Books Holiday Inclusion

Sukkot Inclusion and Children’s Books

After the power drill is put away and all of the pointy parts of the s’chach that is just right for poking your brothers’ eyes out is finally on top of our little booth, Sukkot transforms into one of my favorite holidays to celebrate with my children. In the Moroccan Sephardic tradition, we leave a chair out for Elijah. This special chair is often laden with books for ushpizin. As the younger of my three year old twins still occasionally chews on the furniture, I prefer to leave more child-friendly books within reach (rather than, say, my favorite binding of Psalms I enjoy periodically weeping over). But which books to pile onto our special chair this year?

To me, the value of inclusion is deeply related to the concept of hachnasat orchim (the welcoming of guests). After all, hachnasat orchim, treating each other with empathy and kindness, is the first step into true inclusion. We particularly celebrate these values at Sukkot, as we welcome both real and spiritual guests into the sukkah. In honor of a holiday in which we greet and happily receive others into our dwellings, here are eight non-traditional children’s stories about welcoming others into our hearts. I included several about narwhals; narwhals are so hot right now.

You could read one a night with the ushpizin who come to your sukkah!

Wendell the Narwhal How do we invite in though who want to be included, but don’t know how and feel overwhelmed?

Not Quite Narwhal How many communities do you belong to? How does belonging to a variety of communities enrich our identity?

Narwhal, Unicorn of the Sea Sometimes it is hard to make friends with someone from a different background; but these friendships can be some of the most important. (This is set up in semi-graphic novel style and is the beginning of a series about Narwhal and Jelly’s adventures together.)

Something Else Have you ever felt excluded? What does that feel like? How can you use that experience to prevent someone else from feeling the same way?

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed  Authority figures setting the standard to create a culture of inclusion

Can I Play Too? Learning how to find a way to play together might take some creativity, but means that everyone can have fun!

Ada Twist, Scientist Sometimes even the people who we love most (and who love us the most) aren’t quite sure how to acknowledge who we are, celebrate our differences, and include us. Inside a family, how can we figure this out?

Winnie the Pooh Written in a time before many of the diagnoses we now use today, Winnie the Pooh’s friend circle as an example of inclusion of individuals with a variety of dispositions and procivities. No matter which story you choose, note how this community of toys consistently and naturally includes one another, without ever asking anyone to “just get over it.”

Do you have any other books you love to use when talking about inclusion? How do you practice including your Sukkot guests?

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.


Teach Your Children Diligently

People keep telling me “You are doing such a Mitzvah.” I do not share this to brag, but to deflect this praise which is not due me. It is nice to hear people think I am a mensch. While I strive to fit that bill, I would not write a blog post about it. The reason I have received these accolades is that my wife Jennifer and I have become foster parents. For the past two months, we have doubled our family size from three, including our 8-year-old son to six with children ages 6, 3, and 2. It was not a simple decision, and as anyone who has undergone a home study for the purpose of adoption or fostering can tell you, there is nothing easy about this way of adding to a family. It required sacrifice, trading in two paid-for cars for cars which can accommodate our new family size, surrendering our guest room, and making a once only child share a bedroom with his new brother. And yes, our commitment to doing this does fill an important need since there is a reason why these kids are in the foster system. Still, when people say, “What a mitzvah!” instead of getting a big head, I remember, “raising children is a mitzvah.”

Veshinantam l’vanecha [i]  (teach your children diligently) is one of the most important mitzvot. Anyone who becomes a parent and takes seriously their responsibility fulfills this obligation. By the way, peru u’revu[ii]  (be fruitful and multiply) the very act of procreation, is also a mitzvah. Unfortunately for us, there was no “peru”  in our “revu.” In other words, as a married couple, we have been unable to conceive and bring a pregnancy to term. After a considerable amount of anguish and anger we reached a realization there is no one to blame, not each other, not the doctors, not our parents, not even God. It just is. WE had to accept that two people who loved children as much as we do, and who have so much collective experience working with children were unable to have them on our own. Not wanting to miss out on the mitzvah of being parents, we decided we had to “revu,” that is to say “multiply,” differently.

I know that adoption or fostering is not for everyone. Some people cannot fathom raising a child not biologically theirs. Some cannot get approved because of some past legal transgression. Some move too frequently to finish a home study. Some lack the financial resources. Can you imagine having to fill out a financial statement before getting pregnant? Others burn out on the process, either being turned off by the massive amounts of paperwork and the hours classes of classes required. Still, others spend years on “waiting lists,” a misnomer if there ever was one since there is no being “next in line.” Many couples burn out while hoping for a birth mom to pick them. We however made the choice to endure the process, and we got lucky.

Eight years ago, the most incredible blessing entered our lives when we adopted our son, Eden. This kid could not be any more ours if they had taken all the best parts of Jennifer’s and my DNA and spliced them together. It was a joyful culmination of a long struggle. And everything was perfect– until we thought about having another. To make a long story short, we are still unable to have a biological child. After three years of active waiting, we were no closer to a second adoption. We felt like we had more love and learning to share, and Eden wanted siblings. In fact, his imaginary friends have all been named “Brother” or “Sister” (I assume this rabbi’s kid is not imagining monks or nuns.) So we began the process all over again– A new home study, more classes, more background checks, more fingerprints, more criminal record searches in every place we have lived for the past 20 years, more essays to write, more papers to fill out, more credit checks, more doctor’s visits…. And then we were approved. Then we began waiting for the referral of a child who would be the right fit for our family, pets and all.

Then we had a chance to meet the kids we have currently. Three were more than we bargained for, but, waiting for the perfect situation, you might wait forever. A week later, they were placed in our home. It is not all roses. They do exhibit behaviors that make us want to pull out our hair. In other words, they are children. They need loving parents, a comfortable home, people to teach them just like they would teach and raise any children. It is far too early to discuss a permanency plan.  Although we do love these kids, we root for their mom. People ask, “Aren’t you worried about getting attached and losing them?” Truth is we worry all the time. But if our worst case scenario is the best case scenario for the children and their mom who has a chance to turn her life around, then so be it. We are performing the mitzvah of veshinantam levanecha for multiple children, an opportunity we would have otherwise been denied.

The only things we wish to be called are the titles we always wanted, “Mom and Dad.”

Rabbi Craig Lewis serves Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, more popularly known as the South Street Temple, in Lincoln, Nebraska. 


[i] Deu 6:7

[ii] Gen 1:22


Naming our Puppy: A Biblical Task

In Breishit, God parades all of the animals in front of the first human, Adam, who names them effortlessly according to the way they look and behave. The rabbis imagined a fascinating prequel to this scene. In Breishit Rabbah 17:4, God first approaches the ethereal angels with this very important task of assigning names to all of the hairy, feathered, and slithery creatures. The Midrash teaches that those perfect heavenly hosts, however, were unable to complete the mission of naming the animals. Only Adam, with his first-hand knowledge of life on earth, was up to this challenge.

This week, our family will be adopting a puppy. Along with purchasing food and squeaky toys, we have had to figure out a name for this furry creature. Of all of my many concerns over bringing an animal into our home, I never thought that giving it a name would be so difficult. The dog’s chewing on shoes, homework, and furniture; soiling carpets and floors, whimpering at night; contracting single-celled intestinal parasites from ingesting bird droppings- these were my worries. Finding a name for a cute dog didn’t seem so arduous. I’ve bestowed Hebrew names on dozens of babies, whose parents were grateful for my suggestions. Over the past decade and a half, my husband and I sailed through the challenge of assigning what we consider lovely first and middle names to our children. Evoking images of Biblical queens, military leaders, strength, and virtue, these names sounded modern, yet nodded respectfully to a treasured past. The initials of our daughter’s name even managed to pay tribute to no fewer than four of her deceased great-grandparents and one beloved great-aunt. How hard could it be to name a dog?

By making the naming of the puppy a democratic process, we opened ourselves up to a multitude of dissenting opinions. My husband, who is still in shock over the imminent approach of a pet, abstained from all pertinent naming discussions, making me the single adult voice in the conversation. I prefer names with some literary or cultural resonance that acknowledges the past, a great work of literature, or a charming reference to a work of popular importance. Scout, Guinevere, Groucho, or even Adrian topped my list of potential monikers. Can you imagine calling to the dog outside, “Yo, Adrian!” It would never get old. I even held back my list of exotic Biblical names: Muppim, Chuppim, and most notably Shlomo-Zion Ha-malka.

My children, however, had different notions of the perfect pet name. Staunchly rejecting all cute labels that referred to foods or desserts, they preferred names with a vocal punch. My daughter was wedded to names with strong consonants in the middle, like Parker, Charlie, Jessie, and Maggie. My sons loved the names, Danielle and Teddy.  “Who are these people?” I asked them. “What qualities are we bestowing on the puppy when we name her? Don’t you want to give her a beautiful name with some history? Don’t you want to name her something that evokes an image of a ballerina or a warrior or a musician? Don’t you want to name her something clever?”

I’m no angel, and I am not cut out for the task of naming animals. After an ulcer-inducing breakfast at which no one could agree on any suggestions, it seemed that we would be calling our new housemate, “Dog.” My fifteen year-old daughter hatched a compromise. She handed out four index cards to each person in the family except for my husband who was at a meeting and pledged to abide by the results. “Write down four names that you would happily give to the dog,” she instructed. Then she arranged the index cards onto the floor like an old-fashioned concentration card game. “Everyone takes a turn and flips over a card with a name he or she can’t stand for the puppy. Whichever card is the last one standing will be the dog’s name.” It seemed simple enough. “Giselle” immediately was overturned. I nixed “Parker.” The Marx Brothers’ names bit the dust, as well. Finally, the only name that remained was “Danielle.” When my husband came home from work, he asked how the naming process went. “Danielle?” he said quizzically. “What kind of name is that for a dog?” We were back at square one and needed help of Biblical proportions. Out of nowhere, my ten year-old suggested, “Sammi.” My husband and I had actually considered naming both of our sons Samuel, but neither of those bald seven pounders quite looked like a Sam at birth. Miraculously, everyone agreed to Sammi for this newest family member.

On Friday morning, we plan to pick up our newest family member, Sammi. When I made an appointment for her at the veterinarian, the receptionist asked if her name was Samantha or just Sammi. “I don’t really know,” I confessed. We’ll have to meet her first to figure it out. Sometimes in life, after all, we have to name ourselves.

Rabbi Sharon Forman was ordained as a rabbi in 1994 from the New York Campus of HUC-JIR and has tutored Bar and Bat Mitzvah students at Westchester Reform Temple for the past decade. She contributed a chapter on the connection between breastfeeding and Jewish tradition in The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality. She lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband, three children, and their new puppy, Sammi.


Counting of the Omer

These days, with four small children in our house, I count a lot. I inventory lunches and shoes and loads of laundry. I track little back packs and waters bottles and ouchies. I measure fevers and hours of screen time and outside play. I tally toys and turns and the children themselves every few minutes. Every day fills itself with small, sometimes forgotten numbers.

When each of my children were born, we counted their lives according to hours, or feedings, or dirty diapers. As they aged, the measuring stick dilated into weeks or months, but never much longer than that. Ella, my first child, was only sixteen months when Aidan was born; and the twins, Daniel and David, followed just twenty four months and one week later. Now, for more than half a decade – since my pregnancy with Ella – I counted our lives in days, sometimes in weeks, and occasionally, in months. But the twins marked the last pregnancy my body can healthily carry. As they age, the measuring stick lengthens and stretches with their no-longer-so-little bodies. And steadily, my subconscious practice of counting the time since their birth in days, then weeks, then months faded into the the bittersweet ease of measuring their lives in years.

The practice of the counting of the Omer reminds us of each day’s preciousness. Some days are more exciting than others (I’m looking at you, Lag B’Omer) but every day merits a blessing. Marking and measuring the small things, the circadian passage of time, is what makes up the majority of our lives. Bigger milestones come and go, and I am grateful for them. But the counting of the Omer reminds me again of the joys of measuring our time in smaller increments.

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., lived in Tel Aviv, Israel until recently, and now resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

High Holy Days Rabbis

Inspired by Hannah: A Conversation for the New Year

I was ordained eight years ago in a beautiful and sacred ceremony.  Standing on the bimah before our beloved Rosh Yeshivah, bordered on the transcendental.  When he blessed me, I cried.  It was a moment I will carry with me always.

But my ordination marked more than the beginning of my rabbinate.  It also marked the beginning of my motherhood too.  Just three weeks prior to ordination, I had my first child, a baby boy.  My first taste of motherhood was unlike anything I could ever have predicted or imagined. My emotions were fierce and turbulent, and my attachment immediate and unwavering.

My ordination was the first time I had ever left my son, and I was a wreck.  Those early post-postpartum days wreak havoc on the mind and body, and I was feeling the strain of excess hormones, total exhaustion, and round-the-clock milk production.

I remember bringing my hand pump with me to ordination, in fact. I stashed it beneath my seat, and dashed to the bathroom when I couldn’t stand the pressure a single second more. I remember standing in the bathroom, robe open, shirt unceremoniously un-tucked and unbuttoned, trying desperately to collect as much milk as I could with this irritatingly inefficient apparatus.

I was sweating, worried on one hand that I was missing my ordination, but on the other that I was neither collecting enough milk nor relieving the pressure that was building steadily in my chest.  I hated the fact that my ordination ceremony was happening while I was stuck in the bathroom, but I hated even more that I had left my three week old at home. I was overwhelmed by this emotional face-off, and unnerved by my inability to mitigate this internal strife.

I was a new mother and a new rabbi at the very same time.  Two paths, some would say divergent, others, perhaps not, and two very separate worlds of responsibility and meaning.  These two worlds appeared simultaneously, with little signage and no GPS in sight.  How would my rabbinate pave the way for motherhood?  Or rather, how would motherhood pave the way for my rabbinate?  I set out in search of balance, a way to honor these two parts of my life.

Eight years and three more children later, I am still searching.  I have worked part-time and part-part time.  I have prioritized here and prioritized there, working nights so I could have days, and days so I could have nights.  I have wiggled and jiggled and maneuvered in more ways than I can count.  And while every way had its merit, no way was perfect.  I wonder if I stumbled upon the best way to achieve said balance or if some path has eluded me as of yet.  It remains to be seen.

These days, I am home, with no work to put a claim on my time besides the work I create for myself.  And yet, the personal versus professional dichotomy still remains. In between the diaper duty and the laundry and the dishes, I spend a lot of time thinking about the rabbinate, and how it fits in to the crumby corners of domestic life, and how it spills over from the lofty, dignified walls of the synagogue into the messy, sticky, soggy world of a family. What does it mean to be a rabbi when you are stuck cleaning a toilet?  Or changing a diaper?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when you’re carrying a baby, along with two backpacks and a lunch bag to boot?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when all signifiers of esteem and import and formality have been stripped away?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when the title you use most is “mommy”?  Where does “rabbi” fit in to this picture?

The truth is, I don’t know.  These days, I am not sure where “mommy” begins and “rabbi” ends.  I’m not certain I’ll ever know.  The view from where I stand is foggy at best.

I know I am not the first or the last to ask these kinds of questions. And I know my struggle to define my identity is not unique to me, or to mothers in the rabbinate, or even to mothers in general. But each of us speaks from a place that is unique, and each of us adds our own voice to the conversation.  In the New Year, I want to add to this conversation.  I want to be a part of this conversation.  I want to start a conversation.

Rabbi Sara Sapadin resides in New York City.  She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York.

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Mishkan T’filah for Children: Interview with Artist Katie Lipsitt

We’re very excited about our new release, Mishkan T’filah for Children, edited and with texts by Michelle Shapiro Abraham with art by Katie Lipsitt.  We took this opportunity to speak to the artist about her work.

CCAR Press: Let’s start with an introduction.  Tell us about your background.

Katie Lipsitt: I was born in NYC and raised in Brooklyn. I went to Saint. Ann’s School (a private, secular school) and then Barnard College in Manhattan, where I truly discovered my love of making art!  After college I moved to Los Angeles to study fine art at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena and to be with my then-boyfriend/now husband. But after a year I found myself production designing student films at USC, and before you knew it, I left art school and was working full time as a set decorator in TV and Film! After having children, I became an elementary school art teacher, then became an art teacher at Environmental Charter middle school here in LA, and made more time to create my own collage art!

CP: How did you become interested in art?

KL: There was never a time that I wasn’t interested in making art! I grew up surrounded by artists and creative people. My mom was a fashion designer and is an artist. My Dad was a creative director of an ad agency. Being interested in art is just in my blood!

CP: Tell us about being chosen to do the art for MT for Children

69-weekday_Amida-t'filat_HaLevKL: When I was chosen to illustrate the Mishkan T’filah for Children, I was just THRILLED! My personal Jewish journey has been so enriched by sharing in my children’s experiences at Jewish preschool and later, Hebrew School. It felt so significant that I would get to make images for OTHER children to enjoy during prayer at religious school and family services.

 CP: What did you learn in the process?

KL: For the first time, I learned something about what the prayers actually MEAN. Now, when I’m in synagogue, I imagine my own illustrations and understand the services more deeply.

CP: What do you think is important about art in a prayerbook for children? What does it add to their prayer experience?

KL: I think that artwork in a prayerbook for children needs to be simple, bold and graphic. It needs to bring the essence of the words to life in a way a child can comprehend.

CP: It’s interesting to note that the people all have different skins tones and looks, and there aren’t any “traditional” families. Why did you choose this approach?

KL: I wanted the depiction of the children to reflect the more diverse Jewish community that one finds in the Reform Movement today. I wanted no child to feel excluded.  I wanted it to represent the reality of the families who belong to synagogues and are raising Jewish children.

CP: How did being a mother and a teacher impact on the choices you made in creating the art?

KL: Both of those helped me to truly imagine how a child would experience this prayerbook. I could imagine my own children’s reactions and associations to imagery, as well as those of my students.

CP: Can you describe the technique that you used to create the art?  And who are your artistic inspirations?

IMG_1391-1KL: The technique I used to create the illustrations was collage and where needed, a bit of watercolor, colored pencil and pen.  The simple, fluid lines of Henri Matisse’s late collages and the layered, bold cut paper technique of Romare Bearden were my artistic inspirations.

CP: Which is your favorite image and why?

My favorite image is the image of the girl reading a prayerbook. She looks so much like my daughter, Lucy, and she has the same intensity and focus that Lucy has when she is in T’filah!

 Katie Lipsitt is available for projects, workshops and programs in the Los Angeles Area:

Mishkan T’filah for Children is available at a special discount of 25% through July 15th.


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Mishkan T’filah for Children: Creating a New Siddur for Families and Schools

I have always wrestled with the siddur.  However, I thought I had reached my peace with it, until I was asked to write Mishkan T’filah for Children.

My HUC year in Israel was the first time that my Hebrew was good enough to actually understand the prayers that were ingrained in my memory.  The first time I read the familiar Hebrew words and understood their translations, I found myself unable to pray.  The God that I believed in wasn’t the all-powerful “Male Sky God” that the rabbis seemed to know – a God who is “King of the Universe,” who is “High and Exalted,” and who we beseech to “rule over us in steadfast love and compassion.”   This was not my God.

Like many of us, I would decide that the words didn’t matter as much as the people and the places.  I wasn’t the first Jew to not believe the words in every prayer, and I surely will not be the last.  I teach prayer and encourage students to grapple with the words.  I lead prayer and find ways in my introductions and chosen melodies to explain and add meaning to the text.  And I pray, often turning off my mind to let my spirit soar.  And for me, it worked.

That was, until Rabbi Hara Person reached out to me and asked if I would consider writing Mishkan T’filah for Children, a siddur intended for grades k-2 and me.   Though I teach prayer, and lead prayer, writing a movement prayer book was a very different prospect.  I had read enough Sasso and Kushner to know that children’s books could provide diverse images of God, but could a children’s prayerbook successfully do the same?  Was there a way to show those varying theologies while still staying true to Reform Movement prayer?   What was the balance between keeping the words of our tradition, and encouraging different ideas and concepts to emerge?

I have to give credit to my husband, Rabbi Joel Abraham, for his help at this point.   “Why does God have to be the “Creator of Peace,” he asked.  “Why can’t God just be the “Peace”?   Indeed why not?

How many different classes and programs have I taught where we explore the many different images of God that are part of the Jewish tradition?  Why can’t a prayerbook for children share that variety?  Indeed, a key component of the “regular” Mishkan T’filah is its inclusion of different English readings that give a variety of God images.   Even the traditional siddur, with in the limitations imposed by the culture that created it, reaches for diverse images of the Divine.

And so, I began to work.  We would still refer to God as “Ruler of the Universe,”  but find places where God was also the Light, the Peace, or the Artist.  I added images of God “tucking us in” and “helping us be strong and brave,” and kept images of God as “Creator of Miracles” and “Giver of Live.”  We would praise God for being holy, and also recognize the Holy Spark with in each of us as God as well.

It is an incredible gift to have your theology challenged.    The process of writing Mishkan T’filah for Children was just that for me – not only my own voice, but the voices of parents, children, and clergy loud in my mind, questioning each word that I chose.  Did this image of God to too far? Should I be more daring and go farther?    I teach my students that we are Yisrael – the Ones who Wrestle with God. It is an incredible gift to be invited to engage in the struggle.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, RJE, is the Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ.  She is also the author of numerous Jewish curricula and children’s books, and works extensively as a consultant for a variety of Jewish Summer Camp grants and projects.  Most recently she served as the Jewish Educational Consultant on the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubator.  

Order Mishkan T’filah for Children by July 15th to receive a special pre-publication discount of 25%. Also forthcoming from CCAR Press is Mishkan T’filah for Youth, intended for grades 3-6.