I’d like to say that my Jewish husband, Ryan, and I had a plan when we started our family—Jewish preschool for the kids, Friday night Shabbat dinners, latke-making—but we didn’t. Like many freshly-minted parents, we were just trying to keep our kid and ourselves alive for the first 15 months of our first daughter’s life. Then at one early-bird dinner at California Pizza Kitchen, my mother-in-law asked, “So when will Lucy start preschool at B’nai Torah?”
Shut the front door!
Why didn’t we think about this before? It wasn’t by conscious omission, we were so just consumed with sippy cups and diapers and toys that the thought of starting Jewish preschool hadn’t even crossed our collective mind.
Did I mention that my mother-in-law was the director of the Preschool at B’nai Torah?
Ok, so we bumbled that one.
Little did we know that sending our daughter to Jewish preschool, along with our next two kids, would be the cornerstone of their early Jewish education and identity.
We are an interfaith family. Ryan is Jewish and I am…well, not. I dabbled in a few religions growing up but never found anything that really resonated with me. So when Ryan and I got married and had kids we agreed they would be raised Jewish. From what I knew of the religion it made sense. I liked the Jewish people I’d met (mostly Ryan’s family) and I liked what Judaism stood for.
When Lucy started Jewish preschool, there were challenges: some hidden and some in plain sight. For one, deciphering Shabbat tunes was a lot like singing along to the car radio…I belted out every fourth or fifth word, but it was mostly a lot of mumbling and humming. The activities, the language, the traditions—they were all foreign to me and my daughter (heck, my Jewish husband didn’t even know the difference between some of the holidays).
And what made it worse was all the moms seemed to know each other; some even grew up together. At a “Muffins with Mom” event, I remember sitting at the 10-top, waiting for someone to talk to me. I felt isolated. I felt different. The truth is, I was different. I didn’t know one single Jewish person growing up. I went to a Catholic university (even though I’m not Catholic), I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, and my family didn’t belong to a synagogue. Don’t get me wrong, some of these challenges aren’t necessarily unique to an interfaith family, but they certainly are highlighted.
But then I looked at everything my family was gaining because we were sending our daughter to a Jewish preschool. Number one, FREEDOM FOR FOUR HOURS A DAY. Number two, she was forging bonds that would foster her Jewish growth for years to come. Number three, Lucy was learning things that I could never teach her about: Jewish concepts, holidays, foods, language, etc. (There is something very special about your child being smarter than you!) But number four is very important to me, FREEDOM FOR FOUR HOURS A DAY. Did I mention that?
It took a bit of time, but I found my place as the parent who isn’t Jewish at a Jewish preschool. Turns out that my insecurities were just that—mine. It was my perceived lack of belonging that bound me. Once I realized this, I started accepting PTA positions that allowed me to better understand the processes and traditions involved with Judaism. I sought out roles that didn’t require extensive knowledge of Judaism so that I could learn while still serving the preschool. I eventually learned every word of every tune at Shabbat sing-along…sort-of, kind-of, OK, like 50 percent. And our whole preschool experience functioned as a springboard to many new friends and family traditions. As an interfaith family member, I think I learned as much at Jewish preschool as my three kids!
Ultimately, with an open heart, and an open mind, I felt accepted.