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Family Meals Full of Frustration

July 26, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My wife is obsessed with the idea of family meals. At her insistence, I leave work early each day so that we can all eat dinner together as a family, which she maintains is one the foundations of strong family life. However, our nightly reality is quite different than a television commercial fantasy of a calm and contented family catching up on the day's events over a home cooked meal. The older children complain about having to interrupt their social activities just to eat dinner when they aren't even hungry, while the younger children fight, and refuse to eat whatever is served because it is too "icky". I find these dinners a nightly exercise in frustration, and cannot understand what the fuss over "family meals" is all about. Why can't the younger kids just eat early by themselves since they don't eat what we eat anyway, and the older ones eat when they want? Most evenings I wonder why I bothered coming home early at all.

Fed-Up Dad

Dear Fed-Up Dad,

Family life is rarely the calm, serene experience that is pictured in television shows and movies. The reality is messy and noisy, and sometimes overwhelming. The effort required to balance everyone's conflicting needs can make most parents feel like they are performing a high-wire circus act, and sometimes we all wonder why we bother.

We wonder why we bother arranging a family vacation when no one can agree on where to go or what to do. Why we bother eating dinner together as a family when the kids just fight and complain throughout the meal.

It would certainly be easier to just give in and abandon these structured family times. Yet your wife is right that family meals and rituals help to build a strong foundation for the family. Shabbat meals in particular provide a unique way to connect as a family that is elevated and distinct from everyday concerns.

However, even weekday meals can have a special quality provided you plan accordingly and have realistic expectations. Here are some guidelines that help make dinnertime less stressful and more conducive to family bonding:

  1. Not everybody needs to eat the same thing. A chicken dish can be prepared in two ways, one plain and one fancy, in order to appeal to different types of taste buds.
  2. A "no complaining" rule can be enforced at the table. Tell your children "We like being with you. That's why we want you here with us now, because dinnertime is family time."
  3. Use this time to talk about positive things, and share experiences that happened that day, rather than lecturing your kids about unmade beds and unfinished chores. Let your children talk as well as listen.
  4. Keep dinner simple, and don't make it too long. It is not what you eat, but rather that you share this time together.
  5. Don't make a big deal about older kids missing a family dinner now and then when something special is going on.
  6. Remember to thank your wife for her consistent and reliable kindness to your family. Thank her at the table, and encourage the kids to follow suit.

Remember, too, that as important as family meals are, it is equally important for the whole family that you occasionally share a quiet evening meal alone with your wife at a restaurant, so you can talk without interruptions.

Many times, it seems as though we aren't getting through to our children, and that our efforts won't make a difference. However, just as it is impossible to see grass growing, it is impossible to see children growing and changing as well. The practice of sharing evening rituals and family times provides a consistent opportunity to strengthen our family relationships and deepen our bonds. I hope you will find the patience to continue your practice of family meals, and not let your frustration cause you to give up.

Is Motherhood Non-Stop Monotony?

July 19, 2009

Dear Bracha,

I love my children. But every once in a while, I just feel that motherhood is an endless string of tedious, monotonous and un-intellectual activity, which ends at the end of an exhausting day—both emotionally and physically—only to begin once again the very next morning. Is this what it is all about?


I am amazed that you feel this tedium, monotony and lack of intellectual stimulation only "now and again." Well done! Your statement provides as many answers as it does questions. Perhaps it is exactly what we parents need to hear and be reminded of.…love.

What am I here for? What is my purpose in life? Why is there suffering in the world?

I think therefore I am.

If I am not for myself who is? If I am only for myself what am I? If not now, when?

You hit the nail right on the head. What is this all about? It's about embracing life fully, by having children. It's about improving the world and all of mankind by raising your children well and not just for themselves, but truly in the service of all mankind. When you raise a child to think and do for others and be aware that every action—indeed, every word—affects others and can hurt or heal.

Did you bring this innocence, your child, into the world only for yourself? Perhaps in a way we all did. But very quickly the tables were turned and we parents found that we are in the world to protect and care for these innocent children. This second statement is by far the more accurate. As we grow in experience we find that some things are not as they seem. To be a parent, in its truest sense, is to be insightful and courageous.*

Insightful: To understand that reward and punishment, or positive attention and consequences, are two faces of the same coin—love.

Courageous: To be willing to cause discomfort to your children and withstand their negative feelings of anger and rejection in order to help them learn and bring out the best in them.

The importance of having a clear vision of your goals cannot be overstated. As you guide your children to adulthood, every time you create a successful intervention or reach a positive milestone—celebrate! Small things create big things. Children must learn to stand before they can walk and walk before they can run! Every effort you make with your children has its effect and is extremely important. Keep your eyes on the goal of what you want your children to be like and take note of your success. Kind, honest, responsible, thoughtful, modest and hardworking people don't just happen. A loving hand guided them along the way.

Keep your goals in mind, find something that truly inspires you and you can do as a family. We are beings of the spirit far more than that of the flesh. Find ways to let your spirit soar, and bring those so loved children with you. Parenting is just the same as breathing, just as monotonous and just as essential. Without it, nothing of beauty can exists.

Wishing you and your family all the best!

*These comments were given to me by a counselor in Jerusalem after one of my workshops, he did not give me his name—with thanks, Bracha.

Responding to Child Predators in the Jewish Community

July 12, 2009

The children and families in the close-knit neighborhood used to help their friendly neighbor in his garden. The middle aged Jewish man was an athletic coach in a local junior high, and he had a way with kids. He gave them treats, always had a smile and a game, and earned the trust of the parents. Imagine the shock when one child confided to his mom that the man had been exposing himself to the kids for several years, as "just a game."

Leah sent her son to a small Jewish boarding school, which offered lots of personal attention. She was concerned when the supervision over the boys seemed a bit weak, but was somewhat mollified when the administration kept assuring her. To her dismay she learned that her gut feeling was right; halfway through the year word leaked out that the young men hired as dorm counselors were molesting the younger teenage students and offering them prizes to keep quiet.

These true and recent stories demonstrate the fallacy of a prevalent myth about child predators and abusers. These heinous acts are seldom committed by the shadowy character in a trench coat lurking on the edge of the park. About 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone who has painstakingly built up a relationship of trust with the children, someone they know and perhaps even love, often someone within their community, school or camp.

Yechezkel "Chezy" Goldberg was a Jerusalem based social worker passionately striving to educate the Jewish community about abuse when he was brutally murdered in a terrorist attack in 2004. In a series of articles, he elaborated on this issue:

"It's hard to face that someone we know — and even like — might be a sexual abuser. However, the statistical data is accurate. Consider yourself warned. Pedophiles confess time and again how they exerted enormous energies building trust with their victims. The fact that pedophiles often operate in positions where they have influence and trust of parents and children is validated by the reality that pedophiles do not commit the crime once and stop. Child sex abusers repeatedly molest. Often, when cases do finally come to light, it is discovered that sexual abusers have indeed worked on whole groups of children in schools, communities and families. They are trusted and so they continue to operate."

The second myth that the Jewish community has clung to is that this is not our problem. "Such things don't happen among Jews!" As with other social ills such as domestic violence and alcoholism, the Jewish community is not at all immune. One in five girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. These figures are constant for every religion and religious denomination and socio-economic level—they apply to our kids too. As Chezy noted, "Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance and denial can lead to tragedy."

To fight abuse, the Jewish community must learn to overcome a prevalent attitude—the "shanda factor." Shanda, a Yiddish term meaning disgrace, is often the first response upon the uncovering of child abuse in Jewish settings. Rabbi Mark Dratch, director of Jsafe, explains: "These ills exist despite the denials, despite the skepticism that such ugly behavior can exist among our people always so proud of our exemplary home-life; despite the fear that exposing them will bring Jews into disrepute; and despite the apprehension that our reputations will be tarnished."

Denial is unhealthy in all types of abuse. But secrecy, shame and hesitancy to confront are especially favorable to creating the dank climate in which the child predator can thrive. "Child sexual abuse is a disease of secrecy," says Dr. Robert Bloom, executive director of Chicago's Jewish Children's Bureau. "It needs to be opened up. Like cleaning out a boil, you have to open it up before you can treat the underlying problem."

Dratch elaborates on the problems caused by denial. "Denial and shame makes the victims or parents of victims reluctant to come forward. We like to portray an image of ideal communities. It is important for our young people to have a positive image that they look up to. The problem is when we don't talk about issues that are very real and not perfect. We have to find ways to educate our communities and our leaders and have appropriate conversations about issues like abuse."

Through preventative education we can and must do everything we can to protect our precious children and make our communal institutions truly wholesome and safe.

A good starting place is this list of parental guidelines, compiled by Chezi Goldberg, of blessed memory:

· Watch for signs of inappropriate touching, closeness, dominating and abuse

· Teach and demonstrate how to say "no" when your boundaries and space are threatened or violated

· Speak up when you see "warning sign" behaviors.

· Teach children the proper names of body parts.

· Teach children the difference between "okay touch" and touch that is "not okay."

· Teach children that secrets about touching are "not okay."

· Teach your children that families have boundaries that have to be respected; there are private times and places that outsiders are not welcome

· Tell your children that you want them to tell you if anyone ever talks to them about or does "touch that is not okay."

Rabbi Dratch turns the shanda issue on its head. "The biggest shanda is when the community covers up these problems. We are not judged by other Jewish communities or by the non-Jewish world by the incidents of abuse themselves. Unfortunately, they can happen. We are judged by the way we take responsibility for them."

The same beautiful qualities that make Jewish communal life so endearing can be a breeding ground for a pedophile: the emphasis on modesty and privacy, the warmth and openness, and orientation toward seeing people in a positive vein and judging them favorably. Should we then live in isolation, suspicion and mistrust? "Don't separate yourself from the community," our sages advise. Communal life and support is an integral part of Jewish life. But, we cannot stick our heads in the sand or be foolishly naïve. By learning about the issues and signs, being aware and alert, we can properly educate and protect our children.

Communities can ultimately be a tremendous source of mutual strength and support in coping with the destruction wrought by child abuse. Once the true nature of the neighborhood pedophile described in the beginning of this article came to light, the entire community rallied, holding educational meetings at the day school and inviting a panel of police, mental health professionals and clergy to address the concerned parents. The children and parents who first came forward were lauded as brave and heroic, rather than being isolated or ostracized. The community charted a course of action to help all the children, those directly and indirectly affected, to heal.

Many Jewish clergy and mental health professionals are working earnestly to change the modus operandi of the Jewish community and create vehicles for better preventative monitoring, reporting and treatment.

Among them are:

Jsafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting An Abuse Free Environment is an organization led by Rabbi Mark Dratch, which provides a certification program for communal institutions, publications and educational initiatives. Jsafe.org

Ohel Children's Home and Family Services of Brooklyn, NY, has therapy and treatment programs for both victims and perpetrators, sensitive to Jewish needs. Ohel family, org, 800-603-OHEL

The Awareness Center is a coalition of Jewish mental health practitioners dedicated to building awareness in the Jewish community. Awarenesscenter.org

Shalom Task Force Hotline provides information on rabbinic, legal and counseling services for victims of abuse in the Jewish community. (888) 883-2323.

Faith Trust Institute, a clearinghouse for information on domestic violence and clergy abuse in the Jewish community. Faithtrustinstitute.org.

Association of Jewish Family and Children Services (AJFCA). (800) 634-7346. ajfca@ajfca.org.

National Center for Victims of Crime. (800) FYI-CALL.

National Child Abuse Hotline. (800) 4-A-CHILD.

National Hotline for Victims of Sexual Assault. (800) 656-HOPE.

National Organization for Victim Assistance. (800) TRY-NOVA.

Find Jewish resources by state at www.jewishwomen.org/directory/state_res.htm.

Sources for internet and general safety include kidsafe.com. Much additional information is readily available online, through family service agencies, and in the library.

Worried All the Time

July 5, 2009

Having kids is wonderful, but also scary. From the moment when a parent brings a tiny infant into this world, the parent can begin to worry. "Does he have all his fingers and toes?" "Is he breathing alright?" "Why is he making that sound?" "Why is he crying so much?" The worries change their flavor as the child grows: "She isn't talking yet—is that normal?" "The teacher says he has trouble following directions—is there something wrong with him?" "She doesn't have very many friends." "His marks are low." "If she doesn't get into college what kind of career will she have?" "He's still not dating." There are endless things to worry about even for non-worriers and all the more for those who are inclined by nature to worry.

For this reason, we might look at parenting as the perfect breeding ground for the growth of emunah, faith. Our belief that G‑d runs the world. That everything – all those things that look and feel good and all those things that look and feel bad – come from one Source. G‑d makes everything happen. Our feeling that G‑d makes everything happen for our ultimate benefit, even when we don't understand it. Like children who trust their parents even though the parents take them to a doctor to be jabbed with a needle or to a dentist to have their teeth yanked out! We don't like it, we don't get it, but we still trust that our parents have acted in our best interest.

When faced with a worry about our child, we can learn to bring G‑d into the picture. For example, suppose that a child has not reached a developmental milestone. His parents begin to worry: "Is he okay? What if he's not okay? What will happen to him? How will we manage?" The parents may attribute the problem to bad luck or bad genes. If so, they suffer without comfort. However, if they can attribute the situation to G‑d, they will be on the road to spiritual growth and emotional healing. "G‑d has created this situation for our benefit and our child's benefit. All challenges are for our good. G‑d gives us a problem and then waits for us to turn to Him for a solution." The parents can then address G‑d directly: "Please help us through this. Please let the problem disappear. Please let the doctors be helpful and guide us properly to a total healing." Indeed, G‑d gives us challenges specifically so that we will turn to Him for help. He wants us to develop a real, live relationship with Him.

Developing faith is not easy. None of us is born with this trait in place, even if we are born into a religiously observant family. Each person has to work on his or her own to develop their relationship with G‑d. We can begin the task by asking G‑d to help us acquire deeper levels of faith, just as we can ask G‑d for anything else we desire. Then there are other steps we can take. For instance, we can help ourselves by making a daily ritual of reading a paragraph on the subject of faith (there are many books available on this subject). We can attach ourselves to the soul of the master of faith – King David – who wrote the book of Psalms. By saying one psalm each day, we will gradually develop our spiritual "muscles." Finally, we can keep a "faith" notebook: a record of our specific worries and how each one turned out. For instance, a parent might record: "Junior still hasn't cut his first tooth and I'm getting worried that something is wrong." This should be followed by a prayer to G‑d to help the child develop normally. A month later, the parent can record: "Junior cut his first tooth—thank You, G‑d!" By keeping such a record of the kindnesses that G‑d performs for us, our faith in his love and support will grow ever stronger. We can also note in the book how G‑d helped us get through a difficult time, so that we can see his love and support under all circumstances.

Turning to G‑d in times of stress and worry has always been the Jewish way. Developing this habit early in the parenting journey can help parents cope better with the trials and tribulations of parenting at the same time as it will help them develop their spiritual greatness.

Just about every career requires prior course training, and often some work-related experience.

Becoming a parent can be one of the most responsible positions we undertake, yet most of us do so unprepared and without any prior knowledge.

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