Campers at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp near Yosemite, in 2018. (Photo/Facebook-Camp Tawonga)
Campers at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp near Yosemite, in 2018. (Photo/Facebook-Camp Tawonga)

Jewish community has been a lifeline to me as a mother. It’s time to return the favor.

When I moved from New York to San Francisco more than 20 years ago, the only person I knew was my hubby. We were newly married, and I was looking for Jewish connections, which I had a lot of back East.

I can’t remember how I ended up at a Hadassah luncheon. I must have seen a flyer. I went hoping to meet some Jewish women and ended up meeting one of my dearest friends. She’s known me since before our oldest was born and has helped me navigate marriage to motherhood and everything in between.

A few years later, I met a rabbi at a party for what was then called the Jewish Museum San Francisco (held in the Steuart Street lobby of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, which was then the museum’s small gallery space).

The rabbi’s wife was pregnant, and so was I. My husband and I ran into him shortly after the party, in the hospital — both his wife and I had given birth within days of each other.

We kept in touch. The rabbi’s wife told me about a baby group at her husband’s synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. My daughter and I attended the following week and then became regulars. This weekly baby group became the beginning of our building a strong Jewish foundation for our kids.

The rabbi suggested that I register our daughter for the Sherith Israel preschool, which we did. Looking back, I realize that having our children attend a Jewish preschool was critical to Judaism being at the forefront of our family’s life. I made lifelong friendships. Over the years, we’ve celebrated Jewish holidays together and traveled to Israel.

When our older daughter began elementary school, we decided to have her attend Sunday school at Congregation Emanu-El, where we’ve been members now for more than 15 years. The synagogue has played an essential role in helping us raise our kids Jewish. The clergy and staff always make our kids feel special. This is the place where our children not only learned to love being Jewish, but where — as high-schoolers!— it’s still a cool place for them to be. The synagogue also has helped me be a better Jewish mother, a more thoughtful community member, and helped me dig in deeper personally and spiritually.

Our son attended Camp Tawonga every summer until he was too old to be a camper. It was a profound growth experience for him. The staff and counselors infuse Judaism into every aspect of camp life in such a spirited and beautiful way.

The JCC of San Francisco has consistently been a welcoming place for my family. We’ve attended many community holiday celebrations over the years and have enjoyed taking the kids to talks there now that they are older. My daughter and I have gone to hear Gloria Steinem and Shirin Ebadi, our son to see René Redzepi and Bari Weiss.

In high school, when our daughter came up against a fellow activist student whose ideas about Israel and Zionism made her feel uncomfortable, the Jewish Community Relations Council was there for her. I’m thankful they gave her the tools she needed to respond thoughtfully.

Through the years, our kids have taken advantage of many terrific volunteer programs, such as the Jewish Teen Foundation at the S.F.-based Federation and at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, among many others.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention HIAS, the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, for bringing my grandparents to this country in the early 20th century.

I wouldn’t be here today writing a column for the Bay Area’s Jewish publication if HIAS hadn’t made it possible for my grandparents to rebuild their lives safely in the United States.

During an afternoon walk after having just read an article about the challenges Jewish nonprofits are facing as a result of the Covid pandemic, I was reflecting back on what a lifeline so many of these organizations have been to me as a mother. I wish I had space here to list them all.

I’m grateful to all of them, and to their hard-working employees, for helping me raise Jewish kids.

Julie Levine

Julie Levine is a writer who lives in San Francisco.