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Children and Parenting

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

Once again, innocent lives have been lost to gun violence.  No doubt our children will hear about the events in Orlando. What makes this tragedy especially poignant is that it targeted a club popular with the gay community and occurred during Gay Pride month. These resources can help you speak to your children in constructive and reassuring ways: Helping Children to Process Acts of Terrorism.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

At such a poignant milestone, this prayer captures both the emotion in parents’ hearts and their hopes for their child’s future.

It seems like only yesterday that we were loading up the car, bringing you to school. Where have the years gone? And where will the years take you? To watch you mature into the young adult you have become, to watch you navigate new situations and responsibilities, to watch you overcome hurdles, has been a privilege.

I am filled with pride over all you have accomplished. And I am already proud of all that I know you will accomplish in the years ahead. I am grateful to have accompanied you this far on your journey. The prayer in my heart is that I have done my part to prepare you for this next chapter of your life, as you take your place in the world.

In the words of Debbie Friedman,

May your eyes shine with the light of Torah

And your face be radiant as the brightness of the sky

May your lips speak words of wisdom,

And may the world you live in be the world of your dreams.

Mark this joyous occasion by reciting the blessing of praise, Shehecheyanu.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

Although there is no prohibition against baby showers, traditionally, Jews do not have them prior to the birth of a child. Some couples do not buy any baby items or set up the nursery until the child is born. There is no religious basis for this custom, which is rooted in superstition. Nonetheless, it is a prevalent custom in the Jewish community.

The custom stems from the idea that drawing attention to a happy occasion also draws the attention of evil spirits. This custom also may hearken back to a time when infant mortality was a concern. Though it is much less an issue today, and most people are not overly superstitious, many Jews still shy away from lavish showers, preferring instead to buy only what they need to prepare, or to order items ahead of time that will be delivered only after the baby is born.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

Sleep away camp is a wonderful experience for children. It is an opportunity for them to grow, learn new things, and become more independent. The thought of a few weeks apart can make parents, a some children as well, b bit anxious. This prayer by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer speaks to those concerns and may help make the camp experience even better.

A Mama's Prayer for Summer Camp

May you find learning and growth of all kinds.
May you gain independence and feel comfort in your Jewish identity.
May the mosquitoes be guided away from you, and may the raindrops not fall into your tent (too much).
May the food be delicious and the pool the right temperature.
May you seek out new experiences and try new things (vegetables would be nice but I'm doubtful).
May you smile brilliantly for the camp photographer and show up daily in the online photo albums.
May you avoid the camp crud and may you never lose your socks.
May you take a shower and brush your teeth every day.
May you not send wet towels to the laundry, because the laundry is charged by weight.
May your arrows fly straight, your fishing line never get tangled, and your tetherball not whack you in the nose.
May you not fall off the top bunk.
May you not spend your whole canteen account on silly junk.
May you not lose your hat and water bottle in the first week.
May you not lose your way in the night to the outdoor bathroom.
May you write me at least one letter besides the mandatory first-day-letter.
May you create a life-long friendship (at least one, if not many).
May you renew old friendships, since they are the most precious. (Are 9 year olds allowed to have "old friends"?)
May you learn more and more about yourself and your spirit and being.

May you return home in one piece with all your belongings,
and may you ever yearn to return to the land of summer camp.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

A father's responsibilities to his son are outlined in the Talmud, Kiddushin 29a. According to the text, a father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem him if he is the firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Talmudic scholars added that a father must also teach his son to swim.

These directives are all intended to help a child grow into a successful and independent adult, one who will be part of the Jewish community, establish a household and find meaningful work. While teaching a child to swim may seem less important than other items on this list, the sages interpreted this as an essential survival skill.

Today, we think of these instructions as incumbent upon both fathers and mothers and applicable to both sons and daughters, as appropriate. Many modern Jews also no longer feel obligated to help find a spouse for their children, though parental meddling is a tradition that seems to endure.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

It is a Jewish custom for parents to bless their children on Shabbat. This beautiful tradition derives from one of the most touching biblical stories. When Jacob lay on his deathbed, he summoned Joseph in order to bless him. Joseph entered with his two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, whom Jacob had never seen. The Torah records this touching seen in chapter 48 of Genesis.

We relive the story of the blessing of the children through a lovely Shabbat ceremony, just after blessing the candles and before the Kiddush. Placing their hands on their children, the blessing is recited.

If there are memories that last a lifetime, a parent's blessing is surely one of them.

Answer By: 
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg

Historically a Christian rite—All Hallows' Eve, preceding All Saints Day—Halloween actually originates in several pagan traditions. Our tradition instructs us to refrain from the idolatrous practices of the many surrounding cultures. Halloween clearly has some strong idolatrous roots.

Though it may have served religious functions in the past, today, Halloween is rather devoid of religious connotations; it serves much more as a civic celebration. Even 400 years ago, some rabbis in Europe noted that they had absolutely no issue with those Jews who chose to join their neighbors in costuming, masking, merry-making, and 'snatching' food for certain occasions.

Halloween provides a wonderful opportunity for celebrating alongside our neighbors and being one with our larger community. Just because Halloween is non-religious, however, does not mean that we should check our Jewishness at the door. Rather, we have the opportunity to bring Jewish values to heart for that festival evening:

Kavod l'atzmut (respect for ourselves) — We are made in God's image and ought to treat ourselves accordingly. Often, Halloween serves as an excuse for wearing clothing that does not befit our dignity; we should keep in mind that our bodies are sacred and deserving of respect.

Sh'mirat haguf (guarding the body) — We need to keep ourselves healthy and safe. We do so by keeping eyes on our children at all times, by making sure that costumes allow for full mobility and use of eyes and ears, and that all foods collected are safely wrapped and sealed.

Moderation — This may not be a Hebrew word, but it is most certainly a Jewish concept. The great rabbi and physician, Maimonides, preached moderation at all opportunities for all areas of life. When we enjoy our Halloween gleanings, may we make sure to pace ourselves and consume our sweets in healthy balance. Halloween may not be a Jewish holiday but it can most certainly be observed in a healthy Jewish way.

Still not sure about this spooky holiday? "Halloween: A Jewish Parent's Perspective" can help you decide what's right for your family.

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Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

Rather than answering this question myself, I’m going to refer you to this great answer by Dr. William Berkson, director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family, which originally appeared in Reform Judaism magazine. Though Dr. Berkson is not a rabbi, his answer is spot-on.

The Bible says yes. The "rebellious son" is to be put to death by stoning (Deut. 21:18-21), and Proverbs (13:24) teaches: "He who spares the rod hates his son."

But by the talmudic period, these harsh doctrines of parental discipline were replaced with an emphasis on kindness and compassion. The Talmud defines the "rebellious son" out of existence (San. 71a), rules that a teacher could punish a student at most with a leather shoelace (Bava Batra 21a), outlaws hitting grown children (Mo'ed Katan 17a), and declares: "With a child, push away with the left hand, and draw near with the right" ( Sotah 47a)--the right hand normally being the stronger. As a result of these rabbinic teachings, traditional Jewish homes were noted for treating their children with love and warmth. Still, corporal punishment was not eliminated in the traditional religious school for boys--the cheder--in Eastern Europe, where teachers often hit their students for even minor infractions.

Modern social science is still divided on the question "to spank or not to spank." In 1996, Dr. Murray A. Straus, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, and Dr. Robert Larzelere of Boys Town began a continuing debate in the journal Pediatrics on the effectiveness of spanking. Dr. Straus argued that many studies, including his own, show that spanked children become more antisocial and do worse in school. Dr. Larzelere challenged Straus's conclusion, claiming that the damaging effects of spanking are true only in cases of frequent spanking and of corporal punishment of older children. For two- to six-year-olds, he wrote, occasional non-abusive spanking ("two open-handed swats to the buttocks leaving no bruise") is beneficial as a back-up to time-outs and reasoning; when the children turn seven, time-outs and reasoning alone--with spanking in reserve--have become so effective that spanking is no longer necessary.

Both sides of the debate agree that spanking school-age children is undesirable. As for toddlers, nearly half of American parents oppose spanking, but, according to Straus, nearly all resort to corporal punishment on occasion. With the debate on disciplining toddlers still unsettled, a good Reform Jewish approach would be to err on the side of compassion and follow Straus's advice never to spank.

To learn more about parenting through a Jewish lens, visit the Parenting Page on this site, which includes Dr. Berkson's "Guide for the Perplexed Jewish Parent."

Answer By: 
Rabbi Don Rossoff

Can a child who was circumcised in the hospital but has not had an actual bris be considered a Jew? My husband and I are an interfaith family and we are not sure what to do with our baby.

"Bris" comes from the word covenant. At a bris, the boy is brought into the covenant between God and the Jewish people, in fulfillment of the command given by God to Abraham:

"On your part, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your children after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be sign of the covenant between Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations…" Genesis 17:9-12.

The circumcision is a sign of the covenant, a "membership badge," if you will. As a member of the covenant community, the boy is given a Hebrew name, linking him to his Jewish family and to Jewish history.

If your child has not yet been born, then I would recommend doing a bris on the eighth day. Having said that, I have learned that in intermarried situations, this can be touchy, since the whole thing is so foreign. "You are going to invite all your friends, cut off his WHAT, and then serve BAGELS??!!??" If it is not your tradition, it does seem bizarre. If this is the case, my recommendation is to focus on the religious part of the bris ceremony (circumcision and naming) and downplay the social aspect. There are some traditional mohels (ritual circumciser) who would perform this ceremony for you. If it is your husand and not you who is Jewish, they would consider the circumcision as part of a conversion of a non-Jewish boy. And, depending on your location, in many communities throughout North America there are also Reform mohels who would consider the child a Jew.

On the other hand, if the child has already been circumcised, then I believe most Reform rabbis would recommend doing a ceremony bringing the child into the covenant and giving him a Hebrew name.
By the way, when a girl is born, we do a bris as well, a ceremony in which she is brought into the covenant community and given a Hebrew name. (No, nothing is cut off ). The ceremony which I do uses the Shabbat as her sign of the covenant, so we begin the ceremony by lighting Shabbat candles.

For further information and sample ceremonies, I would recommend picking up some or all of these books:

  • The Jewish Home by Daniel Syme (UAHC) - an easily accessible guide to Jewish life cycle events, holidays, and home observances written from a Reform perspective.
  • On the Doorposts published by CCAR, a wonderful guide to home observance which includes naming ceremonies.
  • The New Jewish Baby Book: Names, Ceremonies and Customs: A Guide for Today's Families by Anita Diamant, published by Jewish Lights.
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Answer By: 
Rabbi Don Rossoff

Honestly, no. What I mean by this is that if you are going to be truly honest with yourself, then, on many levels, you cannot have both a christening and a bris/naming.

Why do I say it this way? Because as nice as it would be for intermarried parents to be able to "cover both bases," not have to make any big decisions just yet, and provide something for all of the grandparents, having a child brought into the body of the Church in Jesus as well made part of the Covenant Community of the Jewish People is not being honest to either tradition. (The word "bris" actually means "covenant.")

I cannot speak for my colleagues in the Christian clergy, but I know that most Reform Rabbis will not participate in a bris/naming if the child has been or will be christened.

As "exclusionary" as this sounds, this position is based on common sense, respect for the integrity of both Judaism and Christianity as religions with particular and distinct messages as well as what has been found through years of experience as being in the ultimate best interest of the child.
Religiously speaking, children need to know who they are. They need to have a solid, unambiguous faith identity which gives them a place in the world, a spiritual tradition through which to experience the important times of life and a community of meaning, not just to know about, but to be a part of and to feel at home in. This means that, when it comes to religion, one is better than none and better than two.

This sounds tough, especially when parents have strong feelings of connection with their own faiths and faith communities. (And then, of course, grandparents often add their own hopes and values into the mix as well.) Both "sides" have their hopes and their primal feelings, some of which they were not aware of when they got married. Neither "side" wants to ask too much sacrifice from the other; both has a sense of what they can and can't live with. Plus, if the decision as to what will be the religion of the children has been put off, it is difficult to start this most emotion charged discussion when you are still in the hospital nursery.

What about exposing children to both traditions and then letting them choose? Since interfaith marriages have been with us for some time, there have been studies done on children raised in two traditions. (In addition, I have had discussions with many people so raised.) With few exceptions, the results indicate that it is not a good idea to raise a child in two traditions; and in some cases, it is actually cruel.

Many "dual-religion" children (some, now adults) express a great deal of anger at their parents for not having made a decision and for putting them in the middle of an issue that the parents themselves could not resolve. When a person has to choose one religion over the other, it is almost never a theoretical consideration. However evenhandedly it is presented, there is the unconscious or conscious sense that one is choosing one parent over another. (One of my ten year old daughter's friends put it this way, "When I do the Jewish stuff, my Dad gets upset. And when I do the Christian stuff, Mom gets angry.")

Children need and deserve the best from their parents. This often entails making sacrifices when it is clear that the needs and desires of the parents have to become secondary to the real needs of the children. In this spirit, (and here I may differ from some of my colleagues) I have told many couples trying to decide about the religion of their children, that if the Christian parent feels stronger about their religion than does the Jewish member, then they should raise their children as positive, affirmative Christians. Why? Because it is better for the children themselves to have a solid unambiguous identity in one religion than to be given a hazy, partial, little bit of this, little bit of that sense of who they are. Our children deserve better from us.

Choosing one religion for the children does not mean being cut off from the religion of the extended family. One can celebrate holidays like Christmas and Passover WITH our extended family. It may not be OUR holiday, but we are celebrating their holiday with them just as they celebrate our holidays with us. No, it is not easy to be the "odd parent" out - the one whose children are being raised in the other religion. And yet, I have found that time, patience and knowledge are the best keys to being able to feel at home in the "home religion."

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