Drorit and Shai Raiter are expecting their first child, a boy, at the end of May. In preparation, they signed up for the requisite birthing class at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where they plan to deliver. As they thumbed through the other prenatal offerings, one course jumped out at them: Jewish expectant parent workshop. According to the literature, “it’s not a childbirth preparation class. It’s a parenthood preparation class.”
The Raiters registered and showed up last month for the inaugural three-hour session, unsure of what to expect. “There are all these customs we’ve never heard about, and I thought I’d better go and start asking some questions,” says attorney Drorit Raiter, 32.
The new monthly class is casting a wide net, hoping to lure in Jews of all stripes with presentations from a Reform female rabbi and an Orthodox male rabbi. Because the course is being held at a hospital and not a synagogue, organizers are optimistic that it could attract a potpourri of couples, including same-sex and interfaith parents-to-be.
But this isn’t any run-of-the-mill parenting class. In an indication that this isn’t just about answering questions about baby-naming ceremonies but about shoring up the future of the Jewish people one baby at a time, organizers have cut a deal with 21 local synagogues to offer one year of complimentary membership to class participants.
Each year, more than 7,000 babies are born at Cedars-Sinai; 20% of their parents identify as Jewish. Rates of assimilation in Judaism have generated no shortage of hand-wringing: about half of all Jews marry non-Jews; the L.A. Jewish community, like many communities outside the East Coast, has a particularly low affiliation rate of 20% to 25%, further highlighting the need for a pilot program.
Like many hospitals throughout the U.S., Cedars-Sinai’s religious affiliation stems from an era when there was no health insurance; medical centers would associate with a particular religion — Judaism, in Cedars-Sinai’s case — as part of a mission to repair the world and help the community. In addition, into the 1960s, not all Jewish physicians could get privileges at other hospitals because of anti-Semitism.
The hospital has retained its religious affiliation, but now, with a shrinking pool of Jewish families and waning participation in conventional Jewish life — through synagogues and community centers — experts are wondering how to promote Judaism in unexpected places. The hospital is one of those places. “People realize they’re at a transition point in their lives,” says Rabbi Jason Weiner, the hospital’s senior rabbi. “All of a sudden, they’re starting to ask themselves how they want to raise their children. They want to connect.”
Weiner has increasingly fielded calls from unaffiliated Jews asking questions about parenting. Often, they’re somewhat panicked, having waited until after their baby is born to figure out what to do about welcoming ceremonies or naming traditions. They ask questions about holidays — this Friday night marks the beginning of Passover, which is thought to be the most observed Jewish holiday — and about teaching their kids about their heritage. “Many people are not connected to their faith community so they don’t have clergy they call their own,” says Weiner. “With parenthood approaching, they’re thinking about values and what’s meaningful to them. We realized we have the opportunity to be a bridge.”
The course covers Jewish naming customs — Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe name after deceased relatives; Sephardic Jews from Spain and the Middle East name after the living — and ways of skirting all hospitals’ impatience with parents who have yet to decide upon a name for their baby. Traditionally, Jews bestow a baby boy’s name at his bris, the ritual circumcision held eight days after his birth. But, advise the rabbis, to avoid a trip downtown to the Social Security Administration, go ahead and fill out the papers in the hospital — just keep the baby’s name a secret from all but Uncle Sam.
In addition to matters specific to Jewish parents, the class also deals with more general psychosocial issues — things like changes in family structure, shifts in the dynamic between parents and new grandparents and the impact of a new baby on a relationship. If the Jewish parenting workshop is successful, Cedars-Sinai plans to expand it to other religions and cultures. “These aren’t questions just the Jewish community faces,” says Jonathan Schreiber, the hospital’s director of community engagement. “We’ll reach out to the lesbian and gay community, to African Americans, to Catholics. Each group has its own unique issues.”
The Raiters consider themselves fairly knowledgeable about Judaism, but Drorit acknowledges they could use a refresher. Like most American Jews, they don’t observe the strictures of the Sabbath, for example, and they show up at synagogue only on the holiest holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They don’t expect having a baby to turn them into uber-observant Jews, but it was good to hear that there are ways to creatively incorporate religion into everyday life. Think writing a letter to your baby to be read at the naming ceremony — a bris for a boy or, for girls, the increasingly popular simchat bat, which translates as “joy of a daughter” — or, down the road, a weaning ceremony that echoes the feast Abraham threw for Sarah when she stopped nursing Isaac. “The idea is to connect to the Jewish community,” says Raiter. “They weren’t shoving it down our throats, but it’s all there if you want to access it.”
Pregnant women often seek community, in prenatal yoga classes or online chat boards. Likewise, the six couples in the March class were encouraged to exchange phone numbers. Says Weiner: “We don’t expect all these people will raise their children to become rabbis. Maybe some won’t connect at all. But our goal is for them to be better informed so they can create their own Jewish journey, whatever that looks like.”