My 7-month-old son, M, is in a wonderful day care. Last week they held an Easter egg hunt, asking interested parents to donate plastic eggs and little toys/prizes. Although our son is too young to be aware of such activities, it got me thinking about what’s to come and the many hard choices we will have to make. Luckily my husband and I are on the same page; we don’t want M participating in non-Jewish religious rituals no matter how benign they seem. If we ask that he not take part in such activities, will we be creating too much extra work for the staff? Are they obligated to bring in another teacher to watch him? And given that they hosted an Easter egg hunt, would this be a good time to broach the topic of Passover, since it’s coming up so soon? We’re mostly trying to figure out how to navigate this for the future. As a convert who is now a parent trying to raise Jewish kids, I feel especially inept at trying to navigate this. — Mother of a Jewish infant
Dear Mother: It’s excellent that you and your husband are thinking this through before M has any emotions about it. At his age, you are correct, your son won’t remember anything so it won’t have an impact on him. The real issue here is how to set things up to be most comfortable in the coming years, and it’s not too early to start.
I suggest that you kindly approach the teachers and ask, “We’re new here this year and I’d love to know what you are planning for the kids for Passover.” Be ready to offer help. They probably don’t know anything about the holiday or how it could be taught to toddlers, so do your homework first. Try contacting Jewish LearningWorks (www.jewishlearningworks.org). The website offers lots of information, including downloadable resources. Make an appointment with the head of your synagogue’s religious school to explain your situation and ask for ideas suitable for very young children. Call local Jewish preschools and ask what they do for Passover with toddlers.
I’m betting the teachers will be willing, perhaps even delighted, to integrate your Passover activities. You may even inadvertently motivate parents from a different tradition, like Islam or Hinduism, to do the same thing for one of their holidays. Having a wide range of holidays observed in the school makes it more multicultural and respectful of the traditions of others.
Looking ahead, I suggest you see how this holiday season plays out, and if all goes well you can approach the school over the summer. You should ask what the staff typically does for Christmas and whether they would be interested in sharing the holiday of Hanukkah with the little ones.
Your child is in a private preschool, and you don’t have the right to change the curriculum. But you could get the teachers interested in Jewish holidays, which might be new and exciting for them. If the preschool is teaching about many traditions, you and your husband can explain to M that everyone has holidays and some belong to his family while others belong to those of his friends.
Finally, I can understand that as a Jew by choice you feel that you have a corner on feeling inept. Let me reassure you, you don’t!
As a person who has studied Judaism as an adult, you have a good deal more knowledge than many of the lifelong Jews around you. What you don’t have is a childhood experience of growing up as a Jew in a Christian country. As a person who grew up identifying with the majority culture, you may in fact have a better perspective on how to be sensitive to Americans with blind spots regarding religion. You can be kind while still being firm about how you are raising your child.