This article appears in the January 2014 issue of The New Mexico Jewish Link.
Learning in Costa Rica
by Marisa Barreda Lipscher
During our flight to Costa Rica this past summer, I leaned over to my two kids and reminded them that if our hosts in this predominantly Christian nation happened to ask about our religious or cultural background, they might not know what “Jewish” meant.
I advised the kids to think of themselves as Jewish ambassadors, whereupon they smiled and nodded at each other, impressing me for the umpteenth time with their resilience and simple acceptance of this all-too-common scenario. It’s something my 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son have encountered their entire lives, even right here in the United States.
“You’re Jewish?” a boy once innocently asked my son. “Does that mean you’re home-schooled?”
I never had to answer questions like that growing up because I was raised in a devoutly Catholic and Hispanic family in a solidly Catholic and Hispanic community. But after marrying my Jewish-born and raised husband more than 20 years ago, I eventually chose to convert to Judaism, and soon found myself facing the same questions as my children do today.
But no matter how much I read or study Jewish customs and rituals, I sometimes find myself groping for answers. I used to think it was because I did not have a Jewish upbringing, but after discussing this with Jewish-born and raised friends over the years, including my husband, I found that they often share these same feelings of inadequacy with respect to Jewish literacy.
Why? Look no further than the oft-deliberated Pew Research Center study published in October.
American Jews are proud to be Jewish and feel an attachment to Israel, the study reported, but 22 percent say they have no religion. Moreover, each generation is becoming more secular and intermarriage is on the rise. And regardless of religious views or background, the majority of Jews say being Jewish is “mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.”
On the one hand, the study shows me that our “unique” Jewish family is not so different after all. But on the other, it prompts me to ask what my husband and I should be doing differently, if anything, to strengthen our childrens’ Jewish identities so that the long and hard history of their ancestors is not lost forever.
While I may never have all the answers, I can confidently say that one of our wisest investments has been in Jewish day school education. When I think of the years our children have spent in Jewish day schools, I often think of a touching analogy once made by my dear friend, Nancy, who lives in El Paso. She is a brilliant horticulturalist and can coax the most beautiful flowers and plants out of the driest earth.
“When you care for a young tree, you have to properly prune it, water it and expose it to just the right amount of sunlight so that it will grow deep roots and a strong structure,” she said.
“You help that tree when it matters most – at a young age – so that it can weather the storms it will face all of its life.
Our children are like those trees and Jewish day schools are one of the best gifts we can give them.”
My daughter is a high school freshman, but my son has been a student at the Jewish Academy of Arts and Sciences, which serves kindergarten through fifth grade, for almost 4 years. In a pretty close reflection of the Pew Research Center study, the families at the Jewish Academy are a diverse bunch.
Some of the families belong to local synagogues while others do not. Some observe Shabbat regularly while others feel gratitude with reciting simple blessings and lighting candles on Friday nights. And for being a small school, the mix of ethnicities and cultures always impresses me. It is a close-knit group of families who not only understand differences, but embrace them.
But what really unites Jewish Academy families is a commitment to giving our children, on a daily basis, the best possible education in not just academic subjects, but in Jewish values like tikkun olam. In other words, we are teaching our children to be critical and creative thinkers as they develop Jewish literacy. They are learning not just about the science behind the human circulatory system, for instance, but how to read and write in Hebrew.
Once my children become adults, I will not be able to determine where they live, who they marry, whether they will marry, whether they will have children, or even how they will identify as Jewish. But my husband and I can give them a beautiful childhood rooted with compassion, good judgment and indelible Jewish values that will help guide them whatever storms should come their way.
With almost script-like precision about a week after we landed in Costa Rica, our Spanish-speaking hosts asked us what it meant to be Jewish. I did my best to condense more than 3,600 years of history into a simple explanation, but they only had one follow-up question:
“Does this mean that your kids cannot watch TV during the school week? Because if that’s the case, our last guests might have been Jewish too.”
I turned to my kids and we smiled at each other and I did not have to say another word because my little Jewish diplomats took care of the rest.
Marisa Barreda Lipscher is on the Board of Directors for Albuquerque's Jewish Academy of Arts and Sciences.
To contact Marisa or the Jewish Academy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column appears in the January 2014 issue of The New Mexico Jewish Link.