It would be an understatement to say that I knew about Judaism as a child growing up in coastal North Carolina. My parents showed me God was there for sure, front and center. But we were not very religious. My mother was Presbyterian. My father was a recovering Roman Catholic. Judaism was not even a blip on the screen. The first time I met a “Jew” was in graduate school. He was so cute I married him!
I still knew nothing about Judaism. The things I had learned I could count on one hand.
1. That it was good. Richard introduced his faith to me through his eyes. I liked what I saw.
2. That it was important to this man I loved.
3. That he was not even going to take me to the movies unless I promised my children would be Jewish.
So I promised. We went to the movies. We got married.
The Rabbi’s and Ministers didn’t quite know what to do with us. I wasn’t converting for marriage (I had only promised my children, hello!!!) so what side of the fence were we on? Our wedding was officiated by a Justice of the Peace.
We had Noah, our first child. I had learned a few more things about Judaism by this point. 4. It had it’s flaws just like all religions because it was run by people.
5. It was more than a religion. It was a way of living.
6. It would probably take me a life time to learn about this. I was starting a little late in the game. I was just beginning to know what I didn’t know.
At this time in my life I learned something else. Something more important… Children are born with a light inside them. I am going to say something really politically/religiously incorrect right now so get ready…
I didn’t care what religion we were. There I said it. I would have been fine with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism. I just wanted to nurture that light inside my child that was love and God and goodness. I wanted my child to know God like I knew God. Front and center, always there, always loving you, period.
So we started. We joined a synagogue and went with Noah to services. We celebrated the Jewish holidays. Noah went to a religious private school. Ok, it was an Episcopal school but it was the closest thing Chattanooga TN had, work with me here. They honored everything Jewish we, in our limited knowledge, could bring to them. Noah learned about Christmas and Easter, and I came and taught his class about Hanukkah and Passover. Well, that was how we had hoped it would work. It was going pretty well until it was time for me to teach about Passover. Noah came to me and asked me not to come. “Mom, I don’t want you to come teach about Passover.” What? Why?
He was ashamed. He was the only Jew in the whole school. He didn’t want to be different.
I took a long walk by myself and cried. I could see the light dimming inside of him. How could I expect this child to embrace being the only one of his faith in the entire school and jump up and down with excitement? I had been naive. I told Richard we had to change our course. I could not bear seeing the light go out in my child. Hell, I would be Christian if that is what it would take! (another religiously incorrect statement, I am full of them actually. They keep telling me it is not like changing accessories. You have to BE one or the other. I keep telling them God is the one who just IS.
Well, to make a long story short. Richard was not about to switch to Christianity so we decided to move to Chicago instead. Yes, there is a connection. He said there was a Jewish day school there. Solomon Schechter Day School. We went to take a look. We took Noah with us. He was 5 years old.
This child was so shy and scared when we got to the school that he refused to get out of the car. After much persuading (and more prying) we got him out of the car and in the front door. Let’s just say it was a game changer. I literally saw the pilot light go on again. His little eyes were as round as saucers as he watched first graders talk to each other in Hebrew. He kept asking us if ALL the kids were Jewish. We cried as we said yes, they are ALL Jewish.
Fast forward to Noah’s third grade year. We had thrown our arms around this school and held on tight. We let the bright light in our child lead us down the path. We took our first trip to Israel as a family.
I found myself on a Kibbutz near the border of Jordan. I was alone with Noah and Micah (who was 4 at the time). We wanted to go for a walk but I was not sure which way was safe to go. The only person to ask was the guard at the gate. He spoke no English. I spoke no Hebrew. Hmm. I tried speaking English LOUDER. He tried speaking Hebrew LOUDER. I tried making up sign language. He just shook his head. I looked around in frustration. I could not build a bridge. My eyes fell on Noah. He was standing there in his patient way waiting for me to be the mom and figure out the plan. But I couldn’t. I asked him if he thought he could speak Hebrew to the guard and find out the directions we needed. He nodded. He stepped up to the guard and spoke with him (quietly sans hand gestures). They both nodded, he walked back to me (I swear a little taller) and translated the directions to me in English.
It was at THAT moment I realized something I will never forget. I realized that I had helped build a bridge for my child. A bridge I could not cross. I was stuck on the shore, but he was able to go across.
Noah is in Israel at this very moment. He is a senior in high school. He is part of a leadership program called Write On For Israel. He and 20 some other seniors from Chicago are meeting with top officials, diplomats, military officers, as well as, other teenagers just like them. They are trying to understand, first hand, what is going on in Israel so they can come back and help others understand. They heard many speak at the Presidential Conference on Tomorrow, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, and President Peres. They spent Shabbat with his girlfriend’s family. A large warm gathering of Israeli family and friends. He said they started out speaking English but naturally digressed to Hebrew. When we asked him did he feel out of place, he said “no, it felt like home”.
And so as I sit here writing this, I am reminded of that moment when I realized I was building a bridge for my children. I have been building a bridge that I, as of yet, cannot walk across. I do not yet feel comfortable in synagogue. I do not know Hebrew. I love Israel and all that it represents to me, but I am still a stranger there.
Yet, my children can walk across. The light inside them is burning brightly and leading the way. I am ok if I work at Judaism my whole life and am never able to cross that bridge. It is more important that they go across. They are the future. There is so much hope in building bridges for the future. Bridges that allow for more understanding of others. Bridges that help us see our similarities more than our differences. Bridges that break down barriers. There lies the possibility for peace. There is where God can be found. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, one child at a time.