Sunday, August 16, 2015

Mommy, what is a racist?

Last week, The Temple hosted marchers for the NAACP's Journey for Justice, a march from Selma to Washington to draw attention to injustice and inequality. Over 140 Reform Rabbis are participating in the march, carrying the Torah as a symbol of our commitment to the pursuit of justice for everyone.

Outside of our social hall, we displayed large photographs of the bombing of The Temple and of our late Rabbi emeritus Jacob Rothschild with Dr. Martin Luther King. Walking past these photographs, my daughter asked me, "Who broke The Temple?" I took her to the other photograph and reminded her of Martin Luther King and his dream of equality. Then, I said, "Bad men didn't like that The Temple believed this too, and they broke The Temple." She asked, "Who were the bad men?" And I said, "They were racist." "But Mommy, what's a racist?"

It is tempting to say to my four year old that I'll tell her when she's older. After all, why draw attention to race at a time when she barely notices these things? Yet, there are many children out there who do not sit in a place of privilege, whose reality already includes difficult truths about how our society works for some, and not others, on the basis of race.

Yesterday, I marched with the Journey for Justice and my children joined me for a part of it. The leaders of the march encouraged all of the children (we had eight "Rabbis' kids" there) to be up near the front. At first I said we didn't need to do that, they weren't there to draw attention to themselves. But then someone explained to me that we were walking through rural Georgia, we were expecting some nasty comments, and it was safest for our children to be near the front. Later that day, we had two African-American children, ages 4 and 6, and they too were walking up front because that was the place they could be most protected.

This is the difficult truth--that for as simple as it seems to us to treat people with dignity and respect and to see and respond to the injustices that exist, there are still plenty of people in this world who don't or won't see them. I walked next to a young man from Texas who was marching because he was denied the right to vote in a recent election. We talked about children and he asked how I explained racism to my daughter. I said, "There are people in this world who don't like people simply because they look different from them." We then talked about raising our children to be a generation who know from the earliest ages how to treat others and bring about goodness in this world. If we teach them from the beginning love and pursuit of justice, they won't know any differently.

I have added the photo of my children "strolling" through the march to their photostreams. One day, they will look at this picture, alongside Pride Parades and Hunger Walks, and know that even before they really understood, they were being taught to pursue justice. And I will tell them that alongside us were people who wanted the same thing for their children that I do for mine: a peaceful, safe home, access to food and healthcare and quality education, a strong community, and the ability to pursue their dreams and potential to the fullest. Kein yehi ratzon--may it be God's will, and may it be ours.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Today we found ourselves in Jerome, Arizona, as part of our family vacation with my in-laws and my husband's brother and his family. It was here that I learned the hard lesson of what it means to be the parent I want to be.

My mother-in-law decided to stop in a little jewelry store to buy my daughter a ring. The souvenir rings they bought in Sedona were quite large on a four year-old's finger, and this shop had some child-sized rings. We tried on several before deciding on a turquoise and silver ring--total price of $21. It was slightly loose, but seemed to be a better choice than the other ring which fit almost too tightly. 

As we were walking out of the shop, I asked my daughter to say a big thank you to her grandmother. As I was about to add the next logical sentence--be sure not to lose this special present--my mother-in-law hugged my daughter and said, "Just so you know, if you lose this, I won't be angry. Accidents happen, and I don't want you to be afraid to tell me. This is just a little present." 

I stopped in my tracks--how did she know what I was about to say? Immediately the many things I have lost came back to me, particularly the memory of the first thing my parents were angry with me for losing--one of the 14K gold earrings that I was given when I was eight.

Of course I want my daughter to treat her possessions carefully. We don't replace things that get broken or lost when these things happen out of carelessness, and we often have to explain that things sometimes cannot be replaced (or at least not immediately). Yet, this was a reminder that she is only four years old, and this was my opportunity to remember that I can help her preemptively be forgiving of that fact. As my mother-in-law said, accidents can happen.

And ten minutes later, while sitting at a barbecue restaurant, we discovered the ring had slipped off her finger and was nowhere to be found. I was so frustrated. In my gut, I wanted to yell at my daughter, "How could you be so careless?" And in my mind, I remembered being an eight year old girl on the other side of this. Yet the battle between instinct and aspiration was almost insurmountable, and all over a $20 ring.

I asked my daughter to apologize to her grandma for accidentally losing this ring. Grandma said it was fine, and then the two of them walked over to the server to leave our phone number in case it turned up. In the course of the conversation, in which my daughter was in tears, the server gave her a Hello Kitty keychain. This Hello Kitty hung in the rearview mirror of her car which was totaled in a car accident back in May. This woman, a young mother of two, was ejected from her car and should have been killed, but she, her friend, and the Hello Kitty survived. It was a reminder to her of resilience, and she decided that my daughter needed it. 

As I think about this morning, I am grateful. I am grateful to my mother-in-law who said to me, "We can't sweat the small stuff," and gave my daughter permission to be a flightly four year old, which I am not able to do as often as possible. I am grateful to the server who shared her story, reminding us that life is bigger than things (something I am well-aware of as a rabbi, but am sometimes forgetful of as a parent in the heat of the moment). Raised in a family where we sweated things small and large and had a memory longer than elephants, as a parent I want to teach my daughter forgiveness of herself, a recognition that things happen and we cannot let them overshadow our sense of self. Yet, instinct and aspiration as parents are not always in sync.

I am eternally grateful to this woman who looked at my daughter and knew she and our family needed this story. Hello Kitty is going to have a special place for us--we promise not to lose it--and one day it will go to someone special. In the meantime, it is reminder to me that every day we have the opportunity to choose the parent we want to be, and we can never lose hope that one day we will succeed. 

-dedicated to my mother-in-law, Jenny, who finds more stories and connections than anyone I know

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Today the Kotel was Ours...

From 6/18/15

This morning, I had the opportunity to take a group of about 20 people from our Temple Family Israel trip to the kotel for Women of the Wall's Rosh Chodesh minyan. It was the first full day of our trip so many of them were quite jetlagged, but five young women who will become bat mitzvah this Shabbat came, as did several mothers and grandmothers and even a few fathers and a grandfather. Some had converted to Judaism, others were born into it. For all but very few, this was their first time at the Kotel because it is the first time they are in Israel. 

What an experience to have as your first time at the Kotel! We began by joining with Anat Hoffman and others in trying to be allowed to bring a Torah scroll through security. They knew it would be denied entry, but they did it knowing another Torah scroll could come through and be available to be read. We sang with others as the leadership of Women of the Wall argued with the guards, then entered the kotel plaza, some of us wearing tallitot. We joined in the joyful sound of women's voices singing, drowning out (mostly) the shouting which came from some of the Orthodox women who felt that what we were doing was an abomination.  We had the opportunity to witness three young women become bat mitzvah with a Torah scroll at the Kotel. 

As we prepared to leave, I asked the group what it felt like--what did it feel like for the women and what did it feel like for the men watching from the back? Amazing, wonderful, powerful. One man pointed out that he walked to the men's side and immediately was able to be wrapped in tefillin, but was sorry no one would do that for his daughters (and I am of course sorry I did not bring my tefillin to give the five girls the experience that so many boys and men have). 

What I said to them, with tears in my eyes and throat, was this: "The Kotel has always been complicated for me as a woman, a Reform Jew, and as a rabbi. It has, at times, been powerful, but mostly it has been complicated. I haven't much wanted to come. Two years ago, I brought the mothers and daughters on our family trip to the Kotel and had to frame the experience almost apologetically, as if to say, "This is a very sacred place, but it will also likely make you really angry as a woman." Today, though, I didn't have to apologize. We were able to go in there and the Kotel felt like it belonged to me, and I hope it felt like it could belong to you."

For me, this was one of my most profound experiences as a Jew. I actually prayed at the Kotel in a way that felt like me--modest, but dressed in clothes I would wear if I were at services outside, wearing a tallit which I often wear on the bimah at home, the kippah that my mother made on my head, standing with women with whom I share a community back in Atlanta. It felt amazingly spiritual as I finally made a connection. 

The Women of the Wall is about more than just the Kotel--it is part of a larger fight for the recognition that "religious Jews" are not just Orthodox ones and that the diversity of the Jewish people must have a place in Israel as it does elsewhere. It is my prayer that the women and men I brought from our group will join in that fight, and that we will continue to see forward steps.   Today was beautiful, but it was still dramatic, there were still a few people yelling, there were police protecting us as we prayed. There is still work to be done, but today to see a Torah scroll held high by women was an achievement. Today, the Kotel was ours. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day: A Gift of Time

Mother's Day has always seemed to me a little like Valentine's Day. It is a chance to say thank you, and to make up for all of the other times we didn't say thank you, to our mothers and grandmothers. With the help of the Hallmark industry, there are numerous cards to express these sentiments and a variety of sales to encourage the purchase of extravagant gifts. Like Valentine's day, there is tremendous pressure to "go big." And, like Valentine's day, if you do everything right, it shouldn't be an atonement, just a day of celebration and an excuse to eat chocolate.

Because I usually spend Mother's Day just me and my children (my husband is always leading a trip to Israel), this day is not about gifts or giving Mom a break. I happily accept what my children have made for me (the school gifts improve significantly each year) and then I plan a day which allows me to spend time with my children in very intentional ways. Basically, I plan the day I wish I could do more often but is often taken over with the busyness of work and life. 

Fortunately, Mother's Day is almost as sacred as Yom Kippur and very little is ever scheduled on it. Thus, I have the gift of a whole Sunday to be with my children and (hopefully) not have to think about work. I have planned the day to include an outing to the zoo, a picnic, a nap, time in the backyard sprinkler, and then a Disney movie in our PJs. Dinner may or may not be takeout. 

Mother's Day for me is a gift of a day to focus on being a Mother. It is about the aspirations I have to be fully present in my parenting whenever possible and the joy of just being with my children. I pray that for all who celebrate Mother's Day, in whatever way has meaning for you and your family, it is a day of joy and gratitude. And for those for whom Mother's Day causes pain, I pray there is healing and comfort ahead. 

Now, regardless of how we feel about Mother's Day, may we all enjoy a delicious brunch!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Why I Baked an Elsa Cake

It took three cake mixes, four tubs of frosting, and at least three hours of my time (not including internet research), but I baked my daughter an Elsa cake for her fourth birthday, which we will begin to observe tomorrow. I discussed the plan with co-workers and then tracked the progress through Facebook, receiving a lot of comments that I'm a "good mom."

And truly, I wish it were that easy to feel like a good mom. I often feel just the opposite, and not primarily because I work full-time (although that stress does play into this). Instead, there are the moments I lose patience, the moments I tire of the questions, the moments I forget how young she is, the moments when I have no idea what to do or say next. She's only (almost) four, and there are times it feels like we are foreshadowing the teenage years. So, to balance these moments of feeling like I fall short, I treasure the moments when I can be the mother I want to be as well as the mother my daughter needs me to be. Those sweet bedtimes, the conversations that are funny and memorable...those are the times that I reassure myself that my daughter and I are going to figure it out, and those sweet and good moments far outweigh the challenging ones.

Enter in the birthday cake. This is the first year my daughter can really engage with her birthday. We have a long list of wants, including an Elsa cake, and I decided to rise to the occasion.

I could have outsourced this (as many do), but something inside of me told me to make this cake. And I realized, while working hard to make it look as smooth as the YouTube video, that I was doing this for a very special reason. Let the grandparents gets her all of the things she wants which one day she will outgrow. I am giving her some of my most precious commodities--my time and my intention. I am saying to her through five layers of cake that I did something other than press "click" on Amazon, I pushed myself to give her something special. I pray one day she will look at that picture and know exactly how funny it is that her mother, who doesn't really bake, made this cake. I pray she will find herself making such a cake for her child and in that instant, be reminded of this sugar and food-dye concoction. Of all of the things from her fourth birthday, I believe she and I will remember looking at this cake and her saying, "Wow, Mommy, I love it!" 

And that is what makes me feel like a good mom. Not the baking, but hearing what my daughter wanted and sharing with her a symbol of my earnest desire to offer it to her. One day, what she wants will be beyond my reach, but for now I will treasure these moments of sweet reward. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Would You Rather?

It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to write on this blog...had to get rid of my gallbladder, prep for Purim and Pesach, and answer my daughter's multitude of questions as she approaches her fourth birthday in a week. This week, I got the parenting "would you rather?": Would you rather the question "How does the baby get in your tummy?" or "Mommy, are you going to die?" Both are challenging questions, reasonable question, and anxiety-provoking questions. But, as I have said in other posts, there are a few strategies to answering your child's tough questions:

-answer the question that is being asked, not the question you are afraid is being asked
-keep it age-appropriate and localized
-keep it honest
-when in doubt, ask him or her "what do you think?"

The "How does the baby get in your tummy?" question came as we were driving in the car in the afternoon. Being a follower of my own advice, I asked her, "What do you think?" to which I was told, "I don't know. You tell me." Trying quickly to sort through what she already knew, wonder what she's already heard, and gauge what the right reaction might be, I said, "Well, that's where babies grow." She said, "but how do they get in there?" And I replied, "When it is time, that is where babies grow, and then they come out. Do you know that the day you were born was very special?" The conversation then shifted to the day she was born and how amazing that was. 

I am not proud that I dodged the question, but having spent the morning's car ride trying to explain the difference between America the country and Captain America the superhero, I was fairly certain that the biological answer was not age-appropriate. I was unprepared for any "seed" metaphors (and am not certain that's what I want to say), so the best approach for me was to shift the conversation to something that is age-appropriate, talking about birth as a special moment for families to celebrate. If nothing else, I have assured my daughter that her birth was a miracle and she has been loved from the first moment we saw her (and before).

Later in the week, my daughter turned to me at the dinner table and asked, "Mommy, are you going to die?" Death has been a topic in our home recently as she has been trying to process some of the pieces of the princess stories which previously went unnoticed. We have told her that death is when a person has to go away and cannot come back, we cannot see the person (except in pictures) and cannot hear the person, but we remember them and think about them and still love them. My answer to her was a simple, "Yes, everyone dies. We pray that they die when they are very, very old." "How old, Mommy?" "Really old, like 100." "Do we get old fast?" "No, it takes a long, long time." 

You and I both know that people can die tragically young, and this week as a rabbi I was made painfully aware of this reality in multiple ways. Yet for my almost-four year old, this is not age-appropriate to discuss. Her first encounter with death is likely to be her great-grandparents and the explanations we have given will hold up in that situation. And, in the painful and tragic event that we need to explain it to her differently, it will be from a place of faith and love. Right now, she is asking from a place of curiosity and probably a little anxiety, so we want to be reassuring on both counts. 

As parents, I believe our responsibility is to try to be honest with our children, and thus be honest with ourselves. I want to make sure I have given true statements, even if they aren't fully answering the question, and I want to encourage asking questions so we have ongoing opportunities to evolve with our answers. Yet, we also have the responsibility of knowing what is age-appropriate, both in offering more information and in offering less. 

I also remember that whatever I say to my daughter about these questions is likely to be held against me in the court of the preschool classroom. Those kids talk, and I want to make sure I don't get a phone call! This is a good reminder that we need to have conversations with our fellow parents about how they are discussing this with their children so we can be respectful and learn together. We might get good ideas for talking with our own children, and also be able to understand where some of the questions (or answers) are coming from. 

Which question would I rather get? I like them both. What I care about is making sure my husband is present for the next time a question is asked!

Prayer for Marriage Equality

As the Supreme Court hears the case on marriage equality in our country, I want to share the prayer we offered this past Shabbat as part of Freedom to Marry weekend of prayer:

When our ancestors stood at the shores of sea, leaving slavery in Egypt behind as they crossed over into a life of freedom, they endowed every subsequent generation with the responsibility to bring that freedom into the world for all. Today, we know that freedom is still an elusive concept, that the struggle for it is real.

The Biblical name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, the narrow place. In any place where people are not free, it is a narrow place. And we acknowledge this Shabbat that our country is still a narrow place because in many states, including our state of Georgia, there is not the freedom of marriage equality. Too many people are oppressed by the narrowness of prejudice, ignorance, fundamentalism, and injustice. We are proud that at The Temple we believe that we are house of prayer to all people, we are a house of prayer and gathering to all couples and families, and that we stand for equality and human dignity.

So we stand on this Freedom to Marry weekend of Prayer, joining with congregations of all faiths around the country in praying that this Tuesday as the Supreme Court hears the case on marriage equality, we begin to bring more freedom to our country. We pray that all who stand on the shores of Mitzrayim, the narrow place of not having equal rights simply because they identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, will find that there will soon be a path towards freedom for them, and thus freedom for us all.