By Jim Keen, JCC of Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Originally featured in the summer 2005 issue of JCC Circle.
Bonnie and I started looking at the different childcare centers around town. Some we had heard great things about (you know, the ones with a three-year waiting list), and some we had heard, how shall I say, a few unflattering remarks. I was a little concerned when Bonnie brought up the idea of enrolling our daughter in the Early Childhood Center of the Washtenaw County JCC. My wife and daughters are Jewish, but I am Christian. Sure, the JCC ECC had a remarkable reputation, but I was apprehensive about sending Gabby to some place where, as I thought, she would learn nothing but Hebrew.
As it turned out, the JCC taught kids a lot about Israel and Judaism. They also taught myriad non-Jewish subjects. The JCC had everything we were searching for in a childcare center: great teachers, a wonderful director and staff, national accreditation, a spacious playground for sunny days, a big gymnasium for rainy days, fun classrooms where the children could play and learn, and best of all, a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
As time went on, my little girl became a big girl at the JCC. She was learning a lot. As it turned out, I was learning a lot, too. Year after year, we continued to register Gabby at the JCC. Why? Because it offered so much more than I could have ever imagined. It gave us a sense of community. The JCC was not just for kids. As parents, we were welcomed, as well. My wife and I not only had a feeling of belonging, but also had many chances to be involved. Bonnie began serving on the board of the JCC. It was a great opportunity to have a say in our children’s education. I got to volunteer at various functions, including fundraisers, Shabbat dinners, and other holiday events. I’ve also been known to serve ice cream at Family Fun Night. They actually expected me to scoop more than I ate. Where else could you find this much trust?
This community did not stop there, either. The seniors in our area were extremely active at the JCC; they also participated in many of the Early Childhood Center’s holiday parties and events. After a while, we got to know many wonderful and intriguing people of all generations and backgrounds. The JCC’s special events provided our family with an opportunity to meet other families. Many were part of an interfaith family, just as we were. It was reassuring to have friends who faced similar issues. We found it just as much fun to develop friendships with families from Russia, Japan, Sweden, Israel, India, and other parts of the globe. While most families at the JCC were Jewish, the JCC welcomed people of all faiths. Friendly and enlightening—what more could we ask for?
These family functions provided a much-needed chance to celebrate Judaism with our community. It was fun to get on the phone and call up friends and ask, “Are you going to the Sukkot dinner tomorrow night?” And while we taught Gabby Judaism in the home, these functions reinforced her Jewish education by creating wonderful memories for her. During Yom Kippur, for example, Gabby learned all about Jonah and the whale and painted a picture of Jonah inside the whale’s stomach. Every Friday, the kids celebrated Shabbat with a song leader and baked challah to take home for dinner.
As an interfaith family raising our children Jewish, we’re never quite sure if we’re sending a consistent message to our kids. Does my being Christian confuse them? I’m sure it does, to a point. I will always find ways to reinforce their Judaism. This is one area where we find the JCC to be of the most benefit.
Jim Keen is a free-lance writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His daughters, Gabby and Molly, are graduates of the JCC ECC program, but never miss a chance to go back for a visit. This is adapted from an article that originally appeared on InterfaithFamily.com.