Married, With Kids: Israel Calling
By Lauren Kramer
My son Jason, 16, called me from his tour bus in Israel a few days ago. “It’s incredible here, mom!” he said, his voice tinged with excitement. “I just came from Hebron where we visited the grave sites of Abraham and Sarah. We learned about excavations of pottery shards from civilizations thousands of years old. This is so cool!”
The call was like a cool drink of water on a hot day. On a month-long NCSY tour with his peers, my teenager was connecting exuberantly with Jewish history, watching in amazement as it came to life before his eyes. He was at the Kotel at sunset, feeling the wind in his hair on the Kinneret and hiking exuberantly through waist-deep water. Missing him, I heaved a sigh of relief. He was on a Jewish journey that would connect him with his roots, give him a sense of Jewish place in the world and leave him with lifelong memories. I knew exactly how he felt.
At 15, a plump, pimply teenager with little confidence, I’d done a similar trip to Israel and found it transformative. I remember participating in archeological digs in Susia, walking the quiet streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat and tasting challah from different bakers at the Shuk. I hiked through rivers, explored dark caves and climbed Masada at 5 am. When I returned home five weeks later, I had heaps more confidence, fewer pounds around my middle (a side effect of those hikes in 38 degree Celsius heat!) and a spiritual connection that would last a lifetime. Now my son was getting the same experience.
It couldn’t come at a better time in his life.
For the past three years since he left Jewish day school there have been times when his Jewish identity has felt tenuous at best. Come the High Holy Days he’d prefer to attend school than shul, and when I get him into the synagogue I highly doubt there’s any meaningful prayer going on. “It’s boring,” he says by way of explanation. “What’s the point?”
I try to focus on the Jewish traditions he enjoys: the Kiddush he recites Friday night at our family table, the challah and chicken soup that are the culinary highlights of his week and the festival meals he still oves. But there’s a nagging fear at the back of my mind. Will he make Jewish choices when he leaves home a year from now to pursue his studies, I wonder. Will he join Chabad for Friday night meals when he’s no longer with our family, or will Friday night become just another night of the week? Will he actively seek the company of other Jews on his university campus, or assimilate? And what kind of girl will he eventually bring home – a Krista or a Leah?
A few years ago it felt like we had a lifetime to make a Jewish imprint on his life. Now, we’re left with just a handful of months before he packs his bags and heads off into the wide world. Did we do a good enough job? Was there more we should have done?
When he was five I bumped into the rabbi who performed his circumcision. As we exchanged pleasantries, he asked which school our son would attend. Expecting endorsement, I mentioned the secular Jewish day school close to our home. The rabbi was discouraging. “I’d strongly suggest the orthodox one instead,” he said gently. “Think about it: Jews are getting less, not more connected to their faith. Why not give him the full orthodox experience at school?”
We didn’t follow his advice. We knew the children at that school would be growing payot, that their families would be shomer Shabbat and that our home would never be sufficiently kosher for their parents. We made secular choices – and today, we have secular results.
So, when the NCSY trip came to our attention, we were grateful he wanted to go. We helped him pack with open hearts and a prayer for a safe return because we know it is one of the last opportunities we have to immerse our son in Judaism. By sending him to Israel we’re asking others to take him by the hand, connect him to his past and hopefully, tie him to his Jewish future.