feel unsure of their own stance toward Judaism. He’s aware that many Jewish parents lack basic Jewish knowledge. So in language that never condescends, using anecdotes that demonstrate his ease in the modern world, as well as the world of his ancestors, he sets about educating and inspiring his readers to raise genuinely Jewish kids. His point is that “you can become a great Jewish parent regardless of how you grew up. You don’t have to be an expert about Judaism to help your kids come to love being Jewish. And no, you don’t have to have all your ambivalence about Jewish life worked out before you get started.”

Gordis’s approach is to gently immerse young children in Judaism, giving them positive Jewish memories on which to build as they grow older. He uses holidays, life-cycle events, and even bedtime rituals as opportunities for parent and child to share Jewish experiences and discover a sense of God. But for him, Judaism shouldn’t remain on the level of milk and cookies: He hopes that families who begin by building a backyard sukkah and creating Purim costumes will graduate to a more sophisticated approach toward Judaism as a religion and a culture. One of the book’s most helpful aspects is the annotated bibliography that refers readers to other publications, as well as to pertinent web sites and CD-ROMs. Other tools provided by Gordis include a handy rundown of the whole span of Jewish history and a thorough discussion of the Jewish calendar, with suggestions for finding meaning even in such arcane customs as the counting of the Omer.

The book has its lapses. Though it tackles many timely issues (like the role of women within religious Judaism and the question of whether Jewish children should celebrate Halloween), one important topic gets sidestepped. In elucidating the Jewish life cycle, Gordis takes pains to describe the traditional wedding ceremony, for the benefit of a child attending such an event. But he never broaches the equally baffling sort of wedding ceremony jointly performed by a rabbi and a minister. Today’s Jewish parents often find themselves faced with the need to explain intermarriage to their youngsters. Given Gordis’s sensitivity and eloquence, it’s too bad he dodged this challenge. Still, he has written a work that Jewish parents should welcome as an invaluable resource.

Number Our Days … Slowly


I used to play this math game in my head when I was a kid. I’d sit on the little grassy hillside overlooking the jungle gym and kickball games during recess and speculate about the year in which I would die.

“Born in ’61,” I’d hum to myself, “and if I died when I’m 30 …”–which seemed to be more time than I could possibly know what to do with — “then the year 1991 would be my last.” I considered other possibilities, rolled their futuristic digits over in my mind, visualized their happenstance symmetries –“2002? … 2020? … 2040?”

Did this make me a morbid kid? Not really, because it all seemed so theoretical; those years were as distant as the death of the Sun. Only one number bothered me –2061. That was a concrete 100 years and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it that far. I reflected on all the children who would be alive then, maybe even fortunate enough to be sitting on this very grassy hillside contemplating the year of their deaths, and sighed, wow, lucky them. Unlucky me.

The dreaded year for me now is 2009, a lesser death, when my first son will leave my house for college, or adventure, probably with me clinging to his backpack. As for forethought of my own demise, I don’t really think about the numerical year anymore, but how old my kids will be. This sober exercise sounds like this: “Let’s see, if I’m 85 when I pass on, Amit will be 55, Aviv 52. If I’m 130, that’ll make Amit 100 and Aviv 97. It’ll be okay. They’ll get over it. Now, if I’m 180 …”

Different game, same trick. To think of my little boy, with his frayed shoelaces and Pokémon breathlessness, even at 45? It’s as distant as the death of the sun.

I can already hear my Buddhist friends all over me for this. What’s all this projection forward? Why am I not living in the present? And worse, if I’m going to mentally live in the future, can’t I find something more fun to do than die?

But being Jewish is to be bombarded by time-by seasons, weeks, history. An awake Buddhist walks in the timeless present. But an awake Jew stands in the unquiet crossfire of past and future-bloodflow and revelation from behind, the dream of global shalom bayit shimmering before our weary eyes. We measure our days collectively, and, as I keep hearing from my friends, privately, as well.

I suppose it’s my age and the age of my pals, but the subject keeps coming up. We each run a personalized calculus in our heads. One friend recently confessed to me that he was terrified of turning 58 because his father dropped dead of a heart attack at that age; that year hangs before him like a noose. Another recoils at the prospect of turning 60, when she believes her attractiveness will be at an end (she is wrong). My baby sister who just turned 35 exclaimed “I’m practically 40!” For my adopted friend, who wonders what genetic time bombs he carries, every square on his calendar is a bed of nails.

On our most lonely foothold, we shrink the trackless journey of life into a narrowing homestretch.

And so we measure our days against the life spans of our parents, against the durations of our heroes. (“When Mozart was my age,” Tom Lehrer famously said, “he’d already been dead for three years.”) We weigh the years against our dreamed accomplishments. Nevertheless, our individual prognostications fade under the crescendo of medicine’s pushy tic-toc. Like dutiful schoolchildren, we begin filing in as we hit 40, informed that our bodies are designed like old Chevys, obsolescent by nefarious plan. Tic Toc. Got to get the prostate checked at 40, tic-tic-the colon at 50 – toc-toc-double up on the heart-scan schedule. Ding!

Whatever our private heroics, our days get measured in blips and beeps, drips and samples.

Which brings me back to my old grassy hillside. One recent morning, I called to my 8-year-old to hurry it up for school. “Life is short!” I yelled! He appeared around the doorway with his pack on his back and a quizzical look on his face. “No it isn’t,” he said.

That stopped me short. I tried to remember what that felt like. For him, life is an open field, all clover and high grass curving around the broad hip of the earth toward an ever-retreating horizon. But for me and my prostate-test taking pals, it stubbornly presents itself as an obstacle course littered with rising rubber gloves and monitors, and a ribbon at the finish line, fashioned from piano wire, strung neck high.

My days of feeling immortal are long gone. Do I feel strong? Yes. Healthy? Totally. Vital? Sure. Maybe it’s resignation, maybe wisdom (are they separable?), but I’m quite content to go with Rav Heschel on this one when he wrote, “Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence.” It resides not so much in the hereafter but in (and I think the Buddhists wish they came up with this one first), “the herenow.”

And who better to instruct me on investing my eternity in this fleeting hour, than my 5-year-old? It had been a long, wonderful day of friends, beach, Indian food and stories, and I was tucking him in.

“So,” I said, wanting to impress the day’s joy into his memory so he’ll support me when I’m old, “was today a good day to be alive?”

He thought hard.

“Well,” he drawled in his habitual deliberation, “it wasn’t a good day to be dead.”

Amen.


Adam Gilad is a dad, a husband and, in the minutes left over, a writer.

Force of Nature


Where does a parent — a Jewish mother — begin a frank consideration of her daughter’s sexuality? As the Zen master says, you have to start from where you are, and then let it flow.

I am a single mom, and as a single mom, my sex life is pretty much on display. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve known single mothers who crawl out of the window at midnight to visit their lovers, but I’m not good at taking off the screens. I have secrets from my daughter, but they happen during the daylight.

Because I’m a single mom, in some ways it is easier for me to discuss the facts of life with my daughter. My mother left this particular job to my father, and, finally, just the other day, he got around to asking if there’s anything I’d like to know about men.

Avoidance just doesn’t work with Samantha and me. We’re not obsessed with the mechanics of sexuality (she gets too much of this from reality-based TV, see further on) but, rather, with its operational flow. Samantha looks at my life, a virtual relationship laboratory right in her own home. She sees me dating, making my own mistakes, frisky in perfume one minute, wearing my heart on my sleeve the next. She notices when a guy comes by, bringing flowers, and she’s right there when the flowers stop. Recently, when I was on the phone with a guy for a full hour, she came in to give me a hug. The lesson my mother could never teach me — that the heart is a sexual organ — my daughter already knows.

Sometimes, I feel I’m a failure in this department, but it’s as much history’s fault as my own. Sadly, the “sexual liberation” that I’d hoped to bequeath to my daughter doesn’t mean much in today’s terms. For my generation, the “Fear of Flying” crowd, liberation means the freedom to participate in one’s own sex life, to enjoy passion and fantasy, to understand lust as a natural hunger, as related to but distinct from love. See, it still casts a romantic glow.

I was hardly a libertine; I wanted then what I want now: a stable partner with a great imagination. I’m a ’60s Gal, electrified by the right to be alive during lovemaking, to choose my partners (rather than to be commanded by them), to own a wakeful body, and to never fake satisfaction just to be polite. The other side of the equation, the part I try to stress to Samantha, is that I believe in self-protection, taking responsibility for bad choices and learning from my mistakes. No matter what has happened since — no matter how naïve we were about the fragility of males, no matter that even great sex sometimes pales next to good companionship — I still regard the women’s movement as the purest time of my life, when the battle was waged for a full definition of female adulthood, a battle only yet partially won.

In my fantasies, I’d hoped my daughter’s generation would take up the fight. But woman plans, and God laughs.

One day, when she was in fourth grade, Samantha came home from school with the report that Magic Johnson got AIDS from unprotected sex. All her life, we had been talking about sexuality, body parts, where babies come from and the rest. But nothing like this. Looking at my little girl, my heart sank, and I still think of that moment as the true “fall from grace.” Her news (she said it just this way, “Magic Johnson got AIDS from unprotected sex”) meant that Samantha, along with every little girl and boy in America, was learning about sex not as joyful, loving, free and natural (if strained with emotional complications), but as a health crisis, tainted, diseased, stained. I flew the flag for sexual freedom at half-staff.

Even today, so many years after accommodating to our new, darker era, I still well up in a protective rage on behalf of our young girls. The bad news broke too soon. Samantha didn’t yet know what love means, what physical ecstasy evokes. Before she could develop her own unique metaphor — a fantasy of bliss or a vision of herself locked in a “From Here to Eternity” love embrace on a pristine beach –she was already thinking mechanically, clinically, of sex as “safe” or “unsafe.”

She knows too much about the wrong things, and not only about AIDS. She has been warned against child abusers, sexual disease and sexual harassment in a wide variety of forms. A macabre sideshow of twisted sexual images come to her from “Jerry Springer,” MTV, Angelyne, Michael Jackson’s androgyny. She’ll never be allowed a moment’s purity, naivete or nonchalance. I grieve for her imagination’s prematurely lost virginity.

I’d be less than forthright if I said that being a Jewish parent provides security, or spiritual advantage, in this regard. Like every parent, I worry about my child’s friends and her values, and I seek to insulate her from the dangers of the cruel world. Where Jewish tradition helps is: 1) in providing a long list of women who survived their own child’s teen-age years, and 2) in offering stories that encourage independent thinking, even in the midst of chaotic times.

Increasingly these days, I use both parts of that heritage: I think of my own mother, scared to death throughout my adolescence, while I felt certain I could take care of myself. And I

A Jewish Guy


When I moved to Los Angeles and we tried to set upa play date for our son, we got this odd reply, “Can’t this week; I’mcrazed!”

We called another mom and got, “I’m really crazeduntil May. Call me in two months!” Echoes upon echoes: “Oh, we’d loveto, but we’re really crazed for the next few weeks.” “Sorry! Thistime of year, we’re crazed!” “We’re crazed, we’re crazed, you knowhow it is — crazed!”

I swiftly began to feel that I was crazy for notbeing crazed.

I hear this expression “crazed” more thanbirdsong, so I’ve had a good opportunity to think about it. Beingcrazed, I realized, is a perverse status game. He who is most crazedat the end of the day, wins.

On the flip side of this strange power grab is theexpression’s powerlessness, so clear in its flaunting of the passivevoice. Never have I heard someone blurt, “I’m making myself crazy bythe choices I’m making!” No, it’s always, “I’m crazed,” as if somepsychotic outside force is responsible, like fate, or a hit squad ofI.B. Singer’s mischievous imps.

But I’m grateful for having all these “crazed”people in my life. They remind me not to get crazed myself. Andbelieve me, as the minutes of my days slip away, and weeks get gulpedby months and years, and my babies are suddenly asking me about”South Park,” I can feel the temptation to join the crazecraze.

In my 20s, it felt like I had all the time in theworld. Then I hit my 30s, and time was being sucked out of my lifelike oxygen from a punctured space shuttle (yes, by dint of mychoices). Things were getting bad. My days settled into a routine ofnonstop movement: wake up, check the Net, get the kids to school,race to meet my writing partner, zip around town to meetings, racehome; then kids, dishes, homework, story time, turn to my wife, abrief smile, a wave and — collapse!

I was ready to call Stephen Hawking to complain.Instead, I began fighting back.

Most of my best decisions come to me in a flash ofgenius after months of hectoring by my wife, Abby. This one involvedsomething as small as the telephone but has sent out ripples of peaceand power in my life.

Because I dwell on the mid-lower rungs of theHollywood ladder, studio folks put me at the bottom of their calllists, and my phone starts ringing in earnest right around dinnertime. And though nothing is more pleasurable than to hear, overpasta, tales of gender wars on the playground, I found myself jumpingup to answer the phone.

It was driving my wife crazy and tearing me inhalf — and making me feel, well, crazed. So she suggested I not pickup the phone. Can you imagine? Then she insisted I not pick up thephone. Then she threatened me if I picked up the phone.

Suddenly, I had this great idea! I wouldn’t pickup the phone!

Being a married guy, I couldn’t attribute thisdecision to my wife. I had to find an outside authority. And being aJewish married guy, I had the option of going to a Source! In thiscase, I found one in no less than HaRav Abraham JoshuaHeschel.

In his meditative book, “The Sabbath,” Heschelwrites lyrically about Shabbat being a “cathedral” in time. I’vespent time with this inspiring image before, felt the peace and aweit brings, and when I left an outgoing message on my machine that Iwould not be answering the phone between 6 and 8:30 p.m., I felt Iwas creating, if not a grand cathedral in time, then at least alittle shtiebl. Two and a half hours — a mini-Shabbat for sacredthings. Just me and the boys and the bathtub and some books andenough plastic toys to fill a preschool. No phones. No computer. Nothreshing or plowing. No winnowing.

And I had Rav Heschel to thank for it.

That first night, I found myself amazingly relaxedwhen I came home. Abby, remarkably, seemed equally relaxed. And thenthe phone rang. Her eyes shot at me across the table. I froze. Partof my body strained. Part was already at my desk, delineatingcharacter arcs. Part was at my attorney’s office, signing studiocontracts in triplicate. But I didn’t leave my seat.

It was hard. By the second night, not answeringthe phone felt easy and powerful.

A simple gesture, but it helped me take backcontrol of my time. And I am showing my kids what I’ve been wanting,but failing to show them all the time — that they take precedenceover work and over everything.

There was an unexpected bonus: Even thehardest-nosed and most crazed Hollywood types felt moved to commenton what a great idea it was, putting that message up. They respectedthe commitment. They respected my family time, my shtiebl intime.

OK, so now I’ll thank Abby. And I didn’t even needRabbi Heschel to tell me to do so.


Adam Gilad writes a monthly column, but missedlast month because he was crazed.

Baby Sitters No More


The first thing that struck me as PresidentClinton unveiled his $21.7 billion child-care proposal last week wasthat it was hardly noticed in our community at all. With the possibleexception of increased child-care tax exemptions, the nation’s firstpreschool package won’t touch the Jewish community to anyextent.

Let the Christian Coalition insist that womenstill belong solely at home. Our own community resolved the problemearly, and did it well.

For today’s young Jewish parents, synagoguepreschools are taken for granted. There are 65 preschools in LosAngeles, serving 8,000 children. Day care isn’t just for Mom’sbenefit anymore. We send our children to school even if two parentsare working in the home office. Why? Because our preschools aregreat. Our children take art, computers, science as soon as they’reout of diapers. They celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays, learnHebrew blessings, and identify the map of Israel as the heart of theworld.

No one calls it baby-sitting. We know it for whatit is: a godsend.

If you sense a “yes, but” in all this, here itcomes. Sure, we can take pride in schools that raise up happy,competent Jewish children. But we also have cause for shame –in thetreatment of our preschool teachers. Across the nation, Jewishchildren are being educated by teachers who get less respect than thesynagogue janitor.

Of course, money is an issue. Less than a decadeago, beginning early childhood educators in Los Angeles, with 12units of college, made minimum wage. The Jewish community does betternow ($9/hour), but every step up is a fight.

But wages are not the only issue. Our earlychildhood educators work under labor arrangements deemed punitive 50years ago.

They have no job security. They can be firedwithout cause, and there is no grievance procedure. They work withchildren, who are notoriously susceptible to every cold or flu bugflying around, but commonly have no paid sick days. They can bedocked for taking off the second day of the Jewish holidays.

These are the people who teach our children Jewishvalues.

Naturally, there are two sides to the story.Employment rights for teachers threatens synagogue budgets,especially if schools hire substitutes when teachers are absent.Moreover, preschool directors are still fighting for their ownprofessional dignity in a field commonly scorned as merely a “secondincome.” They correctly fear confrontation with synagogue leaders asinviting board oversight of their independent realm.

Our teachers are caught between competing forcesand have few advocates for their cause. Turnover among preschoolstaff is about 40 percent; our children’s teachers are voting withtheir feet against treatment that is just not Jewish. They will getjobs in corporate day care or public schools (if either the Clintonproposal or one by Gov. Pete Wilson passes), or will leave thepreschool world. All of us — especially the children –suffer.

“How can a Jewish institution in touch withethical values justify not treating its teachers decently?” Phelan C.Hurewitz told me. Hurewitz, while chair of the Bureau of JewishEducation, helped form the professional practices committee that hasjust developed a new code for preschool teachers. “These are basicrights.”

Here’s the rub: Teachers in day schools andafternoon religious schools are already protected under a similarprofessional code that has been in place for decades. These teachershave grievance procedures, sick days and even pension options;preschool teachers do not. Is it a coincidence that day- andreligious-school educators were mostly men at the time these rightswere granted, while preschool teachers are universally women?

“They change diapers, and they get treatedaccordingly,” one preschool advocate told me.

In February, the BJE will consider, and no doubtpass, the new early childhood code. It has already been subject topublic hearings and negotiation, under a committee headed by attorneyand former BJE chair Linda Goldenberg Mayman. The BJE has been anational leader in early childhood standards, practices andcurriculum; its school accreditation program is now being duplicatedin Miami, Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. Now Los Angeles isready to lead again.

But once the BJE accepts the code, the real battlewill begin, as 65 synagogues decide independently, yeah or nay. Iftoo few schools are covered (the number not yet confirmed), the codewill fail.

If you belong to a synagogue, make sure your boarddoes what is right. Our educators do us proud. Now we must return thecompliment and give Los Angeles’ 1,500 preschool teachers the dignityand rights they deserve.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. Join her Thursday evenings at 8 p.m. in AmericaOnline’s Jewish community chat room. Her e-mail address iswmnsvoice@aol.com.

January 16, 1998FalseAlarms

 

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Education Adopting a More Accepting Attitude


Debra has always known she’s adopted. At the age of 6 months, shecame into the lives of a couple I’ll call the Rubins, who welcomedher with open arms. Now a feisty fifth-grader, she has the run of ahousehold filled with music, pets and love. But as she approachespuberty, her parents see in Debra a growing anxiety about her placein the world. Says Debra’s dad, “Her boldness masks deepinsecurities.” She’s forever demanding attention, company,reassurance.

Adolescence seems to have heightened Debra’s fixation on herbiological origins. She asks probing questions about her birthparents. She wants to know whether her birth mother was Jewish, andwhether there are brothers and sisters somewhere. Such questions arepainful to the Rubins, who’d rather not spell out all they know aboutthe sad, sordid circumstances of Debra’s birth. Their home life hasgotten tougher in other ways too. At times, Debra clings desperatelyto her mom and dad. At times, she rebels against them as thoughdefying them to prove they love her despite it all. Not unheard ofbehavior for an almost-teen, but the Rubins believe that there’ssomething more going on. In her dad’s words, “She grasps the factthat she was abandoned, that somebody didn’t want her.”

To Dr. Stephanie Siegel, Debra’s pattern is all too familiar. Asshe puts it, “The primary issues for all adoptive families are theissue of abandonment and the issue of separation and loss.”

Siegel knows whereof she speaks: Three of her own four childrenare adopted. She is also a licensed marriage, family and childtherapist who has led support groups for adopted children andadoptive parents at Stephen S. Wise Temple for the past 18 years. Herwork has now evolved into the Stephen S. Wise Adoption SupportCenter, the first of its kind in the nation. It will be formallydedicated on Dec. 3 of this year.

The Adoption Support Center is not a child-placement agency but,rather, a resource for those whose lives have been touched byadoption, including adoptees’ birth parents and adoptive families.Its services are open to the public in general, to Jews and non-Jewsalike. Siegel, who gratefully acknowledges Stephen S. Wise Temple’s”openness and generosity” in allowing her to reach out to thecommunity as a whole, offers startling statistics about the uniquechallenges faced by the adopted and their families. These youngstersare eight times more likely than other children to have learningdisabilities; they are four times more apt to suffer full-onattention deficit disorder. Beyond this, 40 percent of the inmates ofpsychiatric hospitals and 40 percent of those in residentialtreatment centers, such as Vista Del Mar, are adopted. An informalsurvey by the Van Nuys juvenile placement department shows a highcorrelation between youthful lawbreakers and adopted kids.

This shouldn’t imply that all adopted children are destined to runinto serious trouble. But, as the statistics indicate, thepossibility exists. Siegel sidesteps the question of whether someadoptees are doomed by their genetic inheritance to be out of stepwith the rest of society.

Instead, her focus is on the deep-seated anxieties felt by manyadoptees of all ages because they simply do not know who they are.Through counseling and group discussion, she helps the adopted andthose who love them deal with the emotional and practical concernsthat will crop up throughout their lives together. Add the fact that”for every adopted child, approximately 15 people are touched”(including grandparents, siblings and future spouses), and it’s clearthat Siegel and her trainees have their work cut out for them.

When Jewish families adopt, Siegel insists that their problems areno different from anyone else’s. She believes that issues relating toethnicity are largely confined to situations in which a child doesn’tresemble his or her parents, in which a youngster of Hispanic origin,for instance, comes to live in a light-skinned household.

The Rubins, however, feel otherwise. Their daughter, Debra, lookslike one of the family. She has her mother’s fair complexion and herfather’s stocky build. But with blue eyes and hair the color of cornsilk, she does not conform to most people’s image of a Jewish child.When she joined the Rubin family, she underwent a mikvah conversionin her mother’s arms, and she regularly attends religious school toprepare for a bat mitzvah. Still, congregants have the habit ofapproaching the Rubins at services and asking questions of which AnnLanders would not approve. Debra’s mom speaks with vexation of”‘little old ladies who lost their manners a while back.” They’ll patDebra on her golden head and say: “Oh, you’re such a shiksa. Are youJewish?”

Fortunately, at this point, Debra doesn’t know what a shiksa is.But her mom, who takes Judaism seriously, finds it hard to containher anger at such impertinence. She doesn’t like hearing herdaughter’s Jewish authenticity challenged, even in jest, and thewhole notion of “having a specific Jewish look” makes her blood boil.Ironically, Debra’s dad was born in Israel, where he grew up withawareness that Jews come in many colors. Israelis who adopt, henotes, often look to Korea and Brazil, confident that their importedkids will blend comfortably into the ethnic mix.

In the United States, however, Jews who are adopted (as well asJews who are the products of mixed-race marriages) seem to beregarded with curiosity, and even suspicion. I know of threeAfrican-Americans, now grown up, who, through adoption in earlychildhood, became full-fledged members of a devoutly Jewish family.After all these years, they are still regarded by some in their homecongregation as outsiders. That’s understandable, perhaps, but hardlyfair. Adopted children have a tough enough time dealing with themystery of their own identity. Who are we to tell them that theydon’t belong to the Jewish people?


Beverly Gray writes about education from Santa Monica.

All rights reserved by author.

Achre 5757


A couple with whom I’m close had their first child, so I ran to the bookstore to get them our favorite book on child care. I had forgotten the exact title (it was always “the baby book”) and the author’s name, so I thought I’d just scan the shelf until it turned up. Shelf? Try shelves — six of them, each 8 feet long and 10 feet high, and all on parenting. Need advice on building self-esteem, teaching morals, successful potty-training? There are volumes to teach it.

There is no word in traditional Hebrew for “parenting.” No term designates the set of skills, aptitudes and techniques necessary for raising children. This certainly cannot be a concept unknown to Jewish tradition. We are, after all, a tradition obsessed with children. Daily we are reminded: V’sheenantam le’vanech — “you shall diligently teach your children.” So why no word for “parenting”?

The Hebrew for “parents” is “horim”, and if we were to choose a noun form of the word describing the essence of being a parent, we would be forced to choose the word “Torah.” We have no prosaic term for “parenting,” because there is no Jewish idea of parenting skills and techniques isolated from the qualities of character, spirituality, wisdom and love. “Torah” — with all its deep, powerful and holy resonances — is the only possible word for what it takes to raise children. But don’t tell that to my local bookstore.

And that’s just the beginning. Move one shelf over, and you discover that “self-help” is now the biggest section in the store. Feeling anxious? Having difficulty communicating? Missing out on life’s joy? Here’s help. At least, here’s technique.

Americans have an obsession with technique, with doing it right. From home repair to lovemaking to parenting, we have this unquenchable thirst for a better technique. Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution.


Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution


But what about the deeper qualities of inner life, once associated with a good life — wisdom, sensitivity, integrity? I’m sure that in one of those books, there is a better way to fix a clogged sink. But I’m not convinced there’s some trick to fixing a broken relationship or some gimmick to opening a closed mind. Certainly, I’ve learned better ways to talk to my kids, to praise and to discipline, to set limits and to encourage responsibility. But, in the end, successful parenting is not a matter of effective technique but one of right living and sensitive loving. It is “Torah” in the broadest sense.

In the 10th chapter of Leviticus, which we read some weeks ago, the two elder sons of Aaron are killed in the process of offering aish zarah — alien fire. And the issue is raised again this week: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” Still, the exact nature of their infraction is a mystery. So are the circumstances of their deaths: Although they were burned to death, their bodies were carried out of the camp “by their tunics.” What sort of fire burns a man to death but leaves behind his tunic intact?

The Midrash posits a fire that entered the nostrils and destroyed in the inner man. From this, we can extrapolate the infraction: Nadab and Abihu entered the holy place with precise technique and skill. But that’s all they brought. No heart. No compassion for the people whose offerings they carried. No awe in the face of God’s presence. They had the technique down perfectly, but there was nothing inside.

Religion, too, can become a cult of technique — obsessed with detail and oblivious to higher purpose, disconnected from the qualities of depth and inwardness. But reduced to mere technique, religion, as with parenting and loving and so much of life, brings only emptiness. In this week’s portion, Aaron is invited back into the sanctuary — the inner place of holiness — to cultivate compassion, forgiveness and wholeness. And we are invited to go with him.


Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces rabbi Steven Leder, who will be completing a book (along with synagogue responsibilites at Wilshire Boulevard Temple) during the next six months.

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