Yousef Bashir’s Journey To Peace

 

Yousef Bashir was 11 years old when the Second Intifada began in 2000 and the Israel Defense Forces took over his family home and farm in Gaza. The land had been in the family for over 300 years. Bashir’s father, Khalil, refused to move. For the next five years, up to a hundred soldiers occupied the second and third floors of the house at any given moment. “They smashed holes through the upstairs walls to set up gun positions,” Bashir writes in “The Words of My Father.” “They covered all the windows with camouflage netting and installed automatic machine guns at each corner of the roof.”

The Bashir family, which included his parents, seven siblings and grandmother, were confined to the living room at night. They needed to receive permission to enter their kitchen to cook or to use the bathroom at night. They were only allowed to leave the house during the day for school or work.

Throughout their ordeal, Khalil remained cordial to the military and steadfast in his belief for peace. Despite the daily humiliations, he called the soldiers his guests and invited them to have coffee with him. The invitation was rebuffed over and over, but Khalil never stopped asking. He was grace under pressure when the soldiers made him undress to ensure that he wasn’t bringing weapons into his home. All of this duress attracted international media attention. The BBC and CNN regularly reported from the family’s home, highlighting Khalil’s unwavering commitment to peace.

Yousef was alternately terrified and angry throughout those years. The culmination of that fear and anger happened in 2004, when he came home from school and found three United Nations officials visiting his father. From their guard tower next to the house, the Israelis ordered the U.N. officials to leave. As Yousef and Khalil accompanied them to their car, a single shot rang out. An Israeli soldier had shot Yousef in the back with an M-16 automatic rifle.

Through his father’s connections, Yousef was admitted to Tel HaShomer Hospital in Tel Aviv. It was the first time the boy had positive interactions with Israelis. Despite his rage toward Israeli soldiers—military officials visited him in the hospital to apologize but Yousef refused to acknowledge them at the time—he grew close to the other Israeli and Palestinian patients. The Israeli nurses were kind; the doctors were caring. Yousef found himself appreciating his father’s hopes and dreams for peace. In subsequent months, Yousef endured many surgeries and painful therapies.

In the second half of the book, Yousef rallies and goes to Seeds of Peace camp with Israeli kids in Maine. It’s his first time in America and his first time speaking publicly about his experiences in Gaza. Yousef eventually wins a scholarship from a boarding school in Utah and begins his rocky journey toward peace. He ultimately graduates with a master’s degree from Brandeis University.

Bashir recently spoke to me about his late father, Khalil, his new memoir and his hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

How can a Zionist like me reconcile the behavior of Israel’s soldiers, who held you and your family as virtual prisoners in your house, with the Israel I know and love?

I’ve never been asked that question before, and I appreciate you asking me. Is Zionism about taking over a house and shooting a 15-year-old? The obvious answer to you is no. I want to find a way to reconcile what Zionism stands for and how it became a movement where we all work and come together. Zionism was never about someone taking over a house. That’s the best advice or answer I can give you. Having said that, no one brainwashed me against the army. I saw it in my own living room, and yet my dad kept reminding me that Jews are good. He said I had to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. The Jewish faith seeks peace, and to live in harmony. Jews feel they are God’s chosen people and have an even higher form of responsibility to do the right thing. The Jewish people have been suffering for all of their history. I hope you never change your views of Zionism, but I hope you also take the initiative to see what Zionism is about and should be about in today’s world.

After an Israeli soldier shot you in the back, you were eventually transported to a hospital in Tel Aviv. You write extensively about the relationships you formed there. How do those relationships continue to nurture your desire for peace?

First of all, my dad explained what the soldiers were doing in my house. Then all of a sudden I’m in Israel surrounded by different Israelis. Until then, I thought Israelis were only capable of pointing a gun at my dad. Suddenly they are lifting me up and teaching me how to walk and swim again. That was very transformative for me. To this day, with every step I take, I am reminded of the Tel HaShomer Hospital. Yet nothing has changed. I could argue that things are worse for my people. For example, Israel never stopped building more settlements. But I look at this from the standpoint of faith. If I didn’t, I couldn’t write this book and share it with Jewish audiences across the United States.

How do your father’s wisdom and commitment to peace continue to inspire you?

I would need to write 10 more books to explain my dad. In the end, I only spent five memorable years with my father. Starting in 2005, I truly came to see my dad through many lenses in a short period of time before he died in 2010. Those five years are all I have of him. But I saw him as a husband, a father and a headmaster. I saw him dealing with the soldiers in our house. Despite my questioning him about his strategy, he got our house back. It was the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed. He never used the rhetoric of revenge. He stood his ground and was true to his message. In the end, after the last soldiers had left, my father went upstairs and said, “I told you we’d get the house back.” That was when I was fully convinced my father’s ideas weren’t just romantic; they truly worked.

At the end of the book, you write a letter to the soldier who shot you. How were you able to forgive him?

I forgave him for my father. When I was paralyzed in a wheelchair, my father told me to think of my situation as an opportunity. My mother said a new door had opened for me. At the time, the things my parents told me didn’t register with the kid stuck in a wheelchair. Fifteen years later, I walked, I wrote a book and I went to college in the United States. I got everything I dreamed of because of what my parents said to me on that day.

The letter makes two important points: That I stay committed to my dad’s message and that I stay true to what could be possible for me in the future. I didn’t want to use my pain. To my dad, doing that would be the ultimate defeat. The painful actions of others should not define what kind of human beings we’ll be in life. We are peaceful people, and the soldiers were wrong. They didn’t need to do 90 percent of what they did in the house. I was not going to let their actions determine my future. Plus, my dad didn’t want me to add another layer to the cycle of rhetoric and violence that has been happening in Israel for years.

I still have nerve damage in my back, and I get frustrated and mentally tired at times because of that experience. The pain is still there no matter what I do, but I’m always thinking of my father. I would let him down, especially after everything he did for my family, my people and me.

Building on your work with Seeds of Peace, what is your vision for the future?

The first time I spoke about my experiences publicly was at the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine. And I’ve been speaking out ever since. I am currently a Seeds of Peace Fellow. Like the camp, the fellowship brings together people including Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and Pakistanis. Some of these people have become authors. Some have opened a school in Bosnia that brings together Israelis and Palestinians. Some work on hunger issues. All of them have a vision of promoting human connection.

What are you doing now?

I’ve been on a book tour since February and presented at the Jewish Book Council. The PLO office where I worked as a congressional affairs advisor shut down in December. My work had consisted of promoting Palestinian interests and engaging congressional staffers. I think we Palestinians deserve better and more representation in Congress and across the country. I have been in the United States long enough to see that many Jewish Americans are not against Palestinians. It’s time for Palestinians and Congress to have more conversations that lead to policies based on an understanding of what’s happening on the ground. Although it’s not the right time now with the current administration, when we are upset with each other is when we need representation. The PLO office in Washington, D.C., should be reopened.

I also like to think I am spreading my dad’s message. The world has been generous to me despite some of the unjustified things that happened to me. I want to make this time count not only for my fellow Palestinians but for my fellow Israelis, some of whom are convinced they don’t need to live in peace with me. I want them to understand that a life of war doesn’t have to be our destiny.

A version of this interview was published on JewishBoston.com

Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Kids by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo love to tell the story of how they founded their website, everyoneisgay.com. “The short answer is that it began as a joke,” says Owens-Reid, 29. In 2010, Owens-Reid, an actor and comedian, had started a comic website called Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. “I was getting a lot of flak about stereotyping lesbians, and I felt that was unfair.” She mentioned her dilemma to an acquaintance, Russo, 33, who also has a theater background but at the time was studying for a master’s in gender studies. In response, the two women decided to launch a website that addressed Owens-Reid’s negative feedback while also fielding advice questions from the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning community. That idea evolved into everyoneisgay.com, their website and organization aimed at helping LGBTQ youth. To support their cause the women tour schools, give advice weekly from their Tumblr account, and offer support to families through a companion site, theparentsproject.com. They estimate that over the past four years they have answered more than 50,000 questions, ranging from what happens when “I fall in love with my best friend” to coming out to religious family members. Owens-Reid and Russo’s most recent project is “This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question & Answer Guide to Everyday Life.’’

Q. What are your coming out stories and how have they influenced your work?

RUSSO: I was home on Thanksgiving break from college in 1998 and was working through feelings I had for a woman from high school. Yet I was unsure about identifying as gay or homosexual. My parents had been asking me since I was 13 if I was gay. When they asked me again at the Thanksgiving table that year, I unexpectedly came out. My parents shaped the moment for me. They told me that they loved me. But my dad worried about discrimination, and I struggled with my mom who was raised a very religious Roman Catholic. She was taught that being gay was a sin, and anyone who acted on those feelings would go to hell. Because she loves me with every bone in her body, she couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t join her in heaven. Luckily, my mother never stopped challenging herself and revisiting those feelings.

OWENS-REID: I’m from South Carolina and was raised in a very proper Southern way. But when a girl kissed me in college, I came out almost immediately after that. My dad has always put my happiness before anything. Nothing fazed him about my sexuality. All he wanted to do was help and that was very comforting. My mother has had a few struggles. It wasn’t an easy road for the two of us. She would say things like, “You’re so pretty. Don’t you want to get married?’’

Q. Can you talk a little about how the coming-out process works its way through families?

RUSSO: “There’s so much benefit in allowing parents to go through their own [coming-out] process. A woman came up to us the other day on our book tour and told us that “you saved my relationship with my daughter. She reads your work and you told her that I need to come out as well.’’ It’s giving permission to everyone involved to assess the moment.

OWENS-REID: One of the most meaningful things that we write in the book is for kids to think about the process of the person they come out to. Your mother or father has to tell family members, the people they work with. It’s also important for parents and kids to understand that the first reaction to a kid coming out will not always be perfect. People have to work through the news and not talking about it is one of the worst things you can do.

Q. Should parents refrain from directly asking their child if he or she is gay?

RUSSO: My mother asked me about my sexuality when I was 13, and the question confused me. I wasn’t aware of my identity yet, and I thought that she was asking me because people perceived me as gay. Also, if a kid is not ready to tell a parent he can panic and say he’s not gay. In addition to tackling the coming-out moment, he feels as if he’s lied to his parents. Even in a particular situation where your child is leaving hints, it’s not the best idea to ask. Instead, make a welcoming environment in which you love and accept all people regardless of their identity.

OWENS-REID: A cool thing you can do as a parent to make it easier for your kid to come out is to ask if she is interested in someone at school. Give your child gender-free triggers.

Q. In the book you condemn the words “choice’’ and “fault’’ when discussing sexual identity. Why do those particular words concern you?

RUSSO: I find conversations troubling when parents say that “homosexuality wasn’t my kid’s choice.’’ It implies that if you could choose you wouldn’t be the person that you are. Sexual identity is not a choice, and I don’t feel that I was born with a particular sexual identity.

OWENS-REID: Fault and choice are terrible words. Nothing in particular makes your kids gay. A television show or a piece of clothing does not influence sexuality. It doesn’t make any sense. When people assign fault or blame they imply that there is something wrong, that there is a negative air about gayness.

Q. Do you think parents of LGBTQ children feel they have more to worry about than those whose children are not?

RUSSO: Parents of gay children may struggle a little more because they don’t have a clear picture of what LGBTQ lives look like. The best thing that parents can do is gather information and figure out what throws their picture of the future into disarray.

OWENS-REID: Parents worry. It’s in the job description, and they would also worry about their heterosexual child finding a good partner. Talk to your children. We have learned so much from the LGBTQ young people we meet. They know things and want to talk about them.

Interview originally published in the November 18, 2014 edition of the Boston Globe

A Father’s Pain: Andrew Solomon’s Interview with Peter Lanza by Judy Bolton-Fasman

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-yearold Adam Lanza entered an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and gunned down 20 children and six school workers. He had also committed matricide before he turned the gun on himself.

Although 28 people died that day in Connecticut, 26 is the symbolic number etched on every memorial commemorating the tragedy. It’s the number of times church bells tolled in its aftermath. It’s the number of stars affixed to the roof of the local firehouse. And it’s the number that President Barack Obama invoked on the first anniversary of the shootings.

After reading Andrew Solomon’s powerful interview with Peter Lanza – Adam’s father – in a recent issue of The New Yorker, there is no question in my mind that Lanza commemorates the number of victims at 26. “You can’t mourn for the little boy [Adam] once was. You can’t fool yourself,” he told Solomon.

It’s fitting that Lanza broke his media silence with Solomon who, among his many journalistic and literary accomplishments, has championed the joys and difficulties of parenthood. Last year I wrote about Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree” for this column. The book was an 11-year undertaking in which Solomon vividly portrayed children who were born or grew up in ways that their parents never expected. It included a chapter about parents whose children became criminals, focusing on the parents of Dylan Klebold. Klebold, along with his friend Eric Harris, killed 13 fellow students at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.

Solomon’s portrayal of the Klebolds impressed Peter Lanza as fair and just, and when he was ready to talk, he reached out to Solomon. Lanza’s confidence in Solomon is well placed. Although the latter’s carefully reported piece directs a reader’s attention to the fact that things were amiss with Adam Lanza from an early age, he resists the temptation to regard Adam’s deterioration as foreshadowing the horror to come. Solomon further notes that the state’s attorney report found that the mental health professionals who treated Adam throughout his teen years did not predict his future criminal behavior. What strikes me in reading Solomon’s article is how hard Peter and Nancy Lanza tried to save their son, and how dangerous parenthood becomes when a child is as far gone as Adam was.

Adam’s anti-social behavior escalated in middle school and he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when he was 13. To be clear, Peter Lanza vehemently objects to any speculation that Asperger’s factored into Adam committing mass murder. “Asperger’s,” he told Solomon, “makes people unusual, but it doesn’t make them like this.”

Solomon similarly goes to great lengths to document that Asperger’s was not connected to Adam’s murderous rampage. “Violence by autistic people,” he explains, “is more commonly reactive than planned – triggered, for example, by an invasion of personal space. Studies of people with autism who have committed crimes suggest that at least half also suffer from an additional condition – from psychosis, in about 25 percent of cases.”

Among the other rumors swirling around the Lanzas was that Peter was an absent father. Nancy and Peter Lanza separated in 2003, when Adam was 9, and divorced in 2009. According to Solomon, the Lanzas were amicable when it came to Adam and his older brother. Peter saw his sons every weekend and, as four binders of printouts of emails from 2007 and 2008 suggest, was in constant contact with Nancy about Adam’s worsening condition.

Media reports noted that Nancy and Adam regularly went to the shooting range. Peter Lanza doesn’t overtly comment on the role that Nancy’s guns played in Adam’s psyche. Nor does he blame her, the custodial parent on the front lines, for Adam’s crimes. In that same forgiving spirit, Solomon observes that Adam overwhelmed Nancy and that her instinct was to indulge him.

“All parenting,” Solomon writes, “involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s errors seem to have been that she always focused on the day in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son.”

In the wake of the shootings, Peter Lanza has met with two of the victims’ families. But as Solomon reports, “The only reason that Peter was talking to anyone, including me, was to share information that might help other families or prevent another such event.” For his part, Peter says, “I want people to be afraid that this could happen to them.’”

No matter how vigorously Peter Lanza has looked for answers, there is only one chilling conclusion that he comes to: he wishes that his son had never been born. For the rest of us, we’re left wondering what we as parents would do if we were confronted with a child like Adam Lanza. There is no definitive explanation for what Adam did even as scientists analyze his DNA – just a haunting feeling that a parent’s responsibility can be both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

 

The New SAT by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Adam saw the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks ago, he groaned, “Too late for me.” The headline that upset him, “The Story of the SAT Overhaul,” announced that a new version of the SAT was coming out in the spring of 2016.

Adam had just come off of taking the nearly four-hour exam the day before and he was not a happy camper. Ask Adam what he thinks of the SAT and he’ll happily give you an earful on the subject. “The SAT is quite possibly the worst way to gauge a student’s ability to perform at a college level,” he says. “The vocabulary is unnecessarily obscure, the reading analysis asks the most random questions, the writing section indoctrinates students to lose all sense of creativity and style and the essay is judging a student’s ability to write in a time limit not suitable for a well constructed paragraph.”

SAT
Of course, that’s one kid’s opinion, but I suspect many of his peers share it as well. It appears that the College Board has been listening too. For the second time in ten years the Board is thoroughly revising the way it tests college applicants. According to David Coleman, who took over as head of the College Board in 2012, the changes will go far in democratizing the test for all students.

In effect, Coleman is acknowledging the SAT’s dirty, open secret – families with access to wealth, education, a good school or all three have an unfair advantage when preparing for the test. The new SAT will be more aligned with what a college-bound senior should have learned in a common core curriculum. Before coming to the College Board, Coleman was a key figure in the development of the Common Core Standards. Those standards, with their emphasis on analytical thinking as well as key math and writing concepts, will be reflected in the new SAT. As it stands now, Coleman acknowledges the test is “disconnected” from the high school curriculum.

Some of Adam’s criticisms have been dealt with in the test that will be administered in 2016. The section that is currently labeled critical reading will merge with multiple choice writing questions from to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Thankfully, current questions known as “sentence completion” will be jettisoned, addressing Adam’s complaint about defining “unnecessarily obscure” vocabulary.

The College Board will include more science, history and social studies questions for further analysis on the exam. New among those passages will be source documents from American luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The math section will focus more on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics touching on more advanced mathematics. As it stands now, calculators are allowed throughout the math sections, but they will be barred from certain portions in the future to determine math fluency.

The mandatory essay, an innovation of the 2005 SAT, will be optional in the future. Students will now have 50 minutes to analyze evidence as well as an author’s argument. Currently, test-takers have only 25 minutes to answer a prompt that doesn’t require them to verify facts or worry about accuracy.

The change that I am most excited about in this whole SAT business is that it has the potential to level the playing field when it comes to test preparation. Gaming the SAT is a $4.5 billion-a-year industry that preys on parents and kids alike. To end this madness (and yes, my kids took prep courses, so I got caught up in the frenzy too), Coleman has partnered with Khan Academy, which offers free online tutorials on myriad subjects ranging from literature to calculus.The academy was founded in 2006 by Sal Khan, 36, who left his job as a successful hedge-fund manager with the goal of bringing a world-class education to anyone with an internet connection. With that same can-do, egalitarian spirit, Khan Academy will offer its trademark free videos on preparing for the new SAT.

The new SAT will also hopefully make books like the newly published, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier feel anachronistic. Stier is a suburban New York mom who decided that the only way to gain admission and win a scholarship to college for her B average son was to help him achieve a perfect 2400 on the current SAT. Thirty years earlier, Stier had done poorly on her own SAT exam, so in her quest to beef up her son’s academic profile she took the SAT as an adult – seven times in seven different test centers. She went to tutoring companies, engaged pricey private teachers and generally drove herself nuts. She didn’t achieve a perfect score – her verbal scores steadily improved but she never scored more than the mid-500s in math – but she learned a thing or two about the unfairness of the system along the way.

As for Adam, he says that SAT has too much power in teenagers’ lives. He’s doubtful whether a new version can come close to reigning in that power. He may be right. Yet after all is said and done, most college admissions officers note that grades, not SAT scores, are the best predictors of success in college.

One Stitch at a Time: Anne Lamott’s Homespun Theology by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Anne Lamott is one of my rabbis. I know Ms. Lamott is not Jewish, but over the years she has crafted a homespun theology that is kind and wise and downright sensible.

In her latest book, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair,” Lamott tells readers we live “stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching.”

Stitches
Hope, meaning and repair are in the details of life.When I was younger, I used to fixate on the big picture and get overwhelmed. Here is what I tell my children when they start to get anxious: Take life in 10-minute increments. It will give you the time to notice the fine, intricate parts that create a life.

Lamott’s book is also a response to the first anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. To that end, Lamott does not hesitate to tell her readers that life is grim, the world is a mess and, quoting the writer Barry Lopez, “[all] that is holding us together is stories and compassion.”

A number of years ago, I was at a school meeting in which the principal asked what we, as parents, hoped that our children would get out of Jewish day school. We went around the room and most parents said that they hoped their children would be happy and satisfied with their lives. I love the sentiment, but I don’t want my children to be happy and satisfied all the time. How will they help to repair the world if the never get fed up with the poverty, hunger, racism and all of the other maladies plaguing our world? I want my children to be compassionate, and then I want them to be even more compassionate. But coupled with that, I want them to be optimistic. In my mind, an optimist doesn’t close her eyes and wave away the bad and the ugly in an “everything is going to be all right” way. That feels empty to me. An optimist takes Lamott’s stitches and makes something of them. “You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next,” she writes. “Without stitches, you just have rags.” That’s the kind of belief in the power of good that I’m taking about.

And God bless Anne Lamott for bringing up the overly sensitive child. I want to say this as clearly as possible: There is no such thing as being overly sensitive. I know what I’m talking about. People call me overly sensitive all the time. The overly sensitive child is the fifth child in the Passover Seder. Nobody says it better than Lamott when she writes, “Almost everybody worth his or her salt was a mess and has been an overly sensitive child. Almost everyone had at one time or another been exposed to the world as flawed and human. And that it was good, for the development of character and empathy, for growth of the spirit.”

When Anna was little, she told me that she couldn’t stand it when people were angry with her. My guess is she felt misunderstood when a friend or a parent berated her. As the overly sensitive child grows up, she never quite gets over the events that made her sad in childhood.

And then there is the quandary of what you say to people when they ask you how you are. You don’t want to open a dam of feeling and possible sadness, so you say you’re fine even though your child may not be faring well in school or your elderly parent is having trouble remembering your name. Things are so perfunctory in our society. But like the great teacher and spiritual counselor that she is, Lamott’s good news on the subject is that “if you don’t seal up your heart with caulking compound, and instead stay permeable, people stay alive inside of you, and maybe outside of you too, forever.”

When I said the Kaddish for my father eleven years ago, I was determined to keep him alive in my heart by not missing a day of prayer. Sometimes I brought my kids to minyan in their pajamas. There was Adam shuffling around the chapel in his Scooby-Doo slippers. Anna sometimes participated in the service with her friend Jackie, whose mother was also mourning her father at the same time I was. We called them the “Ashrei” girls because they opened the evening service with the ubiquitous Psalm of David.They were overly sensitive children in training.

Like this startling world of ours,children don’t always grow up the way you expect them to. Love and beauty have infinite forms. Once again, I summon Anne Lamott to explain “that we are shadow and light. …We are raised to be bright and shiny, but there is meaning in the acceptance of our dusky and dappled side, and also in defiance.”

Being Both: Susan Katz Miller’s Interfaith Journey by Judy Bolton-Fasman

It has been more than a decade since my children entered Jewish day school. Our choice was the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston and I don’t regret a minute of their education there. But in the beginning Ken and I paused over the fine print of the application that asked us to confirm that our children had a Jewish mother or were converted in a mikveh—a ritual bath. A part of us felt that any child with a Jewish parent—mother or father—who sought out a Jewish education should have one. But we are also temple-going Conservative Jews who support matrilineal descent. It was a conundrum—one that after all these years I haven’t fully worked out.

I’ve had this discussion many times with my good friend Susan Katz Miller. Sue grew up Jewish with a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother. The Jewish community frequently misunderstood her patrilineality and often made her feel like an outsider. Although she had a bat mitzvah and attended Hebrew school, she steered clear of a Hillel in college that made her feel unwelcomed. She married her Episcopalian husband in an out-of-the box interfaith ceremony that was almost unheard of twenty-five years ago.

In her new book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, Sue chronicles her experiences as a Jewish interfaith child as well as the bold move to bring up her children with both Jewish and Christian traditions. She and her husband are part of an interfaith community called the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. Sister organizations exist in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Through IFFP, Sue and her husband have sent their children to Sunday School and celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays with their interfaith community.

1202_being-both

 

Over the last decade, I’ve watched Sue grow in her commitment to Judaism in ways that I did not always fully appreciate. And in the end what Sue and her family are doing may not be so bad for the Jews. After all, her children are religiously knowledgeable citizens of the world. Their Jewishness flows from just one Jewish grandparent, yet Judaism gets equal time at the Katz Miller household. As Sue writes in the introduction to her book:

 

“Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians or any other faith or denomination represented in marriage. The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all these possible outcomes as positive.”

 

 

I do too until my bias for rearing children in one religion comes into play. Like me, Sue and her community are invested in Judaism’s survival. She writes that, “Interfaith families who choose both [religions] for their children do feel concern for the survival of Judaism in the world. But many of us also feel that we are ‘making a Jewish choice’ by giving our children access to both cultures, rather than choosing nothing, choosing only Christianity, or choosing a third religion.” But for me it’s not only about demographics; it’s about raising literate Jews committed to Judaism alone. I see that commitment as the ultimate survival tactic.

 

As much support as there is for Jewish continuity at IFFP, there is also the Jesus factor to consider when it comes to embracing Judaism and Christianity. As a Jew who went to a Catholic high school, I’ve thought a lot about the role of Jesus in Jewish history and his place in my Jewish pantheon. Sue unambiguously declares that she sees Jesus as a teacher, not as a personal savior. She describes herself as “a Jew who celebrates interfaithness.” She also reports that her children’s formal religious curriculum presents Jesus as a Jew who lived 2000 years ago. The class explores Jewish history until the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ teachings are examined in a Jewish context and also presented as a critique of the Judaism of his time.

 

But it’s a sixth grade interfaith education syllabus in Chicago that forthrightly asks the question that is on my mind:

 

 

“How can we teach this material and not sound like the evangelical group Jews for Jesus? We answer these questions with a very Jewish approach focused on the importance of learning history, a foundation of any good Jewish education. As many of our sister and brother Catholics have discovered, understanding the Jewishness of Jesus is key to a much deeper understanding of his wisdom and ministry—an understanding that we have experienced through out marriages with Jewish partners.”

 

I appreciate the sensitivity to Judaism in Sue’s interfaith world. I’d go as far as to argue that she has a very Jewish approach to interfaith education and celebrations. Am I comfortable with everything she’s doing? Not always. It’s similar to the discomfort I felt when I read the fine print all those years ago on Schechter’s school application. But embracing two religions pushes my boundaries even further. And yet, I love that Sue’s kids claim their Judaism, patrilineal or otherwise. And I love that my friend has written an important, thought-provoking book for Jews and Christians, and interfaith families.

 

 

 

 

 

Sorting Through the Parent Backpack by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Anna was 11 years old, she asked if I would read “ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her. Not one to want to miss out, Adam asked if he could also listen to the story.

I was hesitant to read the book to my young children. How would I explain its apparent racism? Were they too young to understand the difference between cultural norms and malicious prejudice? Had I worked out the context in which “Huckleberry Finn” existed in my own heart and mind?

I plunged ahead and read the book to my children. As a result, we had deep conversations about the language of racism. We concluded that words hurt as much as punches. It turns out that “Huckleberry Finn” is on Adam’s English syllabus this year. I feel good that I prepared him for the tough issues the book brings to the foreground.

I told that story recently to ML Nichols, author of the very helpful book “ The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten through Grade 5: How to Support Your Child’s Education, End Homework Meltdowns, and Build Parent-Teacher Connections.” In addition to having that important conversation about difficult subjects, she confirmed what I have intuited all these years: that “reading with your kids even for 15 minutes a day makes a profound difference in a child’s education. Teachers know which families are reading to their children. And if your kids will let you, read to them through middle school.”

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Middle school? Isn’t that the time when kids are first testing out their independence? Nichols noted that in between those attempts at separation from parents, some middle schoolers secretly like to be read to: “ They won’t tell their friends but from a very young age, kids like the bonding, the rhythm the expression in your voice. All that makes reading a pleasurable experience. Reading with your kids is also a great way to help them build vocabulary.”

According to Nichols, the best way to support a child’s education is to model read for that child. “Reading is a pillar of the elementary school years,” she noted. “If a child doesn’t develop those core reading skills, he or she can struggle through the rest of school.” Nichols asserts that the best way to inspire a child to read is to model it for children: “ Whether you’re reading a book, a newspaper or a tablet – let your kids see you reading.”

Nichols’ wisdom on all things connected to elementary school education is hard-won. The idea for her book came about 12 years ago when her oldest child, now a senior in high school, was entering kindergarten. She looked around for a book that might guide her through her children’s early school years and came up empty. It was also a time when she had stopped working outside the home and got a bird’s-eye view of the elementary school classroom by volunteering.

“I learned a lot as a parent volunteer in schools and on district committees,” she noted. “But it wasn’t until I helped a parent write an email to a teacher that a light bulb went off for me that I could put everything I’d learned in a guide for parents on the elementary school years.”

To that end, Nichols emphasizes that establishing a good relationship with a child’s teacher is another cornerstone of his education. “I see our children’s elementary journey like a winding river,” she said. “ We’re on one side of the bank and on the other side is the teacher with whom we’re partners. Each of us does our part.” Nichols makes her metaphor concrete with basic suggestions: “Do your part,” she asserts. “Make sure your child has had breakfast and gets to school on time. Teachers notice those things. Don’t be the parent who gets in permission slips late. I’m also hearing of more and more teachers getting notes from parents that a child couldn’t do the homework because of a dance recital or lacrosse practice. Such conflicting expectations confuse kids in elementary school because they want to please both their parents and their teachers.”

I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about homework, which is ironic given how much of it my own children have done over the years. Nichols does not debate the value of homework for young children. Instead, she offers helpful suggestions for painlessly getting it done. Like everything suggested in the book, the key is organization and consistency. Establish a time and a place to do homework with your child. According to Nichols, “ That place should be a happy one. Make it a fun destination with colorful pencils, cool puzzles or creative glue sticks. Our role as parents is to coach and guide, not to do or correct homework, which provides valuable feedback for a teacher.”

Adam is a junior in high school. I’m grateful that I no longer supervise his homework, but I miss reading to him and his sister. Although Nichols focuses on younger children in her book, I can still write a thank-you note to his longtime academic advisor for helping my boy to self-advocate and step out of his comfort zone.

“Teachers,” says Nichols, “appreciate a genuine expression of thanks from parents or students more than anything.”