Respect alternative families, area rabbi tells educators

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Most Jews live in families that are "alternative" in one way or another, says Rabbi Jane Litman. And she wants to make sure that Jewish educators are sensitive to the diverse faces of their communities.

"The stereotypical families of our childhood aren't the families that Jews are living in now. Sometimes the curriculum lags behind reality," says Litman, the new rabbi-educator in charge of religious school at Reform Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.

Today's Jewish families, according to Litman, include families with blended religions, two working parents, single parents, divorced parents, adopted children, and gay and lesbian parents.

A 1990 Jewish population survey showed that nationwide, the Jewish family in which both husband and wife were born Jewish and in which the husband works and the mother stays at home with the children constitutes less than 10 percent of the Jewish population, Litman said.

"That says to me that we need to have educational programming which is sensitive and inclusive beyond that stereotypical model," said Litman, who previously served as rabbi of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav and now works with Beth El's Rabbi Ferenc Raj.

Litman will speak on "Sensitivity to Alternative Families: Reaching Out to All Our Students" at an Aug. 29 conference for East Bay Jewish educators. Sponsored by the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, the workshop will be held at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

She wants to teach teachers how to be supportive of their students' family situations. That could be as simple as showing teachers that they may be unintentionally excluding some students when, for instance, they tell youngsters at the end of the day to show something to their "mom and dad."

"There shouldn't just be an assumption that everyone lives with a mom and a dad," said Litman. Teachers need "to acknowledge the reality of people's lives, to be sure we say, 'How are your parents doing?' not 'How are your mom and dad doing?'"

For children who don't fit into the conventional model, the risk is "a feeling of isolation and alienation and I think invisibility," Litman said. Youngsters can feel, "This place could never understand who I am and what my situation is."

Litman, 44, has herself known that isolation. Now married with two children, she had relationships with both men and women when she was single. "In the early days, I tended to keep my life history very private," she said. "So much so that significant periods of my life were very difficult."

Today, she doesn't feel secretive. "Part of being a rabbi is being open and telling the truth about life," she said. "There's nothing I've done that I'm ashamed of or should be."

Even at her former synagogue, which has special outreach to gay, lesbian and bisexual Jews, Litman encountered teaching material that needed updating.

She said a workbook used for a course on family roots included a family tree with places labeled for a mother and father. The synagogue redesigned the lesson so students could fill in a family "constellation" instead, allowing for families with two mothers, two fathers or other variations.

Religious schools also should consider how they can become more friendly to working moms, Litman said, "so we don't assume they're at home shlepping their kids everywhere."

One way is for schools to help set up carpool networks, which Sha'ar Zahav has done. Other congregations are experimenting with offering shuttles to carry children from their regular schools to Hebrew school. Likewise, Beth El offers a snack program so parents don't have to pack food for their children.

"In many ways, we need to just reconceptualize what constitutes a family," said Litman. That includes being sensitive to children in dual-custody homes and understanding that "some of our kids might be spending a considerable amount of time in a non-Jewish household," she said.

"I think it's important to be nonjudgmental, to teach these teachers that we're respectful of the kids' family situation.

"Some of the kids in our congregation will be celebrating non-Jewish holidays," she said. "We stay comfortable and don't get too engaged in that. Our job is to be helpful and supportive of that child's Jewish identity."

Judaism has a long tradition of adaptability, Litman said.

"I think it's important to remember that Judaism is an extremely flexible religion. As Jews, we've adapted to ways of life over hundreds and thousands of years."

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