Alex and Jack are playing in the garden. Four-year-old Jack has found a pebble that he insists is a dinosaur egg. Alex is skeptical. Meanwhile, their parents bustle around the barbecue, readying hot dog buns and vegetables.
It could be almost any potluck dinner in almost any suburb in the Bay Area. But this is a potluck with a difference. The dozen or so adults here are all Jewish single parents. Many of them are meeting for the first time, through an organization called the Bay Area Jewish Single Parents' Network.
Bonnie, from Marin County, has been separated for about a year. Initially, she spent some time at a divorce support group at a local church. "It was wonderful," she says, "Very supportive." She got into the habit of calling the pastor for advice, and was about to join the church when it suddenly occurred to her that she was Jewish. A friend suggested that she subscribe to the Jewish Bulletin to find out about resources within her own community.
Bonnie's experience is fairly typical, says Ric Cone of Lafayette. A divorced single parent, Cone founded the BAJSPN with Tyra Brodsky last September to provide a community resource for Jewish families in transition.
"Jewish single parents are often batted back and forth between JCCs, temples and the federation," he says. "They can feel awkward at gatherings where they're the lone single parent. An…established church support group can be great for certain things. But Jews who want to hold on to their Jewish culture feel that they can't get fully involved."
That is where the BAJSPN comes in. Cone's vision is of several chavurot, or extended family groups, based around parents whose children are of similar ages. The response since last September has been so encouraging that Cone has already split the network into three chapters, one each for Contra Costa, San Francisco and the South Peninsula.
Children are as integral to the network as their parents, says Cone. To keep the group focused, participation is usually limited to parents of children under 13.
Those who are childless or who have older children are welcome at the group's adults-only events, but would probably feel out of place at the others, says Cone. After all, would a 50-year-old whose kids are at college really want to go bowling with a crowd of 10-year-olds?
Family therapist Nancy Levine-Jordano applauds the BAJSPN's work. A member of the Columbia Psychotherapy Association, Levine-Jordano practices as a therapist in Oakland and Walnut Creek. One of the biggest challenges for a single parent, she says, is to develop a network of friends that can act as an extended family. This is especially valuable when blood relatives are geographically or emotionally distant.
Another major challenge is to feel comfortable as a single parent in the Jewish community, says Levine-Jordano, "and not like a poor waif coming to the table." Levine-Jordano was first contacted by Ric Cone when he heard of her extensive work with single parent families. She will address some of the issues of single parenthood at a BAJSPN meeting in March.
Tonight's potluck dinner is into its second phase. The kids watch "Treasure Island" upstairs while hostess Gail Weinstein leads the adults in a planning session. There are ideas for trips, a babysitting exchange, possible shared resources. A woman named Carol speaks up, saying, "I think it would be neat to have Shabbat dinners with the kids… so that you're not always the odd one out." The group murmurs appreciatively. It's one place where Jewish single parents and their children are guaranteed not to be the odd ones out.