Lamazel Tov classes deliver breath of Judaism to childbirth

The sounds of heavy breathing reverberated within the Congregation Sherith Israel classroom. Three couples reclined on the floor with pillows and colorful mats.

They weren't at the San Francisco synagogue to nap or indulge in sybaritic pleasures. They were expectant parents, attending the Reform congregation's childbirth classes, "Lamazel Tov: A Jewish Approach to Breathing, Relaxation and New Life."

As couples lay on the floor Monday evening, they learned the traditional breathing techniques from certified Lamaze instructor Megan Steelman.

But "Lamazel Tov," a five-part course offered by the congregation only once before, has proven to be anything but a typical childbirth course.

In addition to 12 hours of Lamaze, couples learn the ins and outs of raising a Jewish child, with three hours of Jewish preparation taught by Rabbi Stephen Kahn and early childhood educator Mimi Greisman.

Kahn, who took a similar class with his wife in Denver, brought the idea with him when he moved to San Francisco last year. The program is the first of its kind in the Bay Area, he said.

"A lot of couples don't really know what it means on a practical level to raise their child as a Jew," said Kahn, who organized the course for both Jewish and interfaith couples. "We built in a Judaic component that enables them…to get a head start on bringing their child into the covenant."

In other words, he explained, "They won't just sit on a mat and breathe."

Kahn, along with specialists in Jewish education, health and parenting, cover everything from the importance of naming rituals and details of the brit milah to the how-to's of creating a Jewish home.

Greisman counsels the couples, focusing on the transition from partners to parents. She also leads discussions surrounding the traditions, values and celebrations each couple wants to bring to their new family.

And in the process of breathing and learning, Greisman said the couples begin to create community with their classmates.

"A lot of young couples that are coming into parenthood don't have family around," said Greisman. "This course introduces them to their peers and helps connect them."

Jody and Ben Schiller Douglas, who were in the May "Lamazel Tov" course, recently welcomed their first child, Isaac, into the world. While the labor "dragged on a lot longer than we'd hoped," Ben said he and his wife felt "psychologically prepared" for the big day.

"It was useful to understand what was going on and not be caught up in the surprise," said Ben. "When the nurses said she was at this stage or that I knew what it meant."

Jody agreed: "I was very prepared — well, as well prepared as you can be for something like that."

She also put the course teachings to use Saturday at Isaac's brit. Mohel and obstetrician Judith L. Mates had detailed the process, step by step, with the class — all of whom were expecting boys. Kahn, meanwhile, had talked about the ceremonial aspects.

"I knew who to call for the bris — that made things a lot easier," said Jody. "I had never been through a bris before, so it was good to hear, blow by blow, how it is done; to know what to expect."

Classmate Victoria Sherman, who expects a boy any day now, took the May course with her husband Michael. The interfaith couple, Jewish on Michael's side, had decided early on that they wanted to raise their child as a Jew.

"I wanted to have some background [on Judaism] before our son was born," said Sherman, who is currently enrolled in conversion classes. "'Lamazel Tov' was exactly what we wanted. We got the regular delivery and labor instruction along with the spirituality and Judaism in raising a baby."

Sherman also appreciated the small size of the class — three couples as opposed to the 30 or so enrolled in hospital-offered childbirth courses. This intimacy, she said, allowed the couples to form an "extended community."

"I've gotten calls from everybody, checking up to see how I'm doing," she said. "I wouldn't have gotten that out of a hospital course."

Kahn said he eventually hopes to expand the class size, but only to between eight and 10 couples, in order to "keep the intimacy." He also said that because of a "baby boom" in the Bay Area the congregation will offer the course three times a year.

"We'll change the entire paradigm and culture of taking Lamaze in a hospital," said Kahn. "As a synagogue we have a responsibility to offer holistic educational programs that meet everyone's needs. 'Lamazel Tov' is just the tip of the iceberg."