I am sending my 5-year-old son to school on the holy days of Sukkot. It will be the first time we’ve ever done this, and the decision is killing me.
We’re an observant family; we’ve never sent our kids to school on a holiday. We go to synagogue, where I’m the rabbi. But this year, we have decided to send him to school. And while I am still struggling with this decision, I know it is right for our family. The reason I’m finally OK with this decision might be surprising.
Our son has Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic mutation that causes intellectual disability and is the leading single-gene cause of autism. For him, missing school ruins his entire day, week, or month. He craves routine. He likes order. He loves his kindergarten teacher and his peers, so not seeing them is devastating. Add to it that synagogue is where we go once a week, on Shabbat, and going more often, especially on a weekday, just feels wrong to him. He won’t sit still; he will run around in the halls with my husband chasing after him. Not exactly a meaningful religious experience.
But that’s not the reason we’re sending him to school on Sukkot.
As a rabbi in a Conservative synagogue, I want to send a message to my congregants (who are friends and parents just like me) that the Jewish holidays are beautiful and meaningful and that they should be celebrated as a family by taking off of work and school. I worry that when they see my child at school, my peers will feel that the holiday is less important—even to the rabbi! But I also want everyone to know that we make decisions that are in our children’s best interest, and for this child, I know that he will have a much better experience at school. We will still bring him to synagogue for Simchat Torah at night (though I’m sure he’ll only last five minutes due to the chaos and noise). I hope I am able to convey the message that we are sending our child to school because we are prioritizing his needs.
But that’s also not the reason we’re sending him to school on Sukkot.
The real reason I’m OK sending my son to school on Sukkot has nothing really to do with my son’s disabilities or the message I want to send to my congregation. It’s actually about my husband, my wonderful co-parent, my partner on this incredible journey. He deserves to have a meaningful Jewish experience too! He needs to come to synagogue, put on his tallis, open a siddur, and pray. He should hold a lulav and etrog in his hands, and not also be wrestling with our child. He deserves to foster his own relationship with God, with Jewish tradition and rituals, and with the people in our community.
It is so hard to be the rabbi’s husband (though instead of “rebbetzin” we call the rabbi’s husband “lucky”!). He’s always in synagogue and yet he’s not able to be part of most services due to our son’s disabilities. It is much harder to parent a child with special needs when your co-parent is 50 feet away on the bimah and she can’t help during a meltdown. Adults deserve to have meaningful Jewish experiences too, and sometimes that needs to happen without our children nearby.
So we are sending our son to school on Sukkot, for his sake and for ours.
And when he comes home, we will eat in our sukkah, we will wave the lulav and etrog together, and we will make it a meaningful experience for our entire family.