My 3-year-old daughter has been going to Tot Shabbat for years, but for my 8-year-old daughter, this past Yom Kippur was her first synagogue experience. Our family’s story is not simple. My older daughter is a product of my first marriage, and I share custody of her with my ex-husband. When we were married, neither of us practiced a religion, so we decided to let our daughter choose—or not choose—which religion she wanted to affiliate herself with whenever she was old enough to make the decision. But since our divorce, I converted to Judaism, and now my wife and our 3-year-old daughter are Jewish. As I wrote about on Kveller before, my ex was still adamant that I not expose my daughter to Judaism until she made that decision for herself.
Naturally, she became curious about all religions, as she has friends who are Christian, Catholic, Islamic, and Hindu. And, of course, she lives with her sister and her mommies, and we’re Jewish. She had questions about what the various beliefs were, and we answered her questions in what seemed like an understandable way considering her age and maturity level. We had to limit her exposure of the religious side of Judaism, but we enjoyed sharing the culture and the history with her. But the time came when the culture wasn’t enough, and she wanted to see the place where we took her little sister for Tot Shabbat. She wanted to hear what a rabbi says at services. She also expressed interest in seeing a Greek Orthodox service because we attended a cultural fair at a Greek Orthodox facility, and she wanted to meet a priest and attend a Catholic service.
I took a deep breath, because I knew she was heading into serious territory here, whether she knew it or not.
We had a parent dinner with my older daughter (me and my wife, my ex and his) and we were just “checking in” with how she was feeling about 3rd grade, being at a new dance school, and if there was anything she wanted all of us to hear together. I knew she would likely bring up attending the various religious institutions, and I hoped that despite prior conversations I had with her father, that he would listen to her and that he might see that this was just a healthy curiosity and one that we should allow her to explore. He was more than hesitant…he was more than skeptical…and he was less than agreeable.
So when I received a message from him two days before the start of Yom Kippur saying that he thought it was fine if she went to the Family Service with us, I almost choked on my iced tea. He said that they had started reading about all different religions and that he was going to take her to a Christian service at some point in the future. When I told my daughter that her dad agreed that she could attend the service, she beamed with excitement. She could finally see the mysterious sanctuary in the synagogue where her little sister and her mommies went for services.
At first I thought Yom Kippur might be a little much for a first visit, but then I realized she was going to get to be a part of the holiest and arguably most important Jewish day of the year… it was bashert.
At the synagogue, she looked around with the curious eyes of an 8-year-old anticipating what something was going to be like that she had been imagining, but couldn’t really imagine. She asked about the “blankets” that people were wearing around their shoulders and I explained what a tallit was. She asked about the “stage” that the rabbi (she knew he was the rabbi, because he married her other mom and I) and the woman with the guitar were standing on, and I talked about the bimah and explained the role of the cantor. As the Religious School Director performed a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as a parable for the kids to help explain some of the main principles of Yom Kippur, I watched her with great pride as she laughed at the appropriate times and seemed completely enthralled with the whole experience.
As we left, I asked her what she thought of it all. She said she liked it and that she might want to go again sometime. She still enjoys it when we take her to the cultural things (like a Purim carnival or a Tu Bishvat seder at the synagogue), and she talks about maybe choosing to be Jewish when she gets older…or maybe Christian…or maybe no religion. She seems to have the same curiosity that I grew up with regarding religion–exploring, learning, but not yet knowing where she finds a fit.
It took me over 30 years to figure it out, but when I did, I made a true educated and heartfelt commitment to Judaism for life. I am hopeful that she will take the time she needs to make the best decision for herself, and that the exposure and education we provide her about all religions teach her acceptance and tolerance. Now the synagogue isn’t the place she complains she “never gets to go to,” but instead is the place where she heard the pretty music in the language she can’t yet speak.