Five sets of parents sat around the stylish South End living room, all very comfortable with one another after two-plus years of learning together. This comfort wasn’t just an extension of the hours they’d sat swapping parenting struggles and tips, or looking at texts to find layers of meaning that could add to their family life. They’d also spent time with one another’s families outside of the monthly meetings, and this year in particular they had been there for each other during major circle of life events – one member lost his father just before Thanksgiving, and one couple welcomed a sweet baby boy born before Passover (and amazingly only missed one of our sessions). There were sources we covered in our learning together that pertained to both family losses and additions, but what this group knew without having to ever read a text was the value in just showing up for one another.
Meeting once a month, this unique group in the city focused on subjects such as infusing our lives with meaning, parenting for community, peace in the home and hopes and dreams. We shared stories about the values we grew up with – how our parents showed us the importance of taking care of others, and what memorable childhood milestones we hope our children will experience in a Jewish context – and we also explored ancient and modern texts to broaden our thinking on subjects at the intersection of Judaism and parenting.
Often at the end of a session the group would ask me, “Did we take us off topic too many times?” I made sure to tell them that what they may have thought of as “off topic” was exactly the place I hoped our conversations would go. The most successful class discussions are when we jump from the text to a discussion on how the issue comes up in our day-to-day lives, and then onto another text and back to real life again.
As we wrapped up our final session, we discussed how we were challenged in the class. One parent honestly shared – as honesty was a group norm set long ago – that even after two years of learning together it was still hard to look at an ancient text. To him, those text felt so antiquated, and he was alienated by them, whereas looking at more progressive versions brought our conversations to modern places that he felt more comfortable in.
We all understood that tension between ancient Jewish tradition and our modern selves. At times they can feel at odds with each other – the past (ancient and our own), the present and the future.
But there have been powerful moments of reinterpretation that helped us transcend that divide. We realized that we don’t have to read the Talmudic text from tractate Shabbat as literally “After a person dies and is led in for heavenly judgement he is asked; Did you conduct your business transactions faithfully? Did you set aside fixed times for Torah? Did you engage in procreation?”
Instead, many of us found comfort in PTJL Teacher Natan Margalit’s Interpretive translation: “When a person is brought in for judgement they ask him or her – were you fair and honest with people? Did you take time to learn about your connection to Judaism? Did you take time to clarify your values and beliefs? Were you fruitful? Did you bring something new into the world? Did you create something that will last into the next generation? Were you a good family member, a good friend?”
We found that we can each bring a lens of our own to each text, each conversation, and each topic, and be in a constant mode of reinterpretation and personalization. We hope that our children will experience similar joys and find new perspectives in their Jewish learning and living.
Elisha Gechter, former associate director of community engagement for adult learning at Hebrew College, is program manager of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. A graduate of the Heller Hornstein master’s program at Brandeis University, she was named a 2015 Chai in the Hub honoree by Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
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