I always assumed I would raise my children as Reform Jews, just as I had been raised. Actually, when I was growing up, I considered our family "observant Reform." We went to temple every Shabbat and holiday. My father was president of our congregation; my mother chaired innumerable committees and my sister and I served as youth group presidents. We were proud Jews, but liberal ones. Few people in our synagogue (ourselves included) kept kosher or wore kippot. In college, I was one of the few Hillel regulars who needed to learn the Birkat Hamazon. Some years after college, when my husband and I married, we joined a Reform congregation, fully expecting our own new family to follow a similar path.
But things didn’t turn out as expected. In my mid-thirties, my marriage, which had faltered for some time, ended. I was left to raise my four-year-old daughter and fourteen-month-old son mostly on my own. And that's when the “labels” that had defined various areas of my life -- including my Jewish affiliation -- started to blur.
I was the only one of my friends going through a divorce this young. My isolation and pain were compounded by the fact that both of my children exhibited increasingly complex special needs. Our daily life was marked by evaluations, therapies and doctors (often, these appointments overlapped with court dates for my divorce). The kids’ diagnoses included an alphabet soup of developmental delays, from apraxia (a motor planning disorder that delays speech) to hypotonia (low muscle tone) to sensory integration disorder (over-sensitivity to different textures, tastes, and sounds).
The preschool at our Reform synagogue incorrectly labeled my daughter “selectively mute.” I overheard other moms speculating about what was “wrong” with my daughter, and even why my marriage had failed. Every morning, my daughter cowered in her cubby. At the end of that school year, one student teacher confided that the head teacher had instructed others to ignore my daughter when she cried.
Unsurprisingly, I started to withdraw from our Reform congregation. Then fate intervened—call it “beshert.” Once we realized that my daughter would benefit from a smaller, more nurturing environment than our local public school could provide, we embarked on a series of kindergarten applications. When an acceptance letter came from a Jewish day school affiliated with an Orthodox synagogue, we grabbed the coveted spot, although I worried that, due to our Reform background, we would not fit in.
But those fears proved to be unfounded. The teachers loved my bright, if quirky, daughter. She came out of her shell, joked with other children, and made friends. She loved learning Hebrew. Every Saturday, we were invited to Tot Shabbat and lunch at the day school's synagogue. No one batted an eye when I showed up each week as a single mom (wearing pants, no less) with a cranky child clinging to each hand. No one reprimanded us when my sensory-defensive toddler son (who could not tolerate the feel of anything touching his scalp) refused to wear a kippah. They simply said, “We’re glad you’re here.” They led my children by the hands to participate in gentle Shabbat activities so that I could sit, relax and pray. My daughter, isolated at our old synagogue, loved seeing her new classmates each Saturday. My son, who could not yet speak at age 2, grinned and hugged a plush Torah as he marched with the other children. For the first time, I felt at peace with my family’s new situation. I prayed that the feeling would last, and it has.
When people ask us now if we’re Reform, I say, “We’re a little bit of everything.” I am a single, Reform-raised mother who takes her children to worship at an Orthodox shul. My daughter, now 9 years old, muses about becoming a Bat Mitzvah at her grandparents’ Reform congregation so that she can proudly show everyone how fluently she reads Torah. I am thrilled for her, and for us, that we can do what works best for us. We are defying labels, as a family and as Jews, and we have never felt more at home.
Joanna Dreifus is a New York City mother of two and founder of Special Kids NYC (http://www.specialkidsnyc.com), a consulting service for families of children with special needs. She serves on the boards of YAI's Manhattan Star Academy (http://www.yai.org/agencies/manhattan-star-academy/) and New York League for Early Learning (http://www.yai.org/agencies/nyl/).
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