In these busy and trying times, it can feel like we are always ‘on’. With adults telecommuting and kids distance learning or homeschooling, the usual barriers between work and home are blurred. Work takes over spaces and times that should be reserved for family, and the kids can walk in during work meetings.
One solution to this conundrum is to clearly mark time – instead of separating in space, we separate in time. My family has recently found some comfort in observing the Jewish traditions of Shabbat and Havdalah to help us do this. The symbolism of these rituals resonates with us and gives us something to look forward to.
Shabbat marks the end of the working week. We light candles, bless the wine, and bread–All good Jewish celebrations feature fire, wine, and food! These remind us to carry a light within ourselves, to rest, and to honor the earth and the workers that provide our food. We also honor our children and remind them how they honor us. The weekend is the time to slow down and connect with family.
Havdalah marks the end of the Sabbath. We light a braided candle to signify how family, friends, and community burn brightly together while still maintaining their own identities. We pass around wine and spices that represent the fragrant beauty of all that is good and true in life and sustains us for the entire week. During Tri-Valley Cultural Jews regular community Havdalahs (which have gone online for the time being), we then share any special or notable events that have happened during the last week. These can be anything from our littlest members losing a tooth, to someone getting a job promotion. We then extinguish the candle in the wine, transferring its spark to our hearts to carry forward into the week. Community Havdalahs are then frequently followed by games (or movies and pizza, in less socially-distant times). Connecting in this way has helped me and my family stay sane and make stronger connections in the community. We hope to see you at a Havdalah sometime soon!
During the course of my family’s time in TVCJ, both of my children went through the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. As they were getting started, I was excited in anticipation of watching each of them prepare for their “big day”. In my mind, I was comparing the work they were about to undertake with the preparation I did at their age in a reform congregation. For me, learning Hebrew, memorizing my Torah portion, and writing my speech were all means to an end; stepping stones to help me achieve my goal of becoming a successful Bar Mitzvah when the day came.
Very quickly it became apparent that the work my kids were doing was different. The work WAS the goal in and of itself, with the “big day” simply being a culmination and sharing of all the growth they had both made while going through the entire process. My daughter got in touch with distant Jewish relatives of ours in Brazil to learn about their culture, and she researched Jews in the history of the ballet. My son prepared an authentic Jewish Hungarian meal, read a novel about the holocaust, and created an online informational map of the concentration camps the main character was sent to. Both of them put in several hours of community service with a local food kitchen providing meals for those in need. These are just a few examples of the many projects they invested their time in. And that work wasn’t in preparation for what was to come… the work itself molded who they were, and the adults they were growing to become. The lessons learned by doing these projects guided their development. When their “big days” finally came, the work was already done, and all that was left was the joyous occasion of sharing their experiences with friends and family.
And this, I came to realize, was so much more fulfilling for them both. Our more religious relatives who came to the ceremonies commented on how evident it was that the students in our Brit Mitzvah program were getting a much more meaningful experience than we had received in our own, more traditional, Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs. My mother commented on her surprise over how “Jewish” the entire experience was. As a parent, watching my children live and grow into adulthood, I was extremely grateful for the opportunities provided them by our program. I would highly recommend it to other parents who are looking for a meaningful and valuable experience for their own children.
Growing up in a conversative Jewish household, I came to dread the High Holidays. Yom Kippur meant hour upon hour of services in impenetrable Hebrew standing in an uncomfortable suit, hunger gnawing all the while. Rosh Hashanah was only better in the sense that there was no fasting, but then stretched across two days rather than one. I had little care for the significance of the days, and even the fact that it usually meant missing a few days of school was little consolation when measured against the discomfort and boredom. In discussions with others who were raised in conservative or traditional Judaism, I learned that I was not alone in this opinion.
As an adult, I have a greater appreciation for the meaning behind these days, but little interest in subjecting myself or my own children to what I mostly remember as torment.
However, the High Holidays as celebrated by Tri-Valley Cultural Jews bear little resemblance to my prior experience. The focus is on the meaning of the days, but expressed in contemporary terms that are both more relatable to secular Jews of all ages and surprisingly enjoyable. The key rituals remain — the blowing of the shofar, Tashlich, the round challah — but they are framed in a modern and meaningful way.
So today, rather than dreading the High Holidays, I find myself looking forward to them, more fully able to appreciate their significance and the opportunity to celebrate with the TVCJ community.