How to create ritual moments in a household with new baby

Ah, the boundless joys of bringing a new child home. But oh, the responsibilities. In the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education workshop "Milk and Honey: Practical and Spiritual Preparation for Becoming a Jewish Parent," expectant households have the opportunity to meet anticipated life changes proactively — and meet other families dealing with similar issues.

Workshop instructor Sarah Fenner emphasizes the importance of the new family's spiritual connections, both within the home and the community.

"The family is the most significant launching point for the child's Jewish identity. But many young professionals in the Bay Area don't have their extended families nearby to rely on during this really huge transition," Fenner said. "There are strong expectations that you know these things, and you realize, 'I am responsible for what Jewish identity my child will have.' Addressing issues early on — like choosing a name, creating Jewish rituals and helping expectant parents to feel connected to the Jewish community, can lessen the stresses of new parenthood."

Workshop participants often have varying degrees of observance, knowledge and experience, so Fenner encourages discussion.

"I ask how they connect Jewishly and what they think of when they think of rituals. They usually can't think of anything."

So she walks them through the process of developing a child's spiritual identity, offering suggestions broad and specific.

"I give them tools for ritual moments, to separate the mundane from the holy. I tell them to try for visual and auditory imprints — in fact, the engagement of all the senses. For example, they can sing 'Rock-a-Bye-Baby' at bedtime, or they can say a bedtime Sh'ma. They could bring in pizza every Friday night or they could light candles. Something like the challah baking [or warming a store-bought loaf] gives Shabbat a context. Kids love routine and ritual, so they know what to count on."

Fenner intends her suggestions to be adapted to fit the individual family's needs and comfort level.

"It's not all or nothing; it's doing the parts that fit for you. They become accustomed to the ritual and comfortable with the routine, and it is easily assimilated into that child's identity."

They also discuss superstitions like "not buying things for the baby ahead of time, and not naming the baby after relatives." If the prospective parents would rather not have a baby shower, for example, Fenner suggests alternatives such as inviting other mothers to come for a visit to share their experiences.

Fenner and her husband, Rabbi Natan Fenner of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, have two sons, ages 5 and 7. She is a childbirth educator and doulah (labor-support provider), trained through the Association of Labor Assistants and Childbirth Educators. She also facilitates another Milk and Honey offering, a six-week childbirth course.

Fenner is enthusiastic about combining her two passions in her Milk and Honey teaching.

"It was always a dream to incorporate the Jewish piece and the childbirth piece," she explained. The Milk and Honey workshops were being developed through the BJE's Jewish Family Education Project just as Fenner's family moved to the Bay Area from Philadelphia.

Some participants of workshops in the recent past have stayed in touch with each other and with her. Last summer's group consisted of four couples — three of them unaffiliated with a congregation at the time the workshop began. All subsequently joined the synagogue where the fourth couple belonged, Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

"We spend so much of our lives learning to be independent that it can be difficult to connect when you need to," said Fenner. "In the workshops, they find new ways to interact in a different construct and change the ways they used to socialize before they had children — maybe creating a baby-sitting cooperative or going to someone's house for dinner who can deal with a noisy baby."

The workshop, she said, "offers an infrastructure to connect with the Jewish community as young couples evolve into young families."