In Part II of this three-part series abou non-Jews in Bloomington, Ind. who have become deeply involved with the Jewish community, Jun Chen interviews two non-Jewish women whose children attend a Jewish preschool. Part I, in which Chen wrote about her upbringing in China and its effect on her perception of the Jewish community, is here.
Indiana University (Bloomington, Ind.)—
Intermarried Catholic | Sends her daughter to a Jewish preschool
Teresa Mandell, raised Catholic, met her husband, Michael Mandell, an American Jew, in college. After they got married in 1992, the Mandells spent moving around a lot, looking for a community where they felt they could be active participants. Finally, they moved to the college town of Bloomington, Ind. Two years later, they had a daughter, Sami. Teresa sent Sami to Gan Shalom, an early childhood center at Congregation Beth Shalom, where both she and her husband, a non-practicing Jew, have found a formal but fun way to learn about the Jewish religion and tradition.
CHEN: Why did you want to send Sami to Gan Shalom, a Jewish pre-school? What does that mean to your family?
MANDELL: 20 years ago, when my mother, a very religious woman, knew that my husband and I were dating and talking seriously about getting married, she asked me to convert if we would have children. When we had Sami, her talk just came back to my mind again. My husband is an American Jew. He is not really practicing, but his father and siblings are very involved in the synagogue back in Texas. We decided to send Sami to Gan Shalom because we hope she will be raised with an open mind and know what the Jewish religion is about, even she does not necessarily become Jewish later on. Now we celebrate Shabbat, one of Sami’s most favorite Jewish festivals, at home on every Friday. The Shabbat candles that Sami brought from Gan Shalom also remind my husband of the time in his youth—he has not done the celebration for nearly 20 years. But now we both consider it as something very important to continue.
What is the most interesting part of the Jewish culture and tradition that you have learned about so far? What is your least favorite part of it?
My favorite part of the Jewish culture is the family-based celebration of small things, which keeps you in the mind that not just everything comes to you. And another value I find most rewarding to me is that it is not always about you and it is important to give back. For Catholics, we have the belief of penitence—when you committed a sin, you have to do penitence. But in Jewish culture, it becomes more active that whether or not you do something bad, there is always a way to help others and even the youngest child can do that.
But I think because I am Catholic, not Jewish, sometimes I feel like an outsider. That was why we did not really participate when we were in other places. The Jewish community is somewhat exclusionary at first. But being here in Bloomington has been much more accessible to me.
Professor of Hispanic Linguistics | Sends her children to a Jewish preschool
Kimberly Geeslin was an Associate Professor of Hispanic Linguistics in Indiana University. She found Gan Shalom as she was looking for an environment that valued physical activity for her son, who is a very active child. She visited several schools, and felt that Gan Shalom was one that valued children and understood their needs. Now her second child is in her third year there.
CHEN: Aside from Gan Shalom, do you have any other personal connection with Jewish community?
GEESLIN: My personal connection with the Jewish community has always simply been through friendships. My best friend from elementary school often included me in her family’s traditions. It is only as an adult that I actually realize there is a Jewish community because as a child my friends came from a variety of religious backgrounds and I never really grouped people together in the way that adults tend to. To this day, my connection is really just that there are people I really enjoy who happen to be Jewish.
What do you think is the most valuable thing you and your children have learned from Jewish community?
What I admire most about Jewish community is the emphasis put on education, particularly equivalent education for boys and girls. It was very important for me that my children see positive female role models and there are endless examples of powerful successful women in the community I know. And I also have learned a tremendous amount about parenting and about balancing work and motherhood from the Jewish and the non-Jewish friends I have made at my children’s school.
Jun Chen is a journalism graduate student at Indiana University. She is a Chinese girl, a news junkie and music snob who believes there is inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. She is a New Voices national correspondent.