I’m from Haifa by way of NJ, and my wife Ambreen is from Karachi, Pakistan, by way of Queens. As we raise our son Elias, we want him to be thoughtful about the role that religion plays in his life.
All religions have good and bad. He has religious adherents on both sides of his family, ranging from reform to ultra-strict, and it takes effort to create a version that works for us as a family. We want him to understand the why, not just the what, and engage religion because it’s important and meaningful to him, not because he has to do it.
With Elias, we do Shabbat every Friday. We light candles. We do tzedakah, and when our box is filled, we’ll give the money to kids who don’t have toys. I like Shabbat a lot because it happens so often and because it’s so connected to our family. It has such a direct benefit on our life. It’s important to us that Elias feels Shabbat important enough to carry down to his family. He asked to do Shabbat when we are at our friends house, which shows me how important it is to him.
We’re also aware that Elias’ grandmother and Ambreen’s family are devout Muslims. This adds a layer of complexity to how we explain religion to Elias. Because both his parents are immigrants, Elias is fated to be a person of the world, an explorer in the world. The best we can give him is a strong sense of who he is, where he comes from, which will give him the self-confidence to explore and learn about other cultures.
When we learned about Sulam, Ambreen was for it and I was against it. I eventually agreed when Lila met with us and said that Judaism is messy. Pluralism is messy. I loved that. My view of religion is that it is messy, and that true connection to me comes from embracing that messiness. Sulam fills a special gap for people like me who want to embrace religion but need to engage in a less traditional way. Sulam provides a safe haven for families like us who need Judaism to help us engage more fully in our multicultural life.
Sulam was tough at first because Elias speaks no Hebrew. Ambreen doesn’t speak Hebrew– she speaks Urdu– so Elias hasn’t heard the everyday conversations in the language. But now he’s constantly asking me questions in Hebrew. He’s learning math in school and Hebrew in Sulam, and he asks me “What’s hamesh plus hamesh?” He’s constantly asking me questions in both languages. He’s made friends at Sulam, and we like it that the activities are done communally and not just independently. And everything’s done in Hebrew.
There’s a lot of Judaism that’s amazing, and I don’t think I necessarily have the tools to give it to him, especially now that I must also factor in the two very different families that he comes from. Sulam is there for Elias to understand himself and his diversity, enabling him to go forth confidently into the world.