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3/5/2009 7:06:00 AM  Email this article Print this article 
Bubble-up Judaism
Tradition sometimes follows a road less traveled
by Richard Greenberg

Associate Editor

On their second date, Mike Sloan told his wife-to-be, Maria, that he wanted their children to be raised Jewish.

This came as a surprise to then-Catholic Maria, whose future husband, a Jew, had been raised in a household so devoid of Judaism that he hadn't even had a bar mitzvah ceremony.

"The nerve," she said laughingly in an interview last week, recalling that perplexing episode from 18 years ago. "On the other hand, it meant that something culturally Jewish was obviously there."

And there was. That spark of latent Yiddishkeit eventually fanned into an enduring flame of Jewish observance. But the catalyst for that awakening can be traced back to an event that seemed religiously inconsequential at the time ----the young couple's decision to enroll their daughter, Sarah, in a neighborhood preschool. It happened to be Jewish.

"Looking back, it really was quite life-altering," said Maria, 45, a Chevy Chase resident. "If we hadn't entered that building, I cannot imagine how all the stars would have aligned so well."

The building in question was the Gan HaYeled Nursery School of Conservative Adas Israel Congregation in the District. By enrolling Sarah there, the Sloans unwittingly tapped into a reserve of Jewish tradition and ritual they had never before been exposed to.

In the process, they inverted the deeply embedded precept that Jewish knowledge is transmitted almost exclusively from parent to child, a trickle-down phenomenon.

The Sloans, instead, were the beneficiaries of bubble-up Judaism. By schlepping home crafts projects and other introductory materials related to holidays and Shabbat, Sarah initially served as the family's educational emissary. She helped inject Jewish content into the Sloan home for the first time. This, in turn, spawned even more substantive efforts on the part of her parents to bond with the Jewish community.

"I definitely hear parents report this to me all the time," said Shelley Remer, director of Gan HaYeled, commonly known as "the Gan." "They are surprised at how involved they become as a family. Eventually, their lives really revolve around Jewish tradition."

At a time when many Jewish families with young children have only a tenuous connection with their faith, reverse-osmosis Judaism has become a natural byproduct of Jewish preschools, according to several local educators.

"I can't even begin to count how many times I've heard about this," said Paula Slavsky, director of the preschool at Reform Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon. "My goal is to get families involved, and a majority do. I try to connect people, and it's wonderful to see it come to fruition."

The same phenomenon has even been observed at Silver Spring Learning Center, an Orthodox preschool that accepts children of all backgrounds.

"It's not uncommon at all," said the school's director, Debbie Ungar. "We've seen families become more interested in Judaism and become part of the community through their kids. It's wonderful. It's exciting for everyone."

Families who have established a connection with Judaism through their children come from many backgrounds. Some are interfaith couples. Others were once involved Jewishly, but became disconnected from their roots. In each instance, though, the birth of a child awakened a desire to reconnect, explore Judaism for the first time, or at least provide their son or daughter with a solid Judaic grounding.

For David and Leslie Clesner of Silver Spring, the impetus to grow Jewishly was the birth of their twin daughters, Heidi and Delaney, now 5. They attend Silver Spring Learning Center.

"We wanted them to be exposed to Jewish things that they wouldn't necessarily be exposed to at home," said Leslie, 35, a professional organizer, who celebrated the major holidays during her formative years and had a bat mitzvah ceremony. Still, her basic Jewish knowledge base was lacking. Her husband, also 35, came from a mixed background. His father is Jewish and his mother is not; David did not have a bar mitzvah ceremony.

Clesner said her twins have served as an invaluable conduit of Judaism, providing information on how to perform certain rituals and how to celebrate some lesser-known holidays. "I was thrilled last year when my children knew the prayers for lighting the Chanukah candles," she said. "I would never have been able to teach them that."

Clesner, whose 2-year-old son, Parker, is also enrolled at Silver Spring Jewish Center, said she now lights Chanukah candles and even celebrates Purim, "which I never would have done without Jewish preschool." She said she hopes to expand the family's range of Jewish observance.

Theresa and Bill Schuster of Herndon were only minimally involved Jewishly when their daughter, Sarah, reached toddler age. "We wanted her to feel like she had a religion," said Theresa, 48, who converted to Judaism 11 years ago when she was pregnant with Sarah, her only child. "The time to create memories is when they're young."

With that in mind, the Schusters enrolled Sarah in the Beth Emeth preschool, which promptly showered the family with Jewish content. The Schusters soon realized that failure to participate in their daughter's Jewish education actively would be counterproductive, if not hypocriticial.

"If you want your child to grow up Jewish, you've got to do it, too," Theresa Schuster said, so she and her husband plunged in, learning about Jewish traditions and rituals along with their daughter, while applying that knowledge when possible. "It felt alien at first, but each time we practiced, it felt a little less alien."

Today, some eight years after Sarah was first enrolled, her mother teaches Sunday school at Beth Emeth ("It's my first year, and I love it"), family members regularly perform social-justice-related mitzvot, and they've become mainstays at Shabbat services. "We orient our lives around going to temple," Schuster said.

District residents Katie Benton-Cohen and her husband, Hal Cohen, both 36, have not yet reached that plateau, but their 4-year-old son, Julius, does serve as a Jewish role model of sorts.

He attends the nondenominational Washington DC Jewish Community Center Preschool, where is learning the rudiments of Hebrew, among other things. "He's inspired me to take a Hebrew class at the JCC," said Benton-Cohen, a professor of history at Georgetown University in the District. "I knew I'd be playing catchup to him. He's inspired me to try to increase my Jewish education to keep up with him."

In some cases, the beneficiaries of bubble-up Judaism were initially seeking anything but a transformative Jewish experience. They placed their child in a Jewish preschool mainly because it was conveniently located and had a good reputation as an educational institution. That the school was Jewish was a secondary consideration at best.

That was the case with the Sloans, who chose Gan HaYeled largely because it was located near their home and was recommended by a friend, a non-Jewish educator. Eventually, though, the Sloans began incorporating elements of their daughter's schooling. "I found it very appealing and fun," said Mike Sloan, a communications lawyer. "Slowly, it became more and more a part of our lives."

However, Sarah's emergence as a mini-educator was only the beginning of a much more involved process, her parents conceded. Like many other similarly situated Jews, they also benefited from preschool and synagogue programs that directly involved them in celebrations of Shabbat and holidays and otherwise boosted their Jewish IQ.

The Sloans' Jewish growth was further enhanced through friendships they made with other preschool families ----including those who were more observant -- who welcomed the newcomers into the Jewish community, often over Shabbat dinner.

The Sloans, who both participated in b'nai mitzvah ceremonies a few years ago, now keep Shabbat and maintain a kosher home. Their two children (Sarah is now 14 and Soledad is 10) both attend Camp Ramah (a Conservative movement institution) and go to religious school at Adas Israel. Maria, who converted to Judaism in 2000, served as the chief attendant at the Adas mikvah from 2002 to 2006.

Her husband, meanwhile, now studies Talmud regularly, leads prayer services Tuesday mornings at Adas and often at the homes of mourners. He also serves as the gabbai of the Shabbat chavurah minyan that meets at Adas twice a month.

As for Sarah, she had this observation: "Judaism is now such a big part of my life that I don't know what I'd do without it. It was cool that I was the one that helped get my family into it more."



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