Rabbi Paul Kipnes and his wife of 25 years, Michelle November, know a thing or two about kids. The couple has three children, ranging in age from 18 to 23, who are all off at college. And though their love and admiration for each of their children are clear, they are quick to point out that they are “regular kids.” The Tarzana residents also have spent several summers on the faculty at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Northern California. And both spend lots of time with kids in their jobs — Kipnes, 54, as spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, and November, 52, as senior admissions officer at de Toledo High School in West Hills. But they had never considered writing a book about parenting until Jewish Lights Publishing reached out to them based on Kipnes’ blog (paulkipnes.com/blog), which he started in 2006.
“Jewish Spiritual Parenting,” a joint effort between the couple, was published in August, and already is in its second printing. Recently, TRIBE chatted with the couple about the book, strategies for parenting teenagers, and what to do when you and your spouse or partner aren’t on the same parenting page. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
TRIBE: This is not a typical parenting book that tells you what to do when your toddler is having a meltdown.
MICHELLE NOVEMBER: It is a guidebook. The subject really is spirituality and how to bring that into your own life and into your family life.
RABBI PAUL KIPNES: How to nurture wholesome Jewish values in your children and your family, and spiritual balance.
MN: A couple of our friends who have read it have commented that they don’t think it is relevant only for Jews, that there’s a part of it that speaks to anybody about communication, and creating warm relationships and closeness with your family.
TRIBE: What is Jewish spiritual parenting?
PK: If spirituality is a sense of and connection to something deeper, greater, more than ourselves, and Judaism is a culture and a people and religious tradition, and parenting is figuring out how to take these innocent, young creations — all potential — and raising them, then Jewish spiritual parenting is raising children to have a sense that they are part of something greater and deeper, and to connect with everybody and everything with gratitude, joy and kindness.
TRIBE: Is that possible — to connect with everybody and everything with gratitude, joy and kindness?
MN: I think it takes practice, and it’s a mindset. We’re all human, and so on many days we feel blue or like we wish we had something we don’t have, or we don’t really like that person. But I think there are ways to change your mindset and set your intention for the day that open you to positivity and possibilities of the creation of kindness and joy and gratitude.
TRIBE: Are there issues unique to Jewish families and Jewish parents?
PK: I think that Jews particularly are challenged by the notion of religion. I’m not talking about Orthodox Jews. … Jews haven’t traditionally talked about [where God is]. They’ve talked about mitzvot, about doing — not about belief. We deal with spirituality and God head-on in the first chapter: what spirituality is, that it’s OK to be Jewish and not believe in God. We need to be careful, though, about laying that on our kids, because we don’t want to attenuate their spiritual or religious journey.
There are 14 Jewish words, at least, for simcha, for joy. I think Jews need to bring simcha back, joy back, into their families and their lives. Most people, but particularly Jews, we know how to do a birthday party and make it joyous. And then we get lost when it’s time to celebrate Passover or even Chanukah or Sukkot. And the unique thing for Jews is to bring that joy, that sense of wonder and excitement, into our Jewish holidays and experiences. … Our best Shabbat was on the kitchen floor. Our kids were too young. They couldn’t sit at the table.
MN: We had pizza. They were messy. They were thrilled. It was delicious.
TRIBE: What do you hope people get out of the book?
MN: Accessible ideas that can be implemented easily … I hope people will see Judaism belongs in your heart, in your kitchen, in your backyard, at the beach and everywhere. Part of one chapter is just about conversations with your kids. We put in a couple of ways we were able to converse more easily with our children. One of those for me was when we took walks. … They would just start talking because we were going somewhere. That was a really beautiful way to converse and connect.
PK: Michelle taught me that if I did stuff with the kids, the conversations would come. So I would go out and hit 250 balls to my boys. It was exhausting, and all I wanted to do was lie down. But out of that came all these great conversations. … So we encourage parents to start young doing things with their kids. So when the relationships get intense, as they always do, you have a thing to fall back on where during it, talking happens.
TRIBE: You’ve brought up teens. How do you get through that phase?
MN: Jewish summer camp. We highly encourage people to ship their kids off to Jewish summer camp, especially during their teen years. A lot of good, constructive, healthy relationships — meaning friendships, and with counselors — can develop.
PK: Where they find love and learn how to love platonically during an intense time in their life.
MN: And where they feel like they can be themselves and not be judged. They come back refreshed, renewed and better. [Also] parents should carve out time to be with other parents, especially during this time. Pick the people whose judgment you value, and choose people who have a sense of humor because laughing is a good antidote to raising teenagers.
PK: If you are parenting in a partnership — we have a chapter on shutafut [partnership] — it can be easier. Now we do a whole bunch here on single parents. And we believe that single parents can, and do, raise amazing kids. [But] if there is someone else, then you get to tag off each other. When the teen starts to focus the challenge on one parent, the other parent can slide in and set limits.
TRIBE: What if you don’t agree with how your partner is parenting?
MN: You have a conversation and then somebody yields.
TRIBE: Not in front of your kid, right?
MN: You have private parent conversations.
PK: In all seriousness, the answer to most questions a child asks —“Can I do something?” — is, “Let me think about it,” because most questions don’t need an answer right away. … There is an exercise in the book — a “Try This Activity” — that is really significant. We encourage parents to write a vision statement for their family: what are the values, what are the priorities of the family. Because once you are clear about that, it’s easier to deal with other issues.
The other thing we play with is, grandparents can play an incredible role in passing down Jewish values and Jewish spirituality to their grandkids. Grandparents aren’t encumbered by the daily responsibility, so they get to engage with these kids on the highest, most beautiful levels.
TRIBE: What is a common mistake you see parents make today?
MN: Forgetting that we’re the parents and we have life experience. We know more. We can project further into the future. We have perspective. So I would say a common mistake is yielding when your better, more intelligent, adult mind knows better.
TRIBE: You share stories about your kids in the book, even letters you wrote to them. How did your kids react to this?
MN: We picked anecdotes and stories that people could see themselves in that are kind of universal themes, and all three kids had an opportunity to nix anything.
PK: There’s a great story to conclude with. Often parents parent without recognition from the kids, without appreciation from the kids. And we’ve discovered as our kids get older, they thank us for certain things or they acknowledge certain ways that we raised them that are meaningful and helpful now.
MN: Now that they are out of the house. Now that they have some perspective.
PK: Parenting is energizing and exhausting. It is meaningful and exciting and frustrating. It is filled with worry and joy. And every so often you get an experience like [we did] at camp.
MN: So Daniel was a CIT [counselor in training]. And we were on faculty there. I walked into the dining hall. All the campers had left. His head was in his hands and he looked exhausted. I said, “What’s wrong? What’s up?”
PK: He said, “I’m sorry.” She said, “For what?” He said, “Everything.” Three days as a CIT.
MN: He had the youngest campers. He had the 8-year-old boys. He apologized for everything. Up until that moment, he had no idea what it was like to be with kids 24/7.