A Father’s Day Prayer by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Amidah is so named because it is literally the standing prayer. As nineteen blessings unfurl during its recitation, one must stand perfectly still in the hope of connecting to G-d. I fondly remember the Amidah as my first sustained reading of Hebrew. I came to Hebrew later than my peers in Day School and so I read haltingly my first year there. The Amidah’s centrality and its inherent repetition—it’s said morning, noon and night—made it the perfect vehicle to ride towards fluency. The choreography of the Amidah appealed to me too—there are cues for bowing and for pounding the chest in repentance. In one variation or another the Amidah is the core of Jewish liturgy. And it begins by invoking the old guard at the outset:

Blessed are you Lord our G-d; G-d of our ancestors. G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob, G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebekah, G-d of Rachel and G-d of Leah.

What a group to take along on a search for G-d. Maybe the rabbis were on to something when they drew up this list (although the ancient mothers were originally omitted). These names form a canopy of memory over me much like the tent of Abraham and Sarah—the same tent that is the model on which the marriage canopy or huppah is based.

Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all sides—as exposed to the elements as it was to G-d’s will. On Father’s Day I will step into Abraham and Sarah’s metaphorical tent—buffeted by the winds of fate—fate that sometimes makes no sense to me. Or worse, makes me despair.

The Dads, the grandfathers in our family—the old guard—died in the early 2000s. This makes Father’s Day both sad and joyful as we memorialize them and celebrate their wonderful son and son-law. So here we are, Ken and I, one step closer to becoming the family elders—the old guard ourselves.

Dennis Fasman & granddaughter Anna

Dennis Fasman & granddaughter Anna

The traditional Jewish image that I think of when merging joy and sadness is a wedding. Hasidic folklore says that weddings are haunted because both the dead and the living dance together. The new fangled image for that maxim is the wedding video where there are so many of my dead who are alive on that tape (yes I got married in the era of VHS), dancing around Ken and me. It breaks my heart to watch it and so I haven’t in many years. But here is what I would see again: My father-in-law Dennis spiffy in his tux, his smile illuminating the tape brighter than the lights the videographer lugged around. Dennis, whom I called Dad too, died much too young of a brain tumor. In nine months he was gone and the world felt more precarious to me with his passing.

Our wedding video also features my father who was just beginning to decline from Parkinson’s disease. He and I shuffle down the aisle towards stairs leading to the huppah. It was only after viewing the video that I noticed Ken extended an arm to help my Dad up those steps. But that’s not the father that comes into my mind when I remember him. My dad had several incarnations. One of my favorite pictures of him is from the Second World War. He was a young ensign—twenty-two years-old and recruited into the navy as a Ninety-Day Wonder straight out of college. Ninety-Day Wonders were fast-tracked to become officers in just three months. That was my father—a wonder unto himself. A man who could learn anything quickly and completely.

Harold Bolton circa 1942

Harold Bolton circa 1942

Then there is the father who had all three of us children in his forties. Throughout my childhood I never noticed that my athletic, handsome father was so much older than my friends’ dads. He was the dad who took brisk walks to do errands a couple of miles away. He put his patriotism on display at every holiday that called for a flag by leading us around the house to the beat of a John Philip Sousa march. He mailed me birthday cards as sweet as the cereals he forbade me to eat.

When I had just crossed over into adulthood there was the Dad who wrote me letters. He penned his advice in neat primer-school ink, placing his missives in envelopes in which he used blue ink for his return address, green ink for me the addressee, and red ink for the return address again, this time on the flap of the envelope. And then there was my Dad in his old age, frightened and confused, after he was stopped for driving over the median. The police officer didn’t have the heart to write him a ticket. He called my mother instead to tell her that he had no choice but to revoke Dad’s license.

Somewhere between the Amidah’s blessings for understanding and salvation comes an invocation for health to “remove from us all suffering and grief.” I don’t expect that to happen especially when I think of my dads. After all, everyone is vulnerable in Abraham and Sarah’s tent. But I do pray that G-d sustains us in memory and love on Father’s Day and everyday.

 

 

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Reciting Kaddish, As a Daughter by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The night before my father’s funeral, I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square, the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its filo-thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world. That siddur was also thick with line after line of tiny Hebrew letters. I lay down on my bed and read through the Kaddish prayer for my father, something that was unheard of for a woman to do 50 years ago.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys club. No son, no Kaddish — unless you paid a man (yes, there is still such a thing) to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. Recently, there was a case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination at an ultra-Orthodox cemetery in Israel. A woman named Rosie Davidian was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Ms. Davidian took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. An invitation quickly followed, asking her to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and I had the honor of eulogizing him. The next day I was part of the overflow crowd — the common folk who didn’t pay for the pricier sanctuary tickets across the hall. One of the rabbis met my eye from the bima. She nodded in sympathy as I said the Kaddish in front of 800 people, so nakedly, so publicly for the first time.

Since leaving Jewish day school, I had wandered through the various branches of Judaism and settled on practicing Conservative Judaism. At the time of my father’s death, I decided to attend a daily Conservative minyan for 30 days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. As I wrote in my journal:

I’m both surprised and fulfilled that the daily recitation of the Kaddish has become part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter.

My year of Kaddish so deeply impressed me that, ever since, I’m always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with one daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. Before he died, he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish, which allowed his daughter to recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded “amen” to her prayer.

Despite patriarchal obstacles, the Kaddish has always belonged to women. Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend’s offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold’s mother died in 1916. Szold wrote in a letter that year:

The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community that his parents had, and that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation. You can do that for the generation of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family.

During the year after my father died, I visited Rome on vacation. It was there among the city’s more than 900 churches, I went searching for a synagogue. I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish. I went to Rome’s Great Synagogue where armed policemen surrounded the courtyard. A private security guard asked my husband, not me, what business he had there. I told the young guard, who was wearing a kippah, that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. “Americana,” he sighed.

Inside, the daily minyan was formal — like walking into a sepia photograph — with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. My husband and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish.

The woman next to me said, “Ladies don’t have to.”

I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said “amen” to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in a cemetery in Israel? And how dare anyone tell Jewish women in the name of God not to eulogize their dead or say the Mourner’s Kaddish.

This piece originally appeared in the Sisterhood Blog of the Forward as well as the paper’s print edition.

A New Year’s Resolution at the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman has a fervent wish—to see her younger sister Ashira celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Wailing Wall—the kotel. At just eighteen years-old, Hallel is one of the very public faces of Women of the Wall (WoW). For nearly a quarter of a century, the group has been advocating for women to pray as they see fit at the Wall—whether it be wearing tallitot—prayer shawls—or tefillin, or both. The founder of the group, Anat Hoffman, has consistently said that WoW’s goal is not to desegregate the Wall, but to make it a venue for all Jews.

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

In the coming new year Hallel, who lives in Jerusalem, has her work cut out for her. The Israeli government has approved a plan set forth by cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit that effectively exiles women to pray “according to their custom” only in the Robinson’s Arch area, a small 400 square-meter space near the southern end of the Wall. Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Haaretz, reports that the proposal departs from Natan Sharansky’s plan to set aside an egalitarian space at the Wall. It also snubs a court ruling, which effectively allows women to read Torah and wear tallitot and tefillin at the Wall

In the interest of full disclosure, I have loved Hallel since the moment I met her. Two years-old at the time, she was an adorable, mischievous tot with outsized glasses that matched her outsized personality. As passionate as I am about the issues attached to WoW, I am equally fascinated by how a young adult grows up to become an outspoken activist. I recently sat down with Hallel while she was visiting Newton. Upon her return to Jerusalem she will serve two years in the Israeli army. College is on the horizon as are opportunities she’ll seek out to help people in Africa.

As Hallel explains, “I’m from an activist family.” She and her family moved to Israel in 2006 from Newton where Hallel had attended the Jewish Community Day School. The family first settled on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert and then moved to Jerusalem three years later where Hallel just completed high school. Her interest in WoW was piqued.

 

 

When I heard that women were not allowed to pray their own way at Judaism’s holiest site, I decided to go and pray with WoW. That was in Adar—last March just before Purim. I fully understood what was happening to Jewish women at the Wall when I saw the violence and the cruelty fellow Jews did to one another. All of this was happening in a Jewish country because Jewish women wanted to wear a tallit.

 

 Hallel has clear role models for her activism. Her father Yosef Abramowitz is an advocate for global solar power through his company Energiya Global. Abramowitz’s own fight for social justice goes back to his days at Boston University when he urged the administration to divest its investments in companies doing business in South Africa. He was also a student leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the early ‘80s. Hallel’s mother is Rabbi Susan Silverman, who is an international advocate for adoption and has written a memoir about the spirituality of adoption. Rabbi Silverman is one of the faces of WoW, and she and Hallel were among the ten women arrested at the Wall for refusing to take off their tallitot.

 

The women were eventually released and Hallel got to work on brokering a solution for all women who worship at the Wall. “I knew I couldn’t see my nine year-old sister get spat on again. Nor could I allow another friend to get hit with a rock.” She took her fight to the Israeli Parliament and to the press. She wrote an open letter to Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik and a member of Israel’s cabinet, who was appointed by the prime minister to find a way for peaceful prayer at the Wall. “I am a stakeholder in your decision,” Hallel wrote to Sharansky. “In other words, I am a Jew. A Jew who prays with other women at the Kotel.”

Among Hallel’s solutions was to establish a tri-chitzah. Derived from the word mechitza or divider, Hallel suggested that,

 

 

It only seems fair to divide the Wall into three equal sections; men, mixed and women. And since there is no Jewish ritual for which men get arrested then clearly equality mandates that there should be no Jewish ritual that should land any woman in prison.

Although women have been granted the right to wear tallitot at the Wall, the future for a pluralistic Judaism there is dubious in light of the Mendelblit plan. Yet Hallel is optimistic. “We are a colorful circle among a sea of monochromatic black and white,” Hallel notes. “After the first month it was legal to wear our tallitot, two [ultra-Orthodox] seminary girls came up to me and said we really appreciate what you are doing. If I had a doubt in my mind, it was squashed. I need to keep fighting for these girls.”

 

 

 

Women and the Kaddish by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last month 15 narrow-minded, hard-hearted men tried to outlaw women saying the Kaddish at the Western Wall. There was so much blowback for these dubious caretakers of the kotel that they were forced to rescind their ban on women gathering to mourn their dead at Judaism’s holiest site. Additionally, last week Jerusalem’s district court ruled that it was wrong to arrest five women at the Wall last month for praying as they saw fit.

Maybe we’ve finally turned a corner and the Wall will truly be accessible to all Jews. But we still have work to do in the realm of Kaddish. I remember the night before my father’s funeral I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square—the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its pastry thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys’ club. No son, no Kaddish, unless you paid a man—yes there is still such a thing—to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. A couple of weeks ago Anat Hoffman, leader of the Women of the Wall, told an audience at Brandeis University about that latest case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination—this time at ultra-Orthodox cemeteries in Israel. A woman named Rosie was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Rosie took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. After her appearance, an invitation quickly followed to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

K. Harold Bolton

K. Harold Bolton

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashana in 2002 and I had the honor of eulogizing him. At the time, I also decided to attend a daily minyan for thirty days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. I wrote in my journal, “I’m both surprised and fulfilled that my daily recitation of the Kaddish has become a part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter.”

I’m always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with an only daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. After he died he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish. Given these circumstances, his daughter could recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded “amen” to her Kaddish.

Another father-daughter Kaddish story: Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and the founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend’s offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold’s mother died in 1916. Szold wrote, “The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community that his parents had, and that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation. You can do that for the generation of your family. I must do that for generations of my family.”

One of my father-daughter Kaddish stories: I was visiting Rome where there are more than 900 churches. But I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish during my 11 months of formal mourning and I went to the Great Synagogue there. Armed policemen surrounded the courtyard of the synagogue, and a security guard asked my husband—not me—what business he had there. I told the young guard—who was wearing a kippah—that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. “Americana,” he sighed. Inside, the daily minyan was formal—like walking into a sepia photograph—with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. Ken and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish. The woman next to me said, “Ladies don’t have to.” I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said “amen” to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish, that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in a cemetery in Israel? I suppose it’s the 15 men of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation who tried to hijack Judaism.

After the Bar Mitzvah, the Service Continues by Judy Bolton-Fasman

This is a story about a church, a temple and a young man dedicated to feeding the hungry. For over two decades Project Manna at the Massachusetts Avenue Baptist Church in Cambridge has fed thousands of people a year from its little kitchen. And for 24 years Temple Emanuel in Newton Centre has been moved by the mission of this small yet mighty church to produce the eponymous Project Manna, a concert to raise critically needed funds to keep the food kitchen open. “It is,” says Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, “a story about black-white, Christian-Jewish love, partnership and community building that has been going on for over two decades.”

MassAveThis year’s Project Manna concert on Wednesday, March 24, 2013 at Temple Emanuel, features Neshama Carlebach, daughter of the legendary Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and a star of Jewish music in her own right. Neshama and her band will celebrate the traditions of gospel and Jewish music with the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir. Rabbi Gardenswartz notes that, “Neshama’s music is deeply moving and a salve for some of the suffering seen throughout the world.”

Inspired to “repair the world” as well as by Temple Emanuel’s commitment to feeding the hungry Max Breslau, a recent Bar Mitzvah, decided to do more than attend the annual Project Manna concert. It began with Max’s older brother Mitchell who was required to do a community service project for his school in Needham. As Jane Breslau, the boys’ mother, points out there wasn’t much volunteer work for kids who were under sixteen. The Breslaus noticed that Temple Emanuel’s Brotherhood volunteered at the Mass Avenue Baptist Church’s soup kitchen and decided to commit to serving there for a year. A year soon stretched into two years and Max joined his brother and mother that second year as part of his Bar Mitzvah project.

Conventional wisdom holds that doing one thing three times becomes a habit. In the Breslaus’ case volunteering over time has become a passion. Monday evenings in the Breslau household belong to the Mass Avenue Baptist Church. Jane notes, “we take our commitment to the church and the guests at the soup kitchen as seriously as someone takes a sports commitment.” On a given Monday the Breslaus will be among the volunteers who serve upwards of seventy meals. They not only serve, but also help to prepare the supper. Jane notes that among the moving experiences at the kitchen are the prayers said before every meal. “Sometimes my sons will do a prayer and it will be a bracha—a blessing in Hebrew. Other times they’ll simply note how thankful all of us are to be there. We feel we are a part of the Mass Avenue Baptist Church family.”

As parents, Jane and Howard Breslau purposely pushed their sons out of their comfort zones. Neither boy had any idea what a food pantry would be like. Much to their surprise, the boys’ perceptions of the homeless were shattered. “It wasn’t just a learning experience for my sons,” Jane notes,” they completely changed their assumptions about who was homeless. They saw how thankful these people were to be there. How respectful they were.”

Max, who became a bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel last week, says that his time at the soup kitchen will go beyond his bar mitzvah project. “I love doing it every Monday. Everyone who comes and eats makes friends. There’s one guy who loves the Patriots and we talk about the team. With other people, we share how our week has gone. Everybody has a story and people don’t necessarily look homeless. You wouldn’t expect some of these people to be out in the street.”

Max also noticed the soaring temperatures inside the church during his summer service at the soup kitchen. “I decided to raise money for two ceiling fans and air conditioning window units.” At first the goal was to raise a thousand dollars. Max reached out to friends and family and to his temple email list. The response was so generous that he raised the goal to $2000. Max and his family called it the Fan Project, asking people to “be cool and become fans of the Mass Avenue Baptist Church Soup Kitchen.” As of this writing Max and his family have raised $1800.

As for their own parenting, Jane and Howard assert that their commitment to the soup kitchen has been a “ learning process.” Howard notes that it is “breathtaking” to see his family’s commitment every week. “It’s a joy to see their eagerness to go there. They’ve established friendships with the staff and guests that are very meaningful.”

Jane notes that, “everyone has a different perception of what a mitzvah is. It’s not something that should be easy or immediately fit into your life. You should make it fit into your life so that you’re giving back to the community. We began this project to help our children, but our time at the soup kitchen has had a profound effect on me too.”

Praying With the Women of the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

What passes for contraband at the Kotel—the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site—both saddens and flummoxes me. If you are a woman praying on the postage-stamp sized real estate relegated to us at the Wall, you are forbidden to wear a tallit—a traditional prayer shawl or tefillin—the leather phylacteries worn during morning prayer. If you are a woman attempting to pray at the Western Wall, you must do so quietly, unobtrusively, so that even God must cock an ear to hear your petitions.

Once a month a group of women gather together at the beginning of the new Hebrew month—Rosh Chodesh—to reclaim their rights to practice Judaism as they see fit. They are known as Women of the Wall and the most risqué thing they do is to wear religious garments that have escaped a guard’s notice or been handed off to them by men. True, these women are from the more liberal branches of Judaism. Many of them, though not all, are Americans. There’s also inevitability to these gatherings. The women pray wearing a prayer shawl or phylacteries while Israeli police officers cool their heels waiting to arrest them after the service. Arrest at the Wall, interrogation at the police station, and then dismissal of all charges. That’s the drill.

So why was this past Rosh Chodesh ushering in the month of Adar different from previous months? Two reasons. Included among the group of 200 who came for the monthly assembly were some of the paratroopers who recaptured the Wall from Jordanian control in 1967. And this time Rabbi Susan Silverman, a close friend and mentor of mine, and her daughter Hallel, were arrested at the Wall. Along with eight other women they cycled through the usual arrest, interrogation, release rotation with the caveat that they not return to the Wall for two weeks. That means that they will be back just in time for Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month during which Jews will celebrate Passover, the quintessential holiday of freedom. This irony of timing is obvious, but too tempting not to point out.

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

 

The question of who is a Jew in Israel has been superseded by the dilemma of how a Jew can pray at Judaism’s holiest site. When Rabbi Silverman was arrested she told the media that her detention was tantamount to “spitting at Sinai.” Specifically, the people spitting at Sinai are the ultra-Orthodox who, with Israeli taxpayer’s money, run the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Wall, which belongs to Jews all over the world, is managed by 15 men who presumably have or had mothers

What makes this fight for the right to congregate and pray all the more poignant is that Women of the Wall is not advocating for egalitarian prayer per se. As Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman recently told the Forward, “Women of the Wall is fighting for a change in the ‘women’s section’ at the Kotel. The organization’s petition to Israel’s Supreme Court, filed six weeks ago, would dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the space.”

This is an important distinction. Women of the Wall understands that the prayer areas in front of the Wall will remain bisected for the foreseeable future. The men’s side will be boisterous and celebratory while the women silently pray. All the women are asking for is the right to wear traditional Jewish garb if they choose, as an expression of their faith.

I don’t think we can stand idly by anymore in a world where a woman’s tallit is confiscated at the Kotel. We cannot stand for women being arrested because they choose to outwardly demonstrate their covenant with God. A prayer rally is being planned in New York City on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which falls on Tuesday, March 12. It’s time for Jewish women all over the world to stand in solidarity with our sisters in Israel who will risk arrest and humiliation at the Wall that morning.

It’s time for the Jews of Boston to plan a rally too. Perhaps we can commemorate Rosh Chodesh on the steps of our synagogues or temples. Or maybe it’s as simple as attending a morning minyan that day with kavanah or the intention that things must change for our daughters and the daughters of those 15 men who have hijacked the Western Wall in the name of a God who surely must disapprove of their misogyny.

 

 

Painting a Child’s Spirituality by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Rabbi Sandy Sasso told the following story at Temple Emanuel in Newton:

There were two brothers in town who were always getting into mischief. One day the rabbi got a hold of the younger brother and asked him to face up to his misdeeds by asking him “where is G-d?” In an increasingly stern voice the rabbi asked the boy “where is God” three times until the young lad ran home and hid under his bed covers. When his older brother found him, he asked what his brother was hiding from. The little boy replied “G-d was missing and the rabbi thinks we did it!”

Rabbi Sasso the author of twelve books for children—many of them award winning—recently addressed the ways in which G-d is absent in children’s lives as the weekend scholar-in residence at Temple Emanuel. Rabbi Sasso, who is also a congregational rabbi in Indianapolis with her husband Dennis, tackled children’s religious imaginations and identities in sermons, talks and readings.

According to Rabbi Sasso, the vast majority of youth think there is a spiritual dimension to life, yet only 14 percent of these children feel as if someone is helping them with their spirituality. That number roughly correlates to the adult statistic in which one in five people claims that there is no assistance available when trying to cultivate a spiritual life.

Rabbi Sasso illustrated the interplay of spirituality and religion using a recent Torah portion. Moses’ revelation on Mount Nebo, in which he is profoundly changed internally as well as externally, is a spiritual experience. The Ten Commandments is the religious expression of that deep and holy occurrence. Religion, explained Rabbi Sasso, serves as a “container to hold spirituality and we must learn how to connect the larger questions of life to spirituality.”

Questions lead to open conversations and according to Rabbi Sasso even very young children have the skills to engage in larger, profound inquires about the role of G-d in their lives. The difficulty in talking about G-d may lay at the feet of parents and Jewish educators. “Don’t let your own worries and misgivings stand in the way of conversations about G-d,” said Rabbi Sasso. “What you don’t believe anymore can be an effective way to allow yourself to rethink your beliefs. It’s okay to be unsure. You don’t have to have all the answers and remember that these answers are not ‘googleable’.” To that end, Rabbi Sasso advised adults to “get in touch with what awes you, or as the poet Mary Oliver says, tap into ‘appreciation swelling into astonishment.’”

Parents looking for ways to broach a conversation about G-d, particularly with younger children, would do well to read “G-d’s Paintbrush” to them. Rabbi Sasso noted that her intent in the book was “to broaden children’s creative lives when thinking about G-d.” Illustrated in rich primary colors, “God’s Paintbrush” asks the ways in which G-d is concrete and present in a child’s life.

GodsPaintbrush

I wonder if G-d has a big lap to curl up in, just like my Mom’s, and strong arms, just like Dad’s to lift me up and catch me when I fall.

I wonder if G-d has strong hands to hold me tight, just like Mom’s and big shoulders, just like Dad’s to carry me when I am tired.

What makes you safe and warm and loved?

Most of us grew up with the standard names and images for G-d such as King or Lord or Father, but G-d has many different names and images. For a little boy in Rabbi Sasso’s congregation, whose mother was dying of breast cancer, G-d was “Healer.” For a woman whose mother was dying G-d was a comfortable bathrobe. Later that year when the woman’s mother passed away, she felt closer to G-d by wearing her mother’s old robe. Rabbi Sasso was not advocating for jettisoning traditional prayer. She emphasized that the language of the prayer book is an important connection to community and the Jewish people at large. After all she noted, “in our tradition there are 70 names for G-d.”

Most touching for me was Rabbi Sasso’s wisdom on connecting social justice issues to a child’s spiritual coming-of-age. “You cannot have social justice in Darfur,” she said, “when a child is being isolated in school. Bullying is very much a social justice issue. Take a stand on immigration, but also welcome the new neighbor. Inclusivity is part of Tikkun Olam—repairing the world.”

We would do well to remember that as parents we are the single most important influence in our children’s lives. We don’t need to be rabbis or academics to explain G-d to our children. Rabbi Sasso recommended to start simple. State your own ideas about G-d without cluttering those ideas in abstract or philosophical language. As she pointed out, “Noah was an amateur and the builders of the Titanic were experts.”