Amid religious disaffection, mother and daughter make it life's work to keep the faith

holiday
Elana Shaw, left, and her mother, Debbie Stern.

When Debbie Stern and her husband were first married, Friday night meant a kosher dinner prepared in their fifth-floor walk-up on Manhattan's East 89th Street, a turn-of-the-century apartment with a bathtub in the middle of the kitchen.

By the time Stern's daughter, Elana, was a teen, the family had decamped for Valley Cottage, N.Y.; there, Shabbat evening meant a challah from Rockland Bakery, an argument about whose turn it was to light the candles, and a twinge of adolescent annoyance during the parents' customary blessing of the children.

"I remember my mother wanting to put her hands on my head, and I didn't want her to," Elana Shaw says.

But the rebellion was short-lived. Today, this mother and daughter are not only observant Jews, but professional Jewish educators whose choices run counter to a widespread trend of religious disaffection.

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, one in five Jews describes him or herself as having no religion, and 62 percent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture. Among Jewish respondents who have married since 2000, nearly six in 10 have non-Jewish spouses.

Stern and Shaw, who coordinate Introduction to Judaism classes for the Conservative and Reform movements in the Philadelphia area, have made it their life's work to keep the faith in a way that's relevant, vibrant, and accessible - for themselves, their students, and the next generation.

Stern, 67, was one of the first girls in her Manhattan synagogue to celebrate a bat mitzvah. Judaism anchored the family's social life and formed the lens through which they viewed the world. "There was a sense of pride if a politician was Jewish. A strong feeling about the Holocaust, antipathy to anything German. And a strong connection to Israel," she remembers.

Stern pursued graduate work in contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University, wrote her thesis in Israel while her rabbinical-student husband was studying there, and decided, upon returning to the U.S., to amp up their religious observance.

Using the two sets of dishes - one for dairy, one for meat - that they'd received as wedding gifts, the couple began to keep kosher. "It was about doing something different from the way your parents do."

Her daughter, now 40, grew up immersed in a Reform Jewish world: services on Friday nights, high school jobs in the Hebrew School, food drives, and other projects rooted in the Jewish imperative for social justice.

Shaw followed her mother to Brandeis for a master's degree in Jewish communal service. She fell in love with a man who had Scottish ancestry and was raised Protestant; he converted before they were married. Their daughters, 5 and 8, attend a Jewish day school in Voorhees.

Now mother and daughter work in tandem tracks. Stern is coordinator of Philadelphia's Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy, a 30-week basic Judaism class sponsored by the Conservative movement aimed primarily at non-Jews who are considering conversion. Shaw holds a similar job with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), organizing classes at local synagogues, a kind of "Judaism 101" for adults in interfaith relationships, those who are simply curious, or Jews wanting a refresher course in their own customs and theology.

On a recent Monday night, eight students and Rabbi Eric Lazar gathered around a table in a second-floor classroom at Temple Brith Achim, a Reform synagogue in King of Prussia. Posters of Israel and the Hebrew alphabet hug the walls.

Jerry Snyder was raised Baptist; he calls himself an "honorary Jew" after 41 years of marriage to his Jewish wife, Lois. "But I've always been a spiritual seeker. I've been introduced to the rituals and holidays, but I thought a more formal approach would be useful."

Alan Wohlstetter grew up Jewish, but his first wife was Methodist, and he agreed to raise their children in that faith; at one point, he even taught Sunday school. Now, he's married to a Jewish woman. "I celebrate the holidays, though I don't always know why. And I certainly don't understand what's going on in the service. I wanted to understand a bit better the sources of the values that I have."

Across the table, Bob Lopez-Cepero, 73, says one of the class textbooks left him puzzled over some unfamiliar words: Disapora. Mishnah. He was raised Roman Catholic; 10 years ago, he married a Jewish woman. "What I'm really becoming aware of is the durability of Judaism over the centuries. I like the way Judaism is evolving. I said to my wife, 'I'm going to convert. I'm going to follow this.' "

Lazar hands out a list of High Holiday vocabulary: Chet, a word usually translated as "sin," really means "missing the mark," he explains. Tashlich, from a verb meaning "to send," is the ritual of casting crumbs into moving water to symbolize the shedding of misdeeds from the past year. And teshuvah is the Yom Kippur practice of repentance - literally, "turning toward the right way of doing things."

Wohlstetter peppers the rabbi with questions: "Do Jews believe in the soul? What is the Book of Life?" And this: "When people get shot in a mall, how do these things happen in the world if there's a God?"

Lazar pauses. His students' pens hover over their notes. "We can't necessarily find an answer to every question we ask. And, on some level, that's good."

Two nights later, at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, 13 students gather for the third class in the Conservative movement's series, which covers Biblical literature, Jewish history, holidays, and dietary laws, along with basic Hebrew.

They listen raptly as Rabbi Ariella Rosen blows a shofar - the ram's horn whose blast is a wake-up call at Rosh Hashana and a triumphant "we made it" marking the end of the daylong Yom Kippur fast.

Then they drizzle apples with honey to symbolize a sweet year. Together - the woman raised Sufi, the one who is dating an Orthodox man, the couple from Marlton (he's Jewish; she's not) and the raised-Catholic medical student whose fiancé's family wants her to convert - they recite the blessing, transliterated for those still learning Hebrew: Baruch atah Adonai . . . borei p'ri ha-eitz. Blessed are you, God . . . who creates the fruit of the tree.

Over the last several years, Goodblatt class participants have become a more diverse group, says Stern; they include African Americans, Asian Americans, single people, and those who simply love delving into different religions. "There are obviously people still searching for meaning in their lives," Stern says. "There is a hunger for that."

At the same time, she recognizes that 21st-century life offers mixed messages to Jews: diverse public schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods in which Judaism may feel both more accepted and less compelling. Shaw's brother, raised in the same observant Reform environment, is uninterested in Jewish ritual.

In the meantime, Stern and her daughter carry on the tradition. On Friday nights in the Sterns' Mount Airy dining room, the couple lights Shabbat candles using blue-green holders that were a gift from Shaw and her husband. Across the river in Haddonfield, Shaw's husband sings the prayer for daughters using a Scottish tune, changing the traditional masculine pronouns and verbs to feminine.

For both generations, Friday evening is a time to rest and reflect, a moment to notice continuity amid waves of personal and cultural change. The candles flicker; the challah awaits. When Shaw puts her hands on her daughters' heads, they reflexively flinch.

Continue Reading