Is there such a thing as ‘soulful’ parenting?

In a unique Jewish study group, Israeli mothers gather to seek transcendence amid the tantrums and diapers

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Mothers in Tel Aviv meet for an Ayeka 'Soulful Parenting' workshop, February 2016.  (Courtesy)
Mothers in Tel Aviv meet for an Ayeka 'Soulful Parenting' workshop, February 2016. (Courtesy)

On a chilly winter evening in Tel Aviv, a group of women sit in a circle pondering a poem by Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran: “Your children are not your children They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”

“What qualities did your children get from you, and what qualities are mysterious, or God-given?” asks Maayan Rabinovich, the group’s facilitator. She then asks the group what they think of another passage, from the Babylonian Talmud, about God being the “third partner,” in the creation of a child.

“Sometimes I look at my daughter, at her stubbornness, and I wonder, where does that come from? My husband and I are not like that,” reflects a member of the group.

The women assembled, most of them parents of small children, have taken a welcome break from their evening childcare routine to pore over Jewish and non-Jewish texts as part of the “Becoming a Soulful Parent” workshop, run by the Ayeka Center for Soulful Education.

"Soulful Parenting" facilitator Maayan Rabinovich (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)
‘Soulful Parenting’ facilitator Maayan Rabinovich (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Rabinovich, one of the creators of the course, together with Jewish educators Dasee Berkowitz and Mali Brofsky, told The Times of Israel that unlike many parenting workshops, the point is not to instruct people on how to be good parents.

“The point is to ask the questions and let each person answer from her place, to create a secure place that is accepting and not judgemental, so the participants can share things they couldn’t otherwise say,” she said.

Indeed, over the course of the six-session workshop, held in a participant’s home, intimacies are formed, so that the women begin to share personal struggles like marital disagreements or the difficulty of caring for a special-needs child. Others talk about feeling like they don’t always have their act together, and that others are looking and judging them, for example, when their child throws a tantrum in public.

Rabinovich’s ground rule is that personal revelations are not discussed or shared with others beyond the confines of the meetings. “One of the most charged meetings was when we discussed ‘shalom bayit,’ or the issue of how we parent with a partner,” she said.

To open the discussion about different parenting styles, Rabinovich had the group mull a quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, who language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.”

“I’ll give myself as an example,” said Rabinovich. “The issue of safety and security is very important for me. Car seats, bike helmets, I’m very strict about those things and my husband is not. If he doesn’t want to wear a helmet himself, it’s fine, but when it comes to the children, it sometimes makes me crazy.”

A bike rider on the empty streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, 2011 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a child riding a bike in Jerusalem without a helmet. (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

In the group discussion, some mothers said their husband’s tendency to let the kids watch too much TV or eat too many sweets is what made their blood boil.

“It’s usually about something deeper,” said Rabinovich. “And often these conflicts will not get resolved, and we have to realize we’re not going to change each other. Is there a way to appreciate our partner without agreeing with what they do?”

Rabinovich said the Soulful Parenting group was meant for couples, not just mothers, but it so happened that the Tel Aviv group was all women. There are also courses give in Jerusalem and Alon Shvut.

“In the beginning it was meant for couples but what happened is in the first sessions it was mostly mothers who showed up along with a few fathers. When the men saw they were the only dads they did not come back. It’s a nice atmosphere to have just mothers, but from my point of view, the goal is for both to attend,” she admitted.

Breathing life into Jewish studies

Ayeka was founded in 2006 by Rabinovich’s father Aryeh Ben-David, a veteran Jewish educator, who formerly taught at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and was Educational Director of Livnot U’lehibanot.

The goal of Ayeka is to train Jewish Studies teachers as well as individuals “to breathe life into Jewish text study” and make it personally relevant for them. The center works with educators and clergy of all Jewish denominations in Israel and North America.

Rabinovich said Ayeka was established in response to the predominant tendency to teach Torah and Jewish texts in a cerebral way.

“We teach Torah and Jewish studies as information. Ayeka was created out of a feeling that there is a gap between these intellectual studies and their influence on our lives. The Torah should be ‘torat chaim,’” she said, or a living Torah.

Rabinovich says the name of the organization, “Ayeka,” derives from the first question God asks Adam in the Garden of Eden. Ayekain in Hebrew is translated as “Where are you?”

“This question resonates,” said Rabinovich. “Where are we in relation to what we do? Do we listen to our souls? A lot of times I don’t listen to this question, I don’t know where I am and I do things out of inertia.”

The classes use traditional texts from the Bible, Talmud and rabbinic literature as well as non-Jewish texts like passages by social work researcher Brene Brown and Quaker spiritualist Parker Palmer.

Rabinovich said Dasee Berkowitz and the team at Ayeka thought long and hard about which texts to include.

Illustrative photo of mother and child (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Illustrative photo of mother and child (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

“Six years ago I gave a course on parenting and I thought I would use Bible stories. It was not successful,” said Rabinovich. “The binding of Isaac, throwing Joseph into the well, David and Absalom, those are tough stories.”

So she and her colleagues looked to the rabbinic tradition.

“Most sources don’t speak directly about parenting. Usually it’s about working on your personal ethics and overcoming challenges. We use sources from Rabbi Kook, the Talmud and Hasidic sources as well as contemporary thinkers like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Jonathan Sacks,” she said.

Nevertheless, Rabinovich believes parenting and Jewish texts are a natural fit. “There is a lot of wisdom in our tradition, it has a lot of depth, a lot of honesty, and an unwillingness to compromise in the search for truth.”

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