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Terminal Judaism

May 9, 2009 | by

Without a Jewish education, what chance did our girls really have?

Life's challenges, I once read, are not meant to paralyze us, they're meant to wake us up to who we are. But first we need to realize we're asleep. Our wake up call was the sort that began with the stirrings of small discomfort that slowly led us to a blinding realization: Our Judaism was terminal.

Strongly identified, but with minimal Jewish education, my husband, Allen, and I wanted our two daughters to feel good about being Jewish while enjoying the benefits of the secular world. I walked them to their excellent, multicultural public school each fall, and we dipped apples in honey on Rosh Hashana. We had latkes on Chanukah, costumes on Purim and a Seder on Passover. We shared holiday meals and an occasional Shabbat dinner with our family and friends, who were both Jewish and intermarried couples.

We had been sleepwalking our way down the path of assimilation and our kids were following in our footsteps.

Those dinner discussions, more often than not, began to center on our Jewish values and identity. Given the pluralistic world in which we lived, how were we going to bequeath what we felt was relevant and meaningful to our children? Were we giving mixed messages? Allen and I began to realize we simply were not up to the challenge. We had been sleepwalking our way down the path of assimilation, our kids were following in our footsteps, and we knew we had to make a change.

Our abysmal Jewish education had led us to this precipice; it was likely to be the cause of at least one of our daughters marrying a non-Jew, ending two millennia of Jewish lineage in a heartbeat. Therefore, we sought to give them the tools to understand what we intuited but could not communicate: that being Jewish is special and worth treasuring, and most importantly, why. The only alternative, as we saw it, was a commitment to their Jewish education.

We had four Jewish elementary schools in town, all with great credentials. But it soon became obvious that the Orthodox school was brimming with the warm and receptive role models we sought. Although we were not an observant family, we wanted teachers who were committed to the mitzvot they taught and an atmosphere where joy accompanied authentic practice.

The challenge in deciding to transfer the girls out of public school and into an Orthodox Jewish day school was just the beginning. Our family became exposed to a whole new world, except that it was quite Old World and filled with strange kapparot.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the pages of the local Jewish newspaper one September day to a picture of my second grade daughter, just a few days into our Jewish day school experience, standing next to her white bearded principal who was enthusiastically twirling a live chicken over her head. And the ensuing phone calls from our relatives and friends who also saw the photo..."How can you allow your daughter to take part in such an inhumane, superstitious ritual?" "Who are these people?" "Have you lost your mind?" Then there were the ones who wanted to know what this was all about. "They still do this? I remember going for kapparot with my grandfather." "Does the chicken get your sins?"

While I could not yet answer the first set of questions, I set out to investigate to the second.

Kapparot, which is traditionally done before Yom Kippur, means atonement. A Hebrew word for rooster is gever which is similar to gevura, meaning strength. The purpose of this ceremony is to conjure within us, a sense of remorse for our sins and mistakes and to spur us to repent. Ideally, we face the truth about ourselves, feel humbled before God, and become inspired to restrain ourselves from future transgression with all our strength.

According to Jewish thought, God continuously sustains our existence; all of life is dependent upon His unceasing creative involvement. When we violate God's will, we actually distance ourselves from our Source of life. On what merit can we then expect God to give us renewed existence? If God was to judge us with His unadulterated gevura (strength), rather than tempering His judgment with mercy, then we, like the hapless chicken could also be faced with death. Only because of His kindness do we continue to live another year.

Ideally, this ritual is performed in the morning soon after dawn breaks and the rooster crows. Kapparot is supposed to wake us up. No, the bird does not absorb our sins. We have to take responsibility for them and commit to improving ourselves. Kapparot challenges us to face the difficult task of identifying our shortcomings and bringing them into the light. It challenges us to discover our essence. And it challenges us to return to our authentic selves.

Most remained loving and supportive and I understood the negative reactions were from a place of fear.

Enrolling our daughters in an Orthodox school began our journey back to authentic observance. It was also an awakening for our family and friends. Some distanced themselves, convinced that we -- in spite of our attempts to remain close -- had done the distancing. Most remained loving and supportive and I understood the negative reactions were from a place of fear. Fear that their comfort level would be threatened by our growing knowledge; fear that we would change and judge.

Within the very reason for the strain in these relationships we found the guidance and advice that helped to heal and strengthen many of these bonds. Our daughters' teachers and principal truly loved our family and wanted to help us at our level of understanding and desire to grow. They counseled us, taught us, arranged for tutors, and encouraged observant families to invite our kids for Shabbat. They even allowed their children to come to our home for playdates. In their kindness, acceptance, strength of commitment to traditional Judaism and love for every Jew, they modeled the very attributes that eventually served to heal and replace fear with trust.

The role models in our new school, like lessons of kapparot, challenged us to acknowledge our responsibility to show love to our friends and family, to understand the sacred heritage gifted to us, as well as to safeguard our daughters and the generations of Jews that we hope will descend from them.

Ten years later, the scene of my little girl and the chicken twirling ceremony is still vivid; it opened the door for our family to an encounter with Judaism alive with challenge and opportunity. Within this discovery, I found the answers to the first set of questions and many more, and I feel grateful for the awesome experience of God's abundant mercy and to be so powerfully inspired to change.

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