The Next Phase by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The young woman sitting across from me at the dinner table talked enthusiastically about her research at the MIT Media Lab. She was involved in designing prosthetics that would enable a person to climb a mountain or run a marathon. She was also graduating the next day from MIT and on her way to a masters program clear across the country to study mechanical engineering. Only 14 percent of engineers in this country are women and my niece is one of them.

My nephew graduated the day after his sister and is off to college to pursue his dream as a video game designer. At the other end of the table, Anna is telling my sister-in-law about her internship shadowing a cardiologist. She’s been scrubbing in to observe procedures like putting in pacemakers and defibrillators. “And you don’t feel like fainting when you see all that blood?” I ask in disbelief. Adam is excited to start a research internship in a lab studying stem cells.

These kids alternately awe me and make me weepy. When did they become young adults with interests and expertise so far from my own area of knowledge? When did I stop becoming my children’s primary confidante? Their first line of defense? I don’t write to their teachers anymore about this or that or send notes that they have to sit out recess because of a cold. They advocate for themselves. I watch Anna explain to a server about her severe dairy allergy. I used to do that stuff.

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My role as a mother is undergoing a radical realignment and I’m not ready. I’ve known that my kids would only belong to me for a finite period of time. They’d grow and want to stumble into the greater world on their own. What young adult wouldn’t? I did.

So it was with great reluctance and more than a bit of trepidation that I let my children take the train down to Manhattan to stay with their respective friends for the weekend. I know there are kids younger than they are that literally travel the world by themselves. I also know that my kids are more than capable of taking trains and catching subways on their own. They’ve spent extended time away from home at camp and on school trips abroad. But this was a new adventure for them, navigating New York City on their own. Adam told me not to worry—in New York you’re never lost for long. You just count. I wasn’t concerned that he’d get lost, I was hyper about him looking like he was lost.

There are books written about parents like me. The classic on the subject of the overprotective parent is by Lenore Skenazy. She wrote a book called Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry. After her book came out a few years ago, she was on the Today Show with her then nine year-old son whom she allowed to navigate the New York City subway system without a cell phone. It was jaw dropping for me. I thought about Skenazy when I interrogated my almost sixteen year-old about his pending maiden voyage on the Times Square shuttle. He shrugged me off and said he took the T in Boston. And then I remembered he’s the kid who debates at school and speaks Spanish fluently. My niece the engineer backpacked through Europe after her senior year in high school. At her college graduation dinner she told us a story about dusting off her French to ask a hotel concierge where she could do laundry. And my computer science nephew will likely be acquiring skills to control a drone someday.

It’s thrilling to watch this generation put down a stake in their future. But does that future include me as a mother? Friends with grandchildren assure me that there’s a Round Two in the mothering game and it’s even sweeter the second time around. One friend went so far as to tell me that if she had known how wonderful grandchildren were she would have skipped having children and gone straight into grandparenting.

I have no doubt that my niece, my nephew and my own children will have a great impact on the world. Like any experienced chess player, I can see the endgame already. And my part is to let go and wave goodbye after each milestone. The other day I was helping Adam through some disappointing news. I sat on the edge of his bed and he said that he felt like a five year-old. I told him that sometimes we need to feel like a little kid to be nurtured.

For the moment, though, I’m going to pretend that the only changes I have to cope with in the near future are to wave goodbye at the train station and cheer on my niece and nephew for receiving their diplomas.

Sex and the Boy Scouts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

By the time you read this there will have been a raft of articles and columns about the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to allow openly gay boys to participate in the organization. The new policy states that, “no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” Wayne Brock, the BSA’s chief executive, called the decision “compassionate, caring and kind.”

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The outcome of the vote, however, is a deceptive one. The BSA will continue to exclude openly gay leaders, and when a gay youth member turns eighteen he will have to turn in his badges and bid farewell to his scouting career. Quoting from the BSA’s internal documents, Reuters reports “when youth members become adults they ‘must meet the requirements of our adult standards’ to remain in the group.”

It’s disorienting to think that just last summer the BSA reaffirmed their anti-gay policy in bureaucratic doublespeak.“ We do not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open to avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”

The BSA describes itself as “one of the nation’s largest and most prominent values-based youth development organizations.” If you look at the membership roster it is, in many respects, a faith-based organization. The majority of troops are affiliated with churches. The biggest feeder is the Mormon Church, which to its credit did not have a knee-jerk response to the BSA’s latest change in policy and, as of this writing, is studying the proposal. But contemplating theological issues is not within the scope of this particular column. The real issue for me is the unhealthy national obsession with our children’s sexuality.

For a more nuanced look at the subject, I take you down to Florida where an 18 year-old teenager named Kaitlyn Hunt faces 15 years in prison for having sex with her 14 year-old girlfriend. Hunt and the younger girl were on the same basketball team and the girl’s parents brought the criminal charges against Hunt. As CBS reported, these parents blamed Kaitlyn for their daughter’s homosexuality.

Reporting on the story in Slate magazine, Emily Bazelon writes that “[i]t’s hard for me to see how you can take the homophobia out of this case.” Yet that’s exactly what the mother of the younger girl and the prosecutors in the case are doing. The State Attorney charged Hunt in February with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a child. Additionally, Hunt has been expelled from school. The only leniency offered to Kaitlyn in this sorry affair was a plea bargain to lesser charges of child abuse. The offer was two years of house arrest rather than face the possibility of onerous jail time and the prospect of having to register as a sex offender. So far Kaitlyn is not budging.

Bazelon’s article gets very interesting as she ponders the outpouring of support for Kaitlyn. Hunt’s family has used social media to great effect to draw attention to Kaitlyn’s case. A Facebook page called “Free Kate” has links to T-shirts, bracelets and a petition, which more than 45,000 people have signed. The Florida ACLU is also behind Kaitlyn calling the relationship “harmless and consensual.”

But Bazelon goes a step further in considering Kaitlyn’s plight by citing:

the denunciation of various 17 and 18 year-old boys who have been charged with sex crimes because of their relationships, or encounters with 15 or 14-year old girls. Is this case really so different because it’s about two girls? Or does it reveal a larger problem with charging older teenagers for having sex with younger ones?

I originally cited Kaitlyn Hunt’s case as one of homophobia. Like Bazelon, it’s hard for me not to see anti-gay sentiment exacerbating the situation. But Bazelon also brings up a much more complicated issue—should sex between older and younger teens spanning less than a five-year difference be decriminalized? Hunt’s parents are calling their daughter’s case an example of selective prosecution. I think they’re right. How often do the police get called for heterosexual consensual sex between a freshman and senior in high school? I daresay, not very often.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, you may wonder how we began with the Boy Scouts of America’s new policy towards gay scouts and ended up talking about consensual sex between teens. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for sex between teens. What I am saying is let our teens figure out their sexuality without shunning them or prosecuting them.

Toward that end, let’s free Kaitlyn Hunt and the Boy Scouts of America from the hate and prejudice that dogs both of them.

 

Driving Miss Anna–The Sequel by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Her learner’s permit expired last year. There have been no road hours clocked in over a year and the classroom hours are a distant memory. The upshot is that I am still driving Anna around. True, I’ve had a respite while she’s been away at college. But now she’s back and the girl needs rides. Luckily, she’s become very adept at bumming rides from her friends. Sometimes she’ll do a very complicated automobile leapfrog to get from here to there. Sometimes it’s more like ballet and it can be a thing of beauty to watch her arrange her transportation.

Parents far wiser than I have told me not to push the matter. She’ll drive when she’s ready. Two years ago Anna wrote an editorial in her high newspaper about why she refused to learn to drive. “Every time I turn the key in the ignition, my blood pressure spikes and my heart rate doubles,” said my girl. “In the back of my mind, I know that I am driving a two-ton piece of weaponry. With one wrong move, I could end up hurting myself or the people around me.”

My daughter declared war on driving.

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In my day the quest to get a driver’s license at 16 was an American rite of passage. But the more research I did, the more I learned that Anna’s aversion to driving is part of a national trend. In a recent study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, 46 percent of all 16 year-olds had a driver’s license in 1983. By 2008 that number had dropped down to 31 percent. The study’s principal investigator concluded that the Internet is a big reason for this drop in the drive to drive.

There’s no question that teens rely on the convenience of high-tech social interaction to communicate with one another. Why leave your house when you can Skype or chat on Facebook? A recent survey finds that 46 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds would choose Internet access over owning their own car. But according to another study out of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, there are other mitigating factors for the decrease in teen drivers, including the health of the economy as well as state licensing systems that have more rigorous requirements in place to acquire a learner’s permit and eventually a license. Additionally, driver’s education has been cut back in many public school systems, leaving families to come up with up to $600 for private driving schools. Add that to the growing cost of gasoline and astronomical insurance rates for teen drivers and virtual socializing is a bargain.

As keen as I am for Anna to drive to the grocery store, I’ve also read some very sobering statistics about teen drivers. Although kids between the ages of 16 and 19 count for just one in 20 drivers, they are behind the wheel in one of seven accidents that kill either the driver or a passenger. To that end, 16 year-old drivers are more than twenty times more likely to crash a car than other drivers, and six times more likely to total a car than a 17 year-old. What a difference a year makes.

According to the Centers of Disease Control, these alarming statistics on teen driving are rooted in physiology. Coordinating eyes, hands and feet to drive is a relatively new experience for a teen. A younger driver is also more likely to miscalculate a traffic situation and is more easily distracted than an adult driver. There’s also the underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex of the teen brain, causing them to take risks like speeding, texting while driving or cutting off other cars.

But all is not lost. Parents are critical to driving safety for their teens. Start with something as basic as giving your teen extra practice behind the wheel. Driver Education programs typically provide a total of six hours on the road. To be a reasonably proficient driver, experts put the number at closer to 50 hours and recommend spreading out those hours to cover the winter months.

The American Academy of Pediatrics further recommends that teens have a restrictive license until the age of 18 or until they have been driving under adult supervision for two years. States that have officially adopted a graduated system of driving privileges have seen a 9 percent dip in automobile injuries and fatalities among 16 and 17 year-olds. Teens are also four times more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash at night. Cities that have instituted a curfew on night driving have seen a 25 percent drop in teenage car fatalities.

To see an additional reduction in car accidents the Institute for Highway Safety recommends that teens drive mid-size or full-size cars with air bags to provide more crash protection. The Institute further suggests avoiding sleek, high performance vehicles that may tempt teens to speed. And sport utility vehicles have higher centers of gravity that make them less stable and more likely to roll over.

As for Anna, she’s finally declared a truce on driving. She’s considering getting her license this summer at the age of 19. Maybe she was right to wait. After all, the statistics are on her side.

Parenting Without Borders by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I knew it!

Even Dr. Ferber, the sleep guru of “just let the baby cry it out” fame (or notoriety, depending in your point of view), concedes that there are many viable ways for a baby to sleep. This is just one of the many wonderful nuggets of information that Cambridge writer Christine Gross-Loh brings to the table in her new book Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.

 

 parentingwithoutbordersIt’s tempting to call Gross-Loh’s book a reference guide, but that would be giving short shrift to this wise and entertaining compendium on child-rearing. Her goal is simple: as borders blur and the world gets smaller, effective parenting can be more easily shared around the world. Gross-Loh delves into many traditions for advice on everything from co-sleeping, eating habits and guerilla marketing to our kids.

 

 But back to Dr. Ferber for a moment. Ken and I had our own borders when it came to parenting Anna as a baby. Aside from the fact that we had no idea what we were doing, in a word the thing we craved most was sleep. But we had very different ideas of how exactly we would get Anna to sleep and tackle our own sleep deprivation. I was brought up by a Latina mother, and by extension much of my mother’s family. Though we didn’t call it that, co-sleeping was not out of the norm. If I had a bad dream I crawled into bed with my mother. My American father was not so thrilled about my visits and usually ended up switching beds with me.

And so these cultural differences continued in my marriage. Gross-Loh happens to be a proponent of co-sleeping. She and her husband and their four children have ended up in various groupings throughout the night. She also investigated co-sleeping in countries like Japan and Sweden where the family bed is a way of life. When Anna was born we lived in Baltimore where co-sleeping was not exactly in vogue. I swear I gave “Ferberizing” a decent try, but I just couldn’t do it. My very patient husband had to finally accept that Anna would be hanging out with us occasionally.

Throughout the book Gross-Loh draws upon her experiences from living abroad in Japan as well as her Korean heritage and her husband’s Jewish upbringing. I thought her section on children and eating was of particular interest. Like many parents, Gross-Loh is concerned with the growing rates of childhood obesity in the United States. She investigates American eating habits in search of a solution to curb our children’s growing waistlines. She finds despite a diet rich in fats and meats, French children are generally healthy and slim. One of the reasons is that snacking is highly discouraged in France. The French go so far as to air public service announcements warning against eating in between meals. Additionally, French kids eat their meals with their families. These meals are generally long and leisurely, and to compensate for a high fat diet, the French eat smaller portions. “In France,” writes Gross-Loh, “teaching kids to eat is as important as teaching them to read.”

Gross-Loh believes that the idea that children are picky eaters is, in part, an artificial construct; this rings true to me. She correctly notes that rejecting vegetables for potato chips is “a marketing strategy that doesn’t have to bind us.” Teaching children to eat well can be habit forming. To prove her point she takes her readers to France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Sweden where the culture dictates a diet of fresh whole foods, cooking from scratch with seasonal ingredients and taking the time to enjoy eating together. As for the babies—the parents in most of these countries give their little ones the same food as the rest of the family.

I know that cooking from scratch strikes terror in many a parent’s heart. I’m no chef myself, but honestly it’s a lot easier than it seems. I’ve just discovered quinoa, a healthy grain that’s easy to make. Most supermarkets have pre-cut veggies that you can throw in a wok. And for meat eaters like my family, turkey burgers are easy to make and roasting a chicken is simple. As for snacking, I work at home so you can imagine the temptation. The easiest solution is not to buy the chips or the Chex mix in the first place. I’m holding my own for the moment. But I still I keep an emergency stash of chocolate.

As big as food is in a family’s life, Gross-Loh also devotes an entire section of her book to conspicuous consumption or in her descriptive phrase, “The Tyranny of Choice.” She writes:

Few families in the world are as vulnerable to the desire to buy as American families. Though commercialism is a modern, global phenomenon, it affects American children disproportionately because corporations have benefited from deregulation against marketing directly to children, which began in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan.

At last, an explanation for the genesis of what Gross-Loh calls “the pester-power”—in and of itself a well-honed marketing strategy and the source of much family stress.

As I said in the beginning of this column, there are so many nuggets to mine in this wonderful book. Add it to your collection of parenting books. I promise you that reading Parenting Without Borders will be like spending time with a very understanding and resourceful friend.

 

 

 

Lean In and Listen by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Okay girls, go ahead, “lean in,” and you’ll hear a cacophony of voices about what you should do with your lives. At the moment one of the louder voices belongs to Sheryl Sandberg, the storied Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. To lean in, says Sandberg means to push through the challenges of being a woman in the workplace, to go down a path with an uncertain outcome. Conversely, to lean back means to stay in a known, comfortable situation.

The choice is yours. Or is it?

“Girls growing up today,” writes Sandberg, “are not the first generation to have equal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all that opportunity does not necessarily translate into professional achievement.” That’s right, you study alongside the boys, take pre-law, pre-med or pre-business classes and if a McKinsey Report from 2011 is indicative of your situation, you can still expect your male colleagues to be promoted on their potential and for you to be promoted on your accomplishments.

Let’s take stock for a moment. For the first time in American history there are more college-educated women than men. Sheryl Sandberg is asking those women to do three critical things to maximize their education and frankly, to remember why they entered the workforce in the first place. She wants women to sit literally at the table. Not to sit off to the side and to stay quiet, but to take a seat next to their male peers and participate in conversations, pitch deals and make decisions. It’s a daunting task considering that 57 percent of men in the workforce negotiated up front for a better salary as opposed to just 7 percent of women who said anything when they received their job offers.

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In a 2010 TED talk, the basis for Lean In, Sandberg also reminds women that sitting at the table may take some elbowing in a world where just nine out of 190 heads of state are women, only 13 percent of parliamentarians across the world are women and just 15 to 16 percent of CEOs or COOs are women, Not only has there been no improvement in those corporate numbers, but since 2002 the numbers have been moving in the wrong direction.

The second thing Sandberg advises working women is to make your partner your true partner. That means spouses have equal responsibilities when it comes to childcare and running the house. So don’t just marry well, young women, marry smart because you are smart.

There is a flip side to that advice which comes from the journalist Elsa Walsh, who recently made a deep impression with a piece she wrote for The Washington Post headlined, “Why Women Should Embrace a ‘Good Enough’ Life.” Walsh contends that parenthood and family “are more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?”

At first glance it looks like Sandberg and Walsh are butting heads. Sandberg can come across as a career-obsessed woman who admits that, “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.” Walsh, on the other hand, encourages her 17 year-old daughter to “carve out space for solitude. Search for work that allows you flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them older, after you’ve reached the point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while.”

But their counsel is not incompatible. Sandberg, for her part, devotes an entire chapter to the “Myth of Doing It All.” Granted, Sandberg has resources that most working women in this country can only dream of. Besides a supportive partnership with her husband, she can afford top childcare. But putting that aside for a moment, let’s concentrate on the key questions that demythologize the notion of having it all: “Can I do it all or can I do what is most important to me?” Perhaps Walsh has an answer when she observes that “a good enough life is not a failure—it is maturity and self-knowledge.”

The third thing that Sandberg advises is not to leave before you leave. This means stay committed and focused on the job. Don’t project too far into the future. In her TED talk Sandberg mentions a young woman who was anticipating a maternity leave that was so far in the offing she didn’t even have a boyfriend. Walsh read Lean In too and she “nodded in agreement with much of what Sandberg says.” But like me, she also noticed that Sandberg’s advocacy for more family-friendly policies in the workplace or recognition that full-time motherhood is as meaningful as a corporate career read like “afterthoughts.”

My daughter and son’s generation will have a lot of sorting out of priorities. When the time comes, I want them to lean in and identify the nuances in Sandberg’s and Walsh’s perspectives. Maybe they’ll come to a deeper appreciation of Sandberg’s metaphor of a career pathway as not climbing a ladder, but staying on the jungle gym where men and women move sideways or downwards in order to ultimately move forward in their jobs. Hopefully my children will take to heart Walsh’s assertion that personal relationships are as important to a career as a place at the table. And they’ll work as hard on those relationships as they do in the workplace because in the end, love is what will get them through.

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.”

The Radius of the Bomb by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When you move to Boston there are three things that you must accept—you are forever a member of Red Sox Nation, you’ll never get used to someone passing you in the breakdown lane on Route 128 and the Boston Marathon is what we really celebrate on Patriot’s Day. I live half a block from the marathon route—on Heartbreak Hill—and I must confess that every year I feel claustrophobic anticipating that I won’t be able to cross Commonwealth Avenue by car. But my love-hate relationship with the marathon, my angst over feeling penned in, evaporates when I watch the runners go by.

The marathon route begins in Hopkinton and wends its way through the suburbs of Boston—Framingham, Wellesley, Newton and Brookline before crossing the finishing line in Boston’s Back Bay. By the time the majority of runners reach me, they’re approaching the 20-mile mark—Heartbreak Hill.

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This year I watched the runners go by in the early afternoon—the height of the marathon on my little stretch of the race. Where I live, the marathon is a party. People bring picnics and watch the race on folding chairs. We look for the names of runners on their shirts or written in black magic marker on their arms. Go, Margaret. Last hill, Bob. Every year I am in awe.

This year, I watched my fifteen year-old son clap and whoop for every runner. He’s a runner too and thinks nothing of taking a five mile run. I am, at the moment, training myself to go around the block in the hope that I can run a 5k road race this summer. I’m almost halfway around my block without stopping. Heartbreak Hill, indeed.

By four o’clock in the afternoon, the 2013 Boston Marathon was no more. Commonwealth Avenue was empty save for the occasional police car and yellow school bus picking up stranded runners. Not again, I thought. Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown. And 9/11. Please God, not again. London, Madrid, Jerusalem.

Enough.

I am a compulsive reader. A Kaddish reader. After 9/11, I gazed into the eyes of every victim and read their accompanying word portraits. Lives thrust into the news, engraved in our hearts. Their memories for a blessing. I’ve said that too often for people I’ve never met, but somehow are not strangers to me.

It is deeply disturbing to live so close to an act of terrorism that happens during such a quotidian event. My teenager and his friend didn’t take the T to the finish line because of inertia—easier to hang out in our suburb. Yet he’s cultivating his independence and one of the ways he’s learning to do that is getting around Boston on public transportation. After last Monday, how do I keep him safe? How do I help him stand down fear?

The day after the bombing, I was glued to the television and radio. “The sadness here in Boston is palpable,” said one reporter. Everyone who called in or was interviewed was testifying about something—their love for Boston, their relief that a loved one made it safely across the finish line, their dream of completing the marathon cruelly derailed. People were stunned and grateful that they were in Back Bay at the right time and the right place. Each one of them mourned for the victims. For eight year-old Martin Richard who loved riding his bike and playing ball, who hoped for peace after the Newtown shootings. Martin Richard, everyone’s child. For 29 year-old Krystal Campbell cut down in the prime of her life.

Over 180 injured people—many of them seriously—flooded the emergency rooms in downtown Boston. Any one of them could have been my friend who crossed the finish line 15 minutes before the bombs went off or his wife who was cheering him on a few yards from the explosion. There but for the grace of God go my friends. Boston was a huge shiva house—quiet, heavy and grief-stricken where the Psalm of Consolation, as my rabbi observes, seems to be “patently untrue.”

For the Guardian of Israel

                Neither slumbers nor sleeps…

                The Lord shall keep you from all evil…

                The Lord shall guard your going out and your coming in,

                From this time forth and forever.

And yet for me the psalm has the potential to offer solace in the same way that the Mourner’s Kaddish praises God and doesn’t say a single word about death.

Sometimes, though, I think this God of ours is too demanding of our loyalty without giving much in return. I can’t depend on God to keep my children safe. Or can I? Do we devise our fate or is it pre-ordained?

A bomb goes off. Three dead and almost 200 wounded. The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote how the lives of these dead and wounded increase the radius of a bomb’s crater. If that’s the case, then the diameter of the bombs that went off in Boston stretched across the world. And in the wake of our tragedy, the truest words I have to offer are Yehuda Amichai’s:

The Radius of the Bomb

Yehuda Amichai

The radius of the bomb was twelve inches

And the radius of its effective force seven yards

Containing four dead and eleven wounded.

And around those, in a wider circle

Of pain and time, are scattered two hospitals

And one graveyard. But the young woman,

Buried in the place she came from,

Over a hundred kilometers from here,

Widens the circle quite a bit,

And the lonely man mourning her death

In the provinces of a Mediterranean land,

Includes the whole world in the circle.

And I shall omit the scream of orphans

That reaches God’s throne

And way beyond and widens the circle

To no end and no God.

Live and In-Person: Media and Young Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

A couple of weeks ago was school vacation week for both kids, which meant that the four of were reunited for a few days. All was well until we went out to dinner. There was a 20-minute wait to get a table, which meant that three out of the four of us immediately whipped out our iPhones. Poor Adam was left in the dust, but perhaps more dangerously, we disconnected from one another. “Someone talk to me,” he pleaded.

iPhone

I’m sure I’m in the majority when I say that I don’t know how I ever lived without the convenience of 24-7 access to, well, everything. Can’t remember the name of an actor? No problem, take out the phone and start Googling your way to the answer.

But have our fingers become too quick to text and Google out of habit? A recent article in the New York Times put that question out there in an article called Your Phone vs. Your Heart. In it Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor, talked about the downside of establishing an ingrained habit that can not only change neural pathways but also “mold the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.”

The scientific term for that molding is called plasticity and it is used to describe the flexibility of the nervous system to adapt and learn. Frederickson’s research shows that plasticity further affects the heart-brain connection. So the more you look up from your iPhone and interact with people, the more you literally strengthen your heart. And Face-to-face contact fosters empathy as well as improves overall health.

Frederickson’s research in social genomics— the study of how our personal history, social life or even loneliness affect gene expression in immune systems—also clearly shows that parents role-modeling screen-time behavior can be as life-altering as the genetics a child inherits. According to Frederickson, interrupting to text while ostensibly playing with your child or reading to her can “leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.”

But how do we translate the findings of social genomics to our own children? Writing in the latest issue of The Atlantic, social commentator Hannah Rosin explored the brave new American childhood of iPads and iPhones. Remember how we thought we were going down the rabbit hole when VCR’s were installed in mini-vans? Ever since viewing screens entered American homes, parents and educators have worried that children’s brains would turn to mush from too much watching. In 1999 the august American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warned that television viewing for children under the age of two affected brain development, particularly when it disrupted interaction between parents or caregivers.

iPad

Enter 21st century touch technology to complicate what seemed to be a straightforward directive against too much screen time for toddlers and young children. Touch technology was popularized by the iPad and it’s taken off among the toddler set where the swipe of a finger can move action figures, act like a paintbrush or manipulate shapes. It’s mind boggling to realize that hundreds, if not thousands of apps for games and reading and art can be easily packed into a gadget the same size as your average board book.

I remember when three year-old Adam sat on Ken’s lap as he maneuvered a mouse. I thought how revolutionary and how scary. It’s stunning to contemplate how much more ubiquitous technology has become over the last decade. As Rosin points out, “technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease.”

By 2010, there were more than 40,000 kids’ games and apps available on iTunes. In the iTunes “education” category, many of those best-selling apps targeted preschool or elementary school age-children. Apps were also available for children as young as 18 months. The AAP weighed in with a recommendation discouraging parents from using electronic media with children under 24 months.

Lisa Guernsey, author of the book Screen Time: How Electronic Media from Baby Videos to Education Software Affects Your Young Child, offers guidance by identifying the three C’s of media consumption—content, context and child. Content, says Guernsey, is the way in which information is presented. Apps labeled as educational are not necessarily good for kids if children cannot fully comprehend the task at hand. Context relates to the way a parent uses social media. Like Fredrickson, Guernsey advises that social interactions are a critical part of using media particularly with babies and toddlers. The success of the first two C’s depends on parents taking the time to know their children. Each child is different, but on the whole parents should keep a kid away from apps or television directed at adults.

There has been no research to date that suggests that using an iPad will make your preschooler smarter or, alternatively, short circuit her neural pathways. But the iPad has only been around for three years—a relatively short time for scientists to secure grants to investigate the topic. Humans, however, have been around for a very long time and nothing improves one’s psychological outlook or better cultivates empathy than looking up from an iPhone screen, even if it is Face Time, and making a real, in-person connection.

Let Us Not Praise Our Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My name is Judy and I am a praise junkie. That is, I blanket my children with lavish compliments like, “you are the smartest, you are the best, you are second to none.” It turns out that I haven’t been doing my kids any favors with these endearments. In fact, there’s a raft of research over the past couple of decades that shows that unfocused praising of children puts a significant dent in their self-esteem.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has been at the vanguard of studies about kids and praise. Dweck’s research grew out of a pattern that has been tracked for over 20 years—gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) were very unsure of their academic abilities. This perceived lack of competence caused them to lower their standards for success and to underestimate the importance of putting in effort towards a goal.

praise

But I’m not the only parent out there praising away. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s crucial to tell their kids how smart they are. My highly unscientific poll puts the number of fellow parental praise junkies out there at closer to 100 percent.

Why the constant praising and what do we do about it? I suppose we praise to reassure our kids and ourselves that they are not only wonderful, but also resilient—able to handle any challenge that comes their way. But in truth constant assurance has the opposite effect. The proof is on the ground. Ten years ago Dweck sent four research assistants into fifth-grade classrooms throughout New York City. The assistants administered a series of puzzles to two control groups randomly divided. The children in one group were praised for their intelligence as in “You must be smart at this.” The other group was lauded for their efforts as in, “You must have worked really hard.”

In the next round, the two groups were asked to choose between a difficult or easy test. The results were astounding. Ninety percent of the children who were praised for their efforts chose the harder test. The majority of kids praised for their intelligence chose the easier test. Commending a kid for his intelligence not only made him shy away from exerting effort, it also made him risk-averse.

The phenomenon of praising a child too often goes back to the 1969 publication of the Psychology of Self-Esteem. That landmark book asserted that high self-esteem was essential to a person’s well being. The notion trickled down to our kids; criticism was out and praise, even if it was undeserved, was now in vogue. I can remember soccer games that my children played when they were little where goals were not counted and every kid got a trophy. I was thrilled for my children, but was I and the other well-meaning adults around them doing the right thing by eliminating competition?

Dweck doesn’t think so. Her research has uncovered that high self-esteem is not necessarily connected to good grades or career success. It doesn’t reduce alcohol abuse or reduce violence. But Dweck isn’t advocating to jettison praise altogether. She found that fine-tuning praise, so that it’s specific and sincere, was very effective. To that end, her research further demonstrated that kids over 12 were suspicious of general praise from a teacher and took it as a sign that they weren’t doing well in class.

Fear of failure is another conundrum that results from overpraising. A well-meaning parent may gloss over a child’s failure by encouraging her to do better next time. The subtext of that message is that failure is so unacceptable it can’t be acknowledged. A lot of the psychology literature shows that responding to failure by trying harder instead of walking away from it suggests that there is more than willpower at work. Encouraging a child to do better next time can rewire a brain to respond more positively to failure. And a brain that learns to try harder instead of giving up is not as dependent on instant gratification. Nothing will short circuit the brain’s response to failure faster than frequent rewards—it’s a sure fire way to set up a kid’s brain for an actual addiction to constant incentives.

So what have I done about my own praise addiction? It seems to be less toxic than I thought.  My praise and criticism of my children’s performances in school has always been nuanced. But yes, in the long run I think almost everything they do is great. For example, the other day Anna asked me what I thought of an article she wrote for her college newspaper. I told her what I specifically liked about the piece. But I’m not completely cured. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she forgot to insert a couple of commas