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Religion à la Carte

For the last several years, we’ve been on the hunt for a religious institution to attend as a family—perhaps not every Saturday, but, you know, occasionally. We knew when I was pregnant with Archer that we would raise our kids Jewish, because that is what they are. (Seven-eighths, anyway. Hal is Jewish and my dad is Jewish and my mom is half Jewish—and, well, their last name is Isaacson.)

Hal grew up in a small town where being Jewish was anomalous, and while he felt the need to hide his Jewishness as a child, it was incredibly important to him that our kids did not.

For me, it was different. I grew up in a “hippy beach down” where “all of the above” was the way to go. I went to temple sporadically (to see my grandpa sing, mainly), attended Christian youth group Bible Study with my friends once a week, meditated in the Self-Realization Fellowship gardens (my best friend growing up was SRF) and danced with the local Hare Krishnas.

I always assumed I would raise my kids the same way I was raised, but when Hal and I got together and talked about how we would raise the son I was newly pregnant with and Hal told me straight up that raising him Jewish was hugely important to him, I agreed.

But perhaps bigger than all of that was the “World Religion Class” my mom taught in our living room every Sunday. It was important to her that we find our own spiritual paths so every week we read from different books of worship and studied the ONE GOD pervasive in all religious contexts. You know those "COEXIST" stickers? That was my childhood. That is my mother. That is my hometown.

(My mom also sang in the Unitarian Universalist Choir, because of course.)

My dad on the other hand, although raised Jewish, was (and still is) an agnostic and was a reluctant bystander to our family’s spiritual exploration.

I always assumed I would raise my kids the same way I was raised, but when Hal and I got together and talked about how we would raise the son I was newly pregnant with and Hal told me straight up that raising him Jewish was hugely important to him, I agreed.

And while we celebrate Christmas (non-religiously) and Easter Brunch (also, non-religiously) at my parents’ house, we have had a Christmas tree-free, no-Easter-Bunnies allowed household from the beginning.

Our problem, though, has always been an inability to find a temple that suits us. Over the years we have tried on several for size. We have looked into various Jewish preschools and attended various services, but never have we felt comfortable in any of the environments. On the contrary, we both felt incredibly uncomfortable at all of the services we attended because organized religion does that to both of us. (Hal and I are on exactly the same spiritual page, which is remarkable, really. Our politics are identical as well, which I am also grateful for. I am realizing, as I get older, how crucial that has been to our marriage, but that’s for another post.)

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Recently, after touring ANOTHER temple we had heard rave reviews about, we finally looked at each other and admitted that this joining-a-temple thing was not going to work. It wasn’t for us.

“I felt like I was going to have an anxiety attack in there,” I said.

“I know. Me, too.”

“How do we raise Jewish kids without attending organized services?”

I also believe that coming of age ceremonies are crucial, especially for boys who do not have a “moment” when they realize their manhood in the same way that girls have their periods

It turns out, there are many options out there for people like us. It ALSO turns out that there are A LOT of people like us—who want their kids to have religious knowledge and experience, to identify to their cultural ancestry, be familiar with the Bible stories, and most importantly, find their own way to GOD (whatever GOD means to them).

I believe wholeheartedly in the spiritual significance of higher powers, whether they be science-based or faith-based or both. (I am my mother AND father’s daughter, after all.)

I feel it is important for my children to understand and identify with their ancestry and religious heritage. I was reminded of this this week when various members of my family posted old photos of some of our European cousins and great-aunts and uncles that were lost in the Holocaust. There were 21 pictures in all, many of them children—all family that I knew existed but had never seen, whose great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren would have been the same age as my children. If we cannot know them and their stories, the least we can do is join them in solidarity.

This is who you are and where you come from. This is part of our family story.

I also believe that coming of age ceremonies are crucial, especially for boys who do not have a “moment” when they realize their manhood in the same way that girls have their periods. And while it is more than possible to have these kinds of ceremonies without religious affiliations, it is meaningful for us—for Archer—to follow in Hal’s Bar Mitzvah-having footsteps. (It was a life-changing moment for him as a boy/man.)

Anyway, we knew from the beginning we would send our kids to Hebrew School but it wasn’t until we found something called Hebrew Helpers, here in LA, that we found our perfect fit.

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Temple à la Carte, I like to call it. It consists of classes here at the house. We have teamed up with another family and will be doing twice-monthly classes, similar to what my mother did for us growing up, but heavy on the Judaism part.

The kids’ Bar/Bat Mitzvah(s) will be wherever they want it to be—a beach or a forest or a train station, their Nana’s garden— wherever it is that makes him/her feel whole and spiritually alive. AND I LOVE THAT. Create your own house of worship, become the man/woman you want to be in the place that moves you most.

I feel so fortunate to live in a time (and a place) where options like this exist for people (like us) who straddle the line between WANTING their kids to have a religious experience and feeling uncomfortable with THE religious experience. We do not have to believe in organized religion to respect and learn about Judaism. There is not a one-size-fits all when it comes to belief in God or any spiritual experience (Not to us, anyway.) and the fact that we can pool our collective knowledge gained through two very different upbringings and smash it all together, makes everything feel... right.

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