Kelly Rubanenko is a PJ Our Way parent, mom of three kids, and the Director, Overseas Missions and Engagement at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.
According to my son, Gabe (age 11), celebrating Tu B’Shevat
(the birthday of the trees) in Cleveland makes no sense at all. With the ground frozen and covered in snow, it’s hard to imagine that trees in Israel are beginning to bloom. Even if some kids can imagine their peers in Israel planting trees and going on hikes, it’s really hard for Gabe to feel connected to springtime and the land of Israel while he’s still slinging snowballs at his siblings and being scolded for trekking wet boots through the house. So this Tu B’Shevat (February 11, 2017), we’ve decided to think about trees by celebrating our Jewish ROOTS.
Most elementary school kids understand that trees have roots in order to take in water, support the trunk of the tree, and carry nutrients from the soil to the tree. Thanks to PJ Our Way, all kinds of Jewish families are discovering Jewish roots that support and nourish growth and identity. Here’s a glimpse into how Gabe has learned about his own roots – roots that have strengthened his connection to family and Jewish values.
Gabe immediately connected to the young boy named Jesse in Jesse’s Star
by Ellen Schwartz.
Jesse waited until the last minute to do a report on an ancestor from “long, long ago” and his busy mom, who was rushing out to a meeting, told him to look for an old traveling case in the attic. Poking around, Jesse found a Star of David necklace belonging to Yossi Mendelsohn, his great-great-grandfather. When Jesse slipped on the necklace, he immediately became Yossi, living in a Russian village called Braslav in the late 18th century. Without giving too much away, I’ll share with you that Yossi showed extreme courage in saving his family. Meanwhile, Gabe wanted to know where his great-great-grandfather came from and if there were Russian soldiers who were mean to our family like they were to Yossi’s. This led to a discussion about courage (ometz
in Hebrew) and Gabe’s desire to buy his own Star of David necklace. (Jesse’s Star
will be available as a selection August 1-10, 2017.)
Next on the list of favorite PJ Our Way books is When the Hurricane Came
by Nechama Liss-Levinson. When we looked at the monthly list of book options, I wasn’t sure if Gabe would identify with a nine year-old girl from New Orleans. I casually mentioned to Gabe that he was born just days after Hurricane Katrina and that in lieu of baby gifts, we asked for donations to help people devastated by the storm. I told him that he performed a mitzvah
even before his bris. (Thankfully, he didn’t ask many questions about his bris.) Gabe selected When the Hurricane Came
and couldn’t wait to learn how nine year-old Gertie and her family left everything behind (including her dad, a doctor) to flee the storm. A few days into reading the book, Gabe informed me that he and Gertie were very similar because, “we both have annoying siblings and have to go around the table at Thanksgiving and share what we are thankful for.”
Since Gabe is a diehard sports fan, it wasn’t surprising that he chose to read Beyond Lucky
by Sarah Aronson. What was
surprising was that he allowed me to snuggle and read with him…and that we had a lengthy discussion about friendship, honesty and family. (Okay, I’ll admit that it was past his bedtime and that he knew he could get away with stalling since I’m a huge PJ Our Way fan.)
I still agree with Gabe that it’s hard to imagine a tree blooming in Cleveland when all one sees is frozen ground and piles of snow. But, with the help of PJ Our Way, it is remarkably easy to see that my son Gabe is developing a new appreciation for stories with Jewish characters: Jewish characters that relate to his Jewish roots and beliefs; Jewish characters that connect him to his past and future; and Jewish characters that live according to values we share. My little boy is taking it in, feeling supported and blooming. Thank you PJ Our Way and Happy Tu B’Shevat