Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Family Dinner: Throwback Thursday

This post was originally published at The Chicago Moms almost four years ago to the day.

The family dinner is both a uniter and a protector. Sitting down to shared meal not only provides an opportunity for family members to talk about their day, it creates a point of connection and support after a busy or stressful day. Family dinners impact children.  Recently, yet another study indicated that the the benefits of the shared meal stretch far beyond the kitchen table, helping keep kids off of drugs.

So why aren't more families gathering around the table to eat and (hopefully) share a few laughs?

I wondered this myself when my boys were younger. For most of our married life my husband has held jobs that get him home at a decent hour with plenty of time for family meal. We always ate together.

But that changed when my boys entered elementary school and started sports. First it was a dinnertime soccer practice for one that made us miss a meal, then it was soccer for both. At one point we added baseball and karate practices, both of which have since fallen by the wayside.

But here I am with boys 10 and 12, at ages where staying connected is increasingly important and challenging and I can barely coordinate the logistics of a family meal.

Mondays my younger son has a theater class from 4:45 – 5:45, AKA dinner time.

Tuesday are good for now, but our week falls apart on Wednesday, when both boys have an after-school practice (Science Olympiad, rather than sports this time). In addition, next week my older son begins bar mitzvah tutoring after dinner. Assuming we have a mild winter and the roads are clear, we’ll have about 30 minutes for family dinner.

Thursdays the boys come home from school and grab a quick snack before they are whisked off at 4:00 to Hebrew School. By the time they return around 6:30, they usually eat a rushed dinner before diving into (or whining about) homework.

Fridays used to be the most important family dinner of the week until soccer took over back in 2007. In 2010, it’s especially dicey as both boys have an after school practice (Science Olympiad again). I get the boys home around 4:45 and then my older son has an in-home piano lesson from 5:00 – 5:30. As soon as that’s done, we’re off to the soccer fields for my younger guy until it’s too dark to see the ball.

By the time we make it home around 7:00, we’re ready to call it a week. At least I am.

When my boys were younger, family dinners just happened. Now all this running around means I need to be more mindful in my approach to a dinner (and maybe break out the crock pot). It’s going to take a bit of planning and maybe a few convenience foods to get us through this school year, but the good times and shared experiences will make it all worthwhile. Right?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How We Talk about Israel

Jewish Dialogue about Israel
Yeah, I doodled. Don't judge.
Around the time of Brant Rosen' resignation, I read several articles about rabbis who are allegedly unable to criticize Israel for fear of alienating or angering their congregants. I have no doubt this is true in some congregations, but this can't be true everywhere. It certainly isn't true in mine despite what played out in the media. But still, it's been a while since we've had a large-scale community conversation about Israel.

Roughly 100 members of our synagogue recently gathered to discuss Israel. Thanks to JRC's Israel Program Committee with assistance from the Jewish Dialogue Group (JDG), it was a calm and reasonable affair.

I want to share more about the event because I think it's a great model for other congregations. That said, I am aware that in within the confines of some Jewish organizations any criticism of Israel is considered heresy. This, in my opinion, is unfortunate. Just as we Americans criticize our government when it falls short, we can be critical of the Israeli government.

Of course, that's one of the questions that came out of an evening filled with many more questions than answers. What role can Americans take in Israeli politics? To what degree is it our place to do so? And yet, can we ethically turn a blind eye to some of what is happening over there regarding things like human rights violations?

Back to the program, JDG, whose acronym ironically looks a lot like "judge" is all about listening and not judging, especially in the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations. They seek to get Jews talking across political lines to build relationships, clarify concerns, and hash out feelings, though the program wasn't as touchy-feely as it may sound. JDG mainly works in synagogues and college campuses in the US and Canada, but their work also takes them across the pond.

Basic ground rules for the evening included a reminder to keep the event focused on Israel and not about our rabbi's recent resignation, which, for many, is tied in to the topic because he influenced people's feelings about Israel.

We were asked to think about our relationship to Israel, our stories about Israel and the values expressed in or behind such stories.

We were reminded the evening was not about right or wrong or coming to consensus, but simply listening to one another with the stated goal being to understand others and deepen our own thinking. As Stephen Covey would say, "Seek to understand before you seek to be understood." It's not always comfortable to withhold judgement and listen, but that was our charge.

By the way, I feel comfortable writing this post because the stated confidentiality rules noted that it's okay to share our experiences from the dialogue as long as we don't identify specific individuals.

Before we broke into small discussion groups (a necessity given the large crowd), three congregants shared their stories of Israel. Each speaker spoke of an evolution in their feelings about Israel leading, often, from a deep sense of pride in, love of, or admiration for the Jewish state to a sense of concern or discomfort with the current state of the state's affairs.

For one speaker this meant a lot of questions without answers. For another, it led to involvement in the boycott and divestment movement based on the idea that until Israel is in pain, it won't make the changes needed to end the current political situation. (P.S. I plan to buy gifts form Israel for Hanuka this year. Soda Stream, anybody?)

Overall, it was an encouraging evening, but even at 2+ hours, it felt too brief.

Here are a few of my take-aways:
  • I'm proud that my congregation held this an event and that it was so well attended
  • This was an overdue dialogue (though worth noting that it was being organized prior to the rabbi's resignation)
  • Many of us have a special relationship with Israel, but are struggling with the political realities and what they mean for the country's future
  • Our community is strong despite unpleasant fallout from Brant's surprise resignation
I heard a comment at the dialogue that I've heard a few times in recent weeks, "Brant did the thinking/acting for me." Whether the issue was Israeli-Palestinian conflict, immigrant rights, or labor issues (I think those were his Big 3), Brant took the lead and congregants could follow along if they chose. Now many people seem to be feeling more accountable for educating and acting on the social or political issues that matter most to them.

The Israel Program Committee is hard at work on another program for next month. It's not a continuation of this one, but it's certainly related. One of the ground rules of the JDG event was not too assume that the dialogue would continue or that a given participant would choose to continue it. I'd like to see it continue, though.

I want to thank the committee for a job well-done. I also want to thank the 14 or so small group facilitators who, in their commitment to serving as neutral sounding boards, willingly passed on their chances to share their own thoughts and feelings that evening.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cipora Katz: May Her Memory Be for a Blessing

Cipora Katz, Holocaust survivor
Cipora Katz, Holocaust Surivor
In a progressive religious environment, it can be a challenge to get kids to continue their education after they become bar or bat mitzvah. One way our synagogue meets that challenge is to offer the post b'nai mitzvah kids an exciting and unusual curriculum, The Jewish Lens.

I don't know if we use that exact curriculum or one inspired by it, but I do know the program is a hit. And thanks to the leadership of Liz and Rich, it's a dynamic program that changes from year to year. Each new class of students picks a theme for the end-of-year gallery display. My older son's class did "10 Modern Plagues" my younger son's class did something entirely different.


Heavy, huh? They had, of course, learned about the Holocaust and knew something of the Rwandan genocide, they also learned about the Cambodian genocide that started in 1975 and was immortalized in the movie, The Killing Fields.

They decided their final exhibit would be a portrait gallery featuring survivors of genocide. They would pay tribute to those people by listening to and sharing their stories, along with photos.

The class took a field trip to the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial. It's a very small museum on Chicago's north side that is worth a visit. They don't seem to have a website, but you can learn more in this piece from Chicago Public Radio. Some of the students did their interview and photo sessions on site after meeting a handful of survivors.

My son was hoping to meet with a Holocaust survivor, but the one woman who came to mind was too ill to talk with him and then fortuitously, I found myself seated across from a man at a random community event who promised to introduce me to Cipora Katz.

Cipora Katz Holocaust survivor

A few phone calls later and my son and I were off to meet her for an interview. Cipora was a tiny woman, even I felt tall next to her, but her presence was grand.

In my son's words, "She was a really nice person who had gone through a lot in life and was still strong. I think she wanted to spread her story to help stop anything like the Holocaust from happening again,"

She shared her story of survival. Her family had avoided the camps, but spent years, I think from when she was 4 until she was 7, living in a potato cellar with a handful of relatives. She was the only one who could stand up in the space.

When they first fled her village, her mother stayed behind waiting for Cipora's older sister to return home from a playdate. The pair was never heard from again.

Can you imagine?

Cipora talked about not understanding the war and wondering what horrible thing she could have done as a child that people hated her and her family so much that they had to live underground for years.

She showed us a mint tin loaded with sugar cubes like the one her uncle had packed for each member of their party when they ran from home. She told us how they eventually found shelter and what she could recall from those cold dark years (including the death of her father) in that same small, dark, dank space.

Cipora made it to Israel after the war and eventually came to the United States in her late teens. She received a nursing degree, married, and had a family of her own as well as a successful career.

It was not until she had reached midlife, that she began speaking up about her past. Her daughter encouraged her and, like my son, I think Cipora ultimately felt a responsibility to educate others.

She traveled around the Midwest sharing her story at schools, libraries and houses of worship. She was so full of energy at the gallery opening in May, I was shocked to learn of her passing.

May her memory be for a blessing.