How parents keep the faith: a Christmas gift of mitzvahs

More important to the Caplans than temple attendance is modeling their Jewish identity – like offering mitzvahs of music as a Christmas gift – as a way to help their children keep the faith.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Caplans, (from left, Louisa, Melissa, Lila, and Andy) chose to live in a neighborhood of observant Jews to help reinforce their values and help their children keep the faith. During the Christmas holidays the children perform mitzvahs – or good deeds – like playing their violins for elderly patients at nursing homes.
Ann Hermes
This article – part of the cover story project on how parents keep the faith – appears in the Dec. 20, 2010 Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.

On Christmas Day, 8-year-old Lila Caplan and her 6-year-old sister, Louisa, don't receive presents, but they make a point to give a few.

With the Christian holiday closing down all schools and businesses, the Caplan girls turn to their own Jewish religion in response: They perform a mitzvah, or good deed. Their mom, Melissa, takes them to visit a nursing home or two where they play their violins for enthusiastic elderly audiences.

"We sometimes even do that on Sundays!" says Lila, who also handed out Meals On Wheels for seniors last year on Christmas.

IN PICTURES: Happy Hanukkah

For the Caplan family, finding meaning in Judaism is largely about putting Jewish values into action. And doing that at home is key.

The goal is tikkun, healing the world, explains Lila's father, Andy Caplan. Doing mitzvah is a part of that. Mr. Caplan, a lawyer, even met his wife, Melissa, a Hebrew school teacher, at a meeting of Anti-Defamation League activists. They want their daughters to know why they stay involved in ADL. "The values that ADL stands for – combating bigotry and anti-Semitism – are, to me, core Jewish values," Mr. Caplan says. "I try to spend time explaining to the girls what the ADL does so that instead of just saying, 'Daddy, why are you going to a meeting again tonight?,' they'll see what values are important to me."

The Caplans have long recognized that passing down Jewish values would be a job for them – but with help from a larger community than just the synagogue. Ms. Caplan grew up in a New Jersey neighborhood where her family largely assimilated with the dominant Christian culture. Her parents counted on institutions to help her find meaning in Jewish practices.

"Jewish camps were what kept me Jewish," she says.

But when the Caplans were deciding where to raise a family, they wanted more than a nearby synagogue for support. They wanted social networks to reinforce Jewish values. They found that here, where Andy grew up, in a neighborhood of observant Jews.

"Just choosing to live in this community is helping to raise our kids Jewish," Ms. Caplan says.

Their schedule is full of Jewish holiday events with neighbors and family – visits to neighbors' sukkahs, or backyard tents, for Sukkot; a Yom Kippur dinner; a progressive Sabbath dinner among five households with guitar-playing and Jewish songs. Even on ordinary days, Lila and Louisa can't help but participate in lifestyles that reflect Jewish values. At summer block parties, there's always a kosher grill. On Saturdays, it's synagogue services over play dates.

For the Caplans, home-based faith doesn't aim to substitute for synagogue involvement, but to complement it. Both girls are active in Hebrew school.

The Caplans say their rabbi, who lives next door, emphasizes the importance of reclaiming the home as Judaism's core environment. And they embrace that ethic, with help from friends and family.

The Caplans admit they're not perfect in observing faith practices. On Fridays, for instance, they usually don't prepare a Shabbat dinner to mark the Sabbath, but instead cheer at football games or join in other community events. Their daughters are learning the same prayers in Hebrew school that Mr. and Ms. Caplan learned as kids – but they don't say them together before nodding off.

"I don't think there's any deep meaning" in skipping prayers, Ms. Caplan says. "We're just leading an assimilated life."

IN PICTURES: Happy Hanukkah

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