Hit the link above for the best-written piece ever
on what constitutes a community.
It made me tear up. It made me remember our own debts of gratitude, and it answers a question someone else posed recently -- we weren't always frum. But "community" is the reason we became members of a frum community.
The Husband was married once before. We had custody of two of the three daughters from that marriage. He and his first wife had made aliyah, living first in Jerusalem and later on a kibbutz in the Arava. He loved it and thought it was the perfect place to raise his secular Zionist family. The first wife hated it; hated being in Israel and after five years, she convinced him to take her "home" to California, where she promptly divorced him (and what was it you didn't understand about Community Property law, motek
? asks Baka Diary snidely)
The two oldest girls came to live with Abba after a few years. In the meantime, the ex-wife, oppositionally defiant to any wishes of her Ex, began to do the California Multi-Cultural Remix: this week we will visit a Mormon Church to hear their choir, next week we will go the Catholic Church to appreciate Gregorian chant, and the week after we will visit Spirit Rock to get in touch with our Inner Buddhist...you get the drift. Crystals and astrology entered the picture also, along with heavy doses of mostly useless MFCC counseling.
The last Jewish thing these kids experienced was a Pesach meal prepared the spring after their emigration from Israel to the U.S. The following winter, their mother put up a Christmas tree to "celebrate winter" because that's "what Americans do."
By the time 4 years had passed and the older girls (10 and 16) voted with their feet to move in with Abba, they were multiculturally bewildered and totally clueless about their own Jewish heritage.
They had also absorbed the message that the only important thing in life was to get married. To anyone. Getting a husband was what made your life. Making your own life, making a Jewish life, making a Jewish family was never in this lesson plan.
By the time they came to live with us, it was too late. Too many years of "Be American" (read: be assimilated, be whatever the man-of-the-moment expects) had taken its toll.
To their credit, the older girls sensed something was missing. They had lived in Israel. They knew the secular kibbutz take on the chagim and the history it represented. They appeared to enjoy preparing Shabbat at home, albeit with the caveat that it was
Friday night, and they expected to be able to go out with their friends to parties and football games. Our compromise: bring your friends to dinner at our house, celebrate Shabbat, then go.
The younger girl approached us about koshering the kitchen. I actually talked to Gittel Rice, the wife of the local Chabad rabbi, about this. I was willing -- the Husband wasn't ready to kosher the kitchen.Liat, liat
, as they say.....for his daughter's sake, he was willing to go half-way: separate meat and dairy meals but NOT separate plates (after all, we had a dishwasher, right?).
It wasn't enough. The older girl, convinced by her gentile aunt (the Husband's half-sister) that a husband was waiting for her in the American military, joined up and ultimately married a fine man, albeit not a Jewish one. They divorced without children nine years later.
The younger girl went from SuperReformJew to wanna-be gang girl in short order, after being dumped by her Jewish boyfriend for good cause. She banged out of our house with f$#@-expletive-deleted on her lips before finishing high school, determined to live on her own and not have to follow our "stupid #$@% rules" (like, curfew, no underage drinking alcohol at private clubs in San Francisco, no drugs).
So, in the midst of all this drama, I'm also trying to raise the Boy with his assorted medical problems. We'd visited all the synagogues in the area, and none were to the Boy's liking. "Can we go now?" he asked in highly distracted, unhappy fashion.
I took him to Chabad. At Chabad, he was a part of the small community. No one insisted he sit still. He could sing, bang on the bima, walk around, and be himself. He loved it--and asked to come back. We went back, and eventually went back regularly, and eventually the Husband ("I'm not going to daven
with a bunch of fur-heads every week")came too, at the woeful request of his then-little Boy. "Abba, all the other kids have an abba to cover them with their tallit. Nachman had to do it for me. Won't you come to shul with me so I'm not alone?"
The Husband was still dubious, but he went for the Boy's sake...then the Husband got cancer.
Okay, I told G-d, this is just a tad Bit Too Much
! Problem teen, assimilated stepdaughter, special ed with medical issues child, and now THIS?!
The Husband had his operation. He was going to be in the hospital for a while. During that time, not one person in my office offered to help us. Not one person in our former synagogue offered to help us. Not one person in the middle daughter's Other Synagogue (the one all her friends went to, so of course we had to have a membership there, too) offered to help us except for our next-door neighbor and good friend.
Everyone at the Chabad synagogue simply pitched in. No one asked us if we needed
help--everyone just did whatever needed to be done. Women announced that they would pick up the Boy from Gan Israel summer camp, take him home and feed him at their place so I could stay at the hospital; kosher meals were made and delivered with notes wishing us well; men came to visit the Husband in the hospital. One Israeli friend who davened
at Chabad infrequently called his cardiologist to get the inside scoop on doctors, and then steered us to the perfect cancer surgeon. The morning of the surgery, the guys got together a minyan to pray for the Husband's recovery. This kind of help continued the entire week the Husband was in the hospital and during his recovery for months afterward at home.
The Husband, always the kind of guy who thinks that men should be strong and never need anything from anybody, was rudely disabused of this notion by cancer. No man is an island, and this lesson was learned best at our little Chabad community where no one is allowed to be an island--we're all part of the greater whole.
He was touched and surprised by the outpouring of help and support. "This is the kind of community I want my son to grow up in," he told me during his recovery. "This is where I want him to be bar-mitzvahed."
He believes he made a mistake through his own ignorance in raising his girls as secular Zionists, which gave them no framework at all for dealing with California's soft prejudice of multiculturalism, where all cultures are equal so no culture, no identity has any value.
The sole Jewish reference point these girls got in California public school was antiSemitism (yes, even in uber-liberal Marin): middle daughter was pushed off a bench in 6th grade and told, "We don't let Jews sit here;" oldest daughter was subjected to "Jew jokes" by one boyfriend's cronies ("They're just kidding around, don't be so sensitive," he told her).
My favorite incident was when a boy swiped her change off the lunch room table. "Hey, give that back," she demanded. "Just like a Jew," he sneered. "Always about the money."
"Yeah, I'm a Jew--but you're a thief," she retorted caustically.
So the Husband concluded that raising his son in a more time-honored and traditional Jewish setting, where history, texts, Talmud, chaggim, Chesed, Tzedakah and Torah are all valued would both give our son and us a sense of belonging to a warm, caring, committed and wonderful Jewish community, while guarding against the rampant assimilation of America. "Then you need to be a part of this community," I told him, not unkindly. "It means being there for the minyans, being there to do this for other people, being there when people are sick, or need help, and being there for prayer."
He meant it. We koshered the kitchen. We bought kosher food and had two sets of dishes and pots and pans. We came every Shabbat. Then we moved up a step and stayed with friends in the community for Shabbat so we weren't driving. The we stopped eating out...then we sold our home and bought another that was three blocks from Chabad House. He didn't always make Shacharit during the week since his weekday often started at 0400 or 0500, but he did make all the minyans on Shabbat, and as many evening calls to prayer as possible.
The Boy grew up there and was Bar Mitzvahed there. For a special ed child with multiple physical limitations who found learning difficult, this was a small, special community of caring adults, many of them grandparents themselves, who were happy to share their knowledge of Judaism with our son (and a good thing, too, since we were learning right along with him). Other kids excelled at soccer, or Little League, or mountain biking, all pursuits our child could never begin to engage in. Instead, he engaged in Judaism, and grew into a love of Jewish law and learning, and a pride in being Jewish that in no way detracted from his love of being American or Israeli. His study and participation in this small congregation gave him a level of confidence we don't think he would have found anywhere else.
I owe a terrific debt of gratitude to the people of this special community, and I thank Baila for reminding me how important it is to acknowledge it.
So, thank you, Baila. And thank you Yisroel and Gittel, Hillel and Chana, Yisroel and Penina, Reuven and Lori, Reuven and Pescha and Aviva and Ephraim, Keren and Avi, Dov and Penina, Eli and Mendel and Shalom Dov Ber and Morah Mushke, and Nachman and Steve and Harriet and George -- we are this year in Jerusalem, and we rejoice in being here, but you know what? What you made in Marin is exceptionally special, and I haven't found its like in "community" so far.