My husband glanced up from the list of Thanksgiving recipes sent home by our son’s kindergarten teacher in preparation for their in-school Thanksgiving Feast.
“At least nothing has seeds, nuts, or pineapple,” I offered, relieved that he would not have an allergic reaction to any of the foods.
“Yeah,” my husband agreed. “But it’s all treyf [not kosher]!”
And thus ensued an honest, heartfelt, and open discussion about our son, his special needs, and our Jewish observance. It was not the first time we’ve been confronted with the reality of sending our son with Fragile X Syndrome to a public school, where his needs are met through a variety of services. And it most certainly will not be the last. But each new situation is a new challenge, opening up more conversation about our values. What amazes me is how easy it is to agree with the opposite opinion from mine, and still not know what the right answer is.
We are observant Conservative Jews who keep a kosher home and observe Shabbat and holidays. While we eat dairy and fish outside of our home, it’s only food that could be kosher (like salmon—no shrimp or meat!). And while I recognize that our way of living will seem too liberal to some and too stringent to others, I am sharing our practice not to be judged, but to be better understood.
Here’s our conflict:
The recipes include a non-kosher turkey and side dishes that include either non-kosher chicken stock or sour cream (mixing milk and meat). There’s no way to make this meal kosher without going through a lot of effort (and enforcing our choices on others, which doesn’t seem right). If I were personally in this situation, I would simply not eat any of the food. But we’re talking about a 5-year-old! We tried to find substitutions at our local kosher grocery store, but they didn’t have their Thanksgiving foods in yet. And while I’d love to cook a full Thanksgiving meal just days before the actual Thanksgiving… oh, right, no I would not love to do that!
Do we let our child eat treyf? Do we knowingly send him to school and allow him to unknowingly (remember, he’s 5) break Jewish law?
Add to the challenging situation that at 5 years old, and with Fragile X along with severe food allergies, our child is already singled out as different in so much of his school day: he rides on a mini-bus instead of walking with our neighbors; he leaves the classroom for his special services; and at lunch he sits at the “peanut-free table” (though he still thinks that’s the cool table!). We worry that he might feel left out if he helped prepare the food with his peers but then could not eat it. It broke my heart to think of him eating food from home when all of his friends were feasting on their Thanksgiving delicacies.
I don’t know if our decision is one I’m proud of, but I am proud of our thought-process in reaching the decision. My husband and I shared our values with each other, considering our Jewish commitments and our son’s best interests. We talked about how he might feel not being part of the group yet again and how we might feel knowing that he was eating non-kosher food. We debated if we had an obligation to teach him—right here, right now—about keeping kosher, or if, especially given his cognitive delays, we could wait to have that discussion. And of course, we questioned our decision over and over again, worrying that we were making excuses, taking the easy way out, and giving in. As a rabbi, I worried about what message I was sending to my peers who might view me as a role model in Jewish observance. But as a mom, all I wanted was for my son to be happy, healthy, and safe.
In the end, we’ve decided to let our son eat at his Thanksgiving Feast. We are pretty confident that like every other kindergartner, he will look at the food and refuse to eat it anyway, so we’re probably safe. And if he eats a bit, we will be OK. And so will he.