My Son's Different Path
When children choose to become religious, it doesn't have to cost family harmony.
I can still remember the feeling I had when my first child, a son, was born. He was planned for, wanted, gorgeous and healthy. I was transformed into another zone. I wrote a daily journal in his voice, dressed and redressed him up each day and repeated every wonderful thing he did to anyone who would listen. I felt that he was my greatest achievement ever. When people would ask "What do you want him to be when he grows up?", I would simply answer, "Happy."
I grew up in a secular household in the midst of the newest Jewish ghetto Toronto had to offer. Everyone I knew was Jewish, yet we never belonged to a synagogue. My brother was the only one who attended Hebrew school -- when he was 12 to learn his bar mitzvah portion by rote. It wasn't surprising then that my friends and family teased me when we signed our son up for Hebrew school at the age of four, which required a synagogue membership. The only synagogue in our city at that time was Reform, and we decided that it would be a good fit for our multi-cultural, inter-religious family. That was my first synagogue affiliation.
Since my husband and I had agreed prior to marrying on the importance of religious training and that the children would be Jewish, I became responsible for the religious education of our children. To do that, I needed the help of a community. As I accompanied my three and four year-olds to services on Friday nights, I felt that I was the only one in the room who knew nothing. I knew none of the songs, the prayers, the bible stories -- it was overwhelming. Never one to back away from a challenge, I made it my mission to attend every week with my kids, took every Torah study, Hebrew lesson, and discussion group available until slowly, over several years, I attained a position of comfort.
By then, with three little boys in tow, I started to take leadership roles in the running of the synagogue and felt a great sense of joy in having found a place that gladly accepted my odd mixture of a family; a place that embraced and taught and included us. I decided I would have a bat mitzvah to mark my 40th birthday and studied long and hard to prepare the Torah portion, haftorah and sermon. Afterwards, I decided to teach in the school to keep my skills honed. I taught beginner Hebrew to adults for many years and began to feel that I was quite learned.
His Jewish Education
Each one, in his own way, fell in love with the land.
I had always presented the after-confirmation trip to Israel to my sons as a given. One by one they graduated and made their trip, and each one, in his own way, fell in love with the land. Quickly, while I wasn't looking, the boys became young men and my first-born started his own personal spiritual exploration. His regular synagogue attendance and leadership roles in Reform youth group led me to believe he was a happy and fulfilled religious young man. However, as he became involved in the Jewish campus groups such as Jewish Student Association and Israel Committee, he found that things were done in a more observant manner in order to allow inclusiveness of all students. Slowly he began to question parts of his Jewish upbringing and gradually took on new practices.
He attended conferences in New York, Florida, California and Israel. Although he taught at the Reform synagogue in his school's city during his first year at university, by his second year my son was attending the Orthodox synagogue and establishing a very close relationship with the rabbi. He waited to wear a kippah until he felt he could be a model for people who would identify him as a Jew. He developed a love for Israel and through his involvement in all things Jewish, managed eight trips during his university years. I watched all of this happening, trying to be supportive but with a fear of rejection and complications in my heart.
Different Schools of Thought
Some couldn't help but tell me how it would divide our family.
As his observance increased, my friends seemed to feel quite entitled to comment on this terrible occurrence that had befallen my family and pointed out all the problems that would arise. Some were shocked; others, angry. Some found it ironic that my child should become "religious" and others couldn't help but tell me how it would divide our family and end all hopes of a peaceful home. I didn't know if I should panic, fight or applaud.
It was my Rebbitzen's mother, who knew my zaidy, who told me how proud Zaida would have been of my son's chosen path -- his courage and determination, and how proud I should be that I had given him the self-esteem and the unfailing knowledge that I would always stand beside him, with pride, wherever his path led him. So I stood aside and watched him blossom.
We did have challenges and we butted heads on many occasions -- words were misinterpreted and feelings were raw, but thank God, over a period of time, we worked through the issues, and my husband and I came to realize that our dream for our son was coming true. He was happy! He glowed. He wrote about the joy of his learning and we could not miss it. We began to share his writings and everyone saw the same thing; he was so happy! Our friends and family began to show some interest in what he was doing and expressed admiration in his strength of conviction. So when he finally announced his intention to make Israel his permanent home, to marry there, study and raise his family in a religious setting, I had to be happy for him. By that time, he was laying tefillin, wearing tzitzit and a kippah, keeping kosher, had legally changed his name to his Hebrew name, was keeping the Sabbath and, most indicative to me of his dedication, shomer negiah (not interacting physically with the opposite gender outside the construct of marriage).
I knew that how I reacted and presented to him could determine our future relationship. I looked at each problem my friends happily laid at my feet as a challenge, and quietly began to read and study and try to understand this life he had chosen and these people who would be an integral part of the rest of his life. I was also challenged by the distance and the basic differences in thinking. In North America we hoped for our children to do well in the world and that was measured by a secular ruler, in units of money. There, in Israel, his doing well is measured by his love of learning and serving God. There, he will work to live. Here, we live to work.
After his aliyah, he sent me information of a learning program in Israel for women my age called GEM. Having only been to Israel once before, the thought of returning, studying and visiting with my Israeli son and his brother (who by then had been accepted to work on the Northern Israel Recovery Program with Livnot U'Lehibanot), was very enticing to me.
Son number two had gone to Israel vowing that he was not religious like his brother and that he was not interested in being preached to. Yet somehow during his six month stay, he was studying with a rabbi, keeping the Sabbath, keeping kosher, wearing a kippah and tzitzit! I was very nervous. I envisioned myself starting all over knowing nothing, being on the outside, feeling "less than" again and the prospect left me filled with trepidation. I was determined not to conform to a dress and behavior code that I felt was disenfranchising to women. I jokingly promised all my friends that I would not return wearing a wig and reassured them that I was just going to hear what "they" had to say in order to better understand my sons' journeys.
I arrived in time for Shabbat with my eldest in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. We were the guests of his Rosh Yeshiva, head rabbi and another very wonderful family of friends for the three meals of Shabbat. I was given a room in the apartment of a young, North American couple, who had chosen to become observant like my son. All of my hosts warmly welcomed me and made me feel like an honored guest. This proved to be a recurring theme throughout my three week stay in Jerusalem.
The women were modern thinking and looking. The men stared into their partners' eyes with adoration while they blessed them for the work they did in preparing for the holiday and they helped to serve, change a baby, and make a last minute preparation. They seemed to love to refer to their partners as "my husband" or "my wife" and there was a palpable electricity between them; a deep understanding of their feelings and needs without the need to explain, cajole or whine. They had learned that they could ensure they would be taken care of, loved and respected by their family, if they made their priority taking care of, loving and respecting their family. It was so simple and yet so profound.
I kept looking for the terrible people everyone had warned me of... the ones with tunnel vision, a hidden agenda and a self-righteous attitude.
The GEM program itself was a most amazing, non-threatening, enlightening experience. The daily schedule was grueling. We studied for four hours most mornings with amazing teachers and world-known rabbis, had field trips, visited renowned yet humble rebbitzens, and did a bit of touring. We usually finished our activities and returned to the hotel by 11 p.m. Much of our time was spent in the Old City of Jerusalem and it felt very special and very holy. I was witnessing incredible things, having unique experiences and meeting Torah giants -- in their kitchens! -- experiences and people that I never would have had or met in my world, and, most impressive and important, they were relevant. It made me glad that I had stepped out of my comfort zone. My ideas were never dismissed nor was I ever spoken to with anything less than respect and interest. There was never a derogatory comment or inference.
I kept looking for the terrible people everyone had warned me of... the ones with tunnel vision, a hidden agenda and a self-righteous attitude, who would tear my child from my arms and never allow him to come home, but all I found (and I looked way under the surface) was a gracious group of individuals who were joyous and steadfast in their deep beliefs and ecstatic to share their joy and knowledge. I learned so much in the classrooms, at the sites, in the dining rooms, in the alleyways of the Old City and on the streets of Jerusalem.
But even more than the studies and sights, the chance to see the community from the inside: to see the peace and love in the homes of the families who welcomed me on Shabbat; the total trust and respect of the families who gave me the key to their apartment while they were gone and left notes everywhere saying, "help yourself"; and the kind words from the many, many families who have fed and housed my sons, worked with them and taught them for the pure joy of sharing their knowledge; all these things brought me complete peace of mind about the decision they had made. I realized their choice was not a rejection of me and my ways, but an adoption of their own course.
Integrated Reality 101
I realized their choice was not a rejection of me and my ways, but an adoption of their own course.
No, I didn't come back fully observant, but I find myself taking baby steps, like making a concentrated effort to not speak negatively on Shabbat (keeping the laws of lashon hara). I am moving forward. I have a deeply satisfying feeling that my sons are on a good path and will attain the peace and happiness in their lives that we had always hoped for them. I feel so proud of them for having the conviction to take a road less traveled and choose the life situation that is best for them. At the same time, I indulge myself a little in having given them the self-confidence and character to follow their paths away from mine.
I know that we will continue to have many more frank discussions over the years and will disagree on many matters, but with my new insight and their new peace, serenity and belief in the laws of Torah, we will work through each of the challenges presented to us. We know that the love we share is worth all the temporary heartache we may experience due to a lack of understanding, but that rejection, on either side, cannot be considered as an option. When a big challenge arises, I remind myself of that cute little blue bundle they handed me and my simple and naive answer to people who asked after my wishes for my child's future. I wanted him to be happy and he most certainly is.