Raised Reform, A Mom Finds Her Kids' Disabilities Give The Lie To Labels
05/03/2013 - 13:45
Joanna Dreifus
Joanna Dreifus
Joanna Dreifus

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/).


Your sister's blog led me here, and I'm so glad. Your essay touched on so many beautiful ideas: being invited in by others and yet not forced to be exactly like them, the unity of the Jewish people, the struggle of single parents and those whose children have all sorts of interesting labels (I've got one like that, too). Like other commenters said, it made me cry.

Thanks for sharing your story. May you be blessed with many reasons to live in joy.
Keep shining!! <3

Joanna your story actually brought tears to my eyes..very few things are worse then when your children aren't happy. So glad this has worked out for your family.

Your story brought tears of sadness and joy to me. We in in a society of people who always want to judge us. I command you for your dedication to your children and faith. I have a 14 year year old daughter with ADHD. We belong to a Conservative Synagogue where Bat Mitzvah requires a lot of hard work. I am proud to say that with a lot of nurturing from her tutor and hard work, my daughter did awesome with one of the longest haftorah portions. As mothers we do whatever it takes for our children. As Mother's day approaches, give yourself something special as you deserve it.

Thank you for this wonderful article that accurately describes the dangers of labels. Hatzlacha Raba in all thet you and your kids do.

Your post validated what I have been trying to articulate for many years.
I too was raised a reform Jew. My father was an esteemed reform rabbi and I went to
Reform religious school. I assumed, that I would be a reform Jew. In my life as well, things happened
That cast me outside the apparently, acceptable circumstances that seem to allow you to be embraced
By Reform Judaism. I soldiered on and continued to call myself a Reform Jew. In 2002, a few years after
My father passed away. I made the decision to become a cantor. I was a bit older at the time and though
I had been a musician for years, I was told by HUC, the reform seminary, that I would have to go back to school
And get my BA in music. I already had a BA. They discouraged me and said it would be a long hard rode
And I probably shouldn't bother. Miracle of Miracles, I heard of a school called The Academy for Jewish Religion, a transdenominational school with beautiful values.
They accepted me for my soul, my talent and my life experience. They allowed me to go part time while
I worked and made a living for myself which, being in my 30s and single, I had to do.
When I tried to get into the Reform cantors union, I was once again rejected for reasons never given.
I no longer, and will no longer call myself a Reform Jew. While, I certainly appreciate what the movement
Has done in terms of social progressiveness, I think it has lost some essential consciousness about humanity
And acceptance. From your story. I now realize that I am not alone. I appreciate you bravery and am so happy
To hear that you children feel loved and accepted.

I was completely touched by your post. Thank you for sharing your experience. I, too, don't fit any mold. I was not raised in a Jewish home, but chose a religious life when my youngest child was a senior in high school. My husband, who was not raised in a religious home, supported my decision, and walked beside me - even when all around us had nothing but criticism. That includes all of our family members, one of our adult children, and all of our friends and co-workers. They pooed off our decision as some kind of mid-life crisis or something. But now, 15 years later, we have a very Torah based life and home. Thankfully, none of our 10 grandkids have ever known us living any different way. I keep a kosher home. I haven't eaten non-kosher certified meat in more than 10 years. I light candles every week, and my husband brings home fresh flowers for our table every Friday after work. We celebrate every holiday - and invite many people into our home to celebrate with us: family, some old friends who have gotten over it, and lots of new friends. Jews, Noahides, Christians, Catholics, and some secular people too. We celebrate our lives and love, and Torah and G-d. We are not part of a synagogue because we don't live in a Jewish area of the country. Our lives are not like most of the people we know. But it "fits"us just fine. We Love Our Torah Life. I don't use the term Jewish because I've been told by many orthodox Jews that in order for me to be recognized as Jew (even though I have Jewish heritage as does my husband) I will have to convert. So, I will go on living as a square peg in a round world for now. And I do it with joy and love for Hashem, Torah, Israel, and all my family and friends. Blessings to you on your journey.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful and moving story Joanna! How wonderful that you and your children found a place that provides you with support, comfort, a sense of belonging and peace:-) As a teacher I know how important it is to make your classroom a home for every single child. I am moved beyond words at your ability to move forward in such a positive caring way after dealing with such a negative and cruel experience. You are wonderful model for your children and the lessons you have taught them about courage and finding new friends in a world where people can be so cruel is something they will carry in their hearts and minds forever. Truly a life lesson! You taught them about the power you have as individuals and as a family and you have taught them about love and the true meaning of Judaism. I wish you nothing but the best as you move forward as a beautiful caring mother and human being and I wish the same for your very lucky and kind hearted children. I would offer this ... lose the label single ... it does not define you in any way shape or form. Families come in all sizes and shapes these days. You are a woman with two children:-) Thanks again for sharing your story. Caren

This is a beautiful and moving post. Thank you for sharing. This is what Judaism is about. I'm so glad you and your children found a wonderful shul & school community.

What a beautiful and uplifting story.

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