When you have a friendship like the one that my friend Bethany and I do, it’s something you treasure. It’s a relationship that not only spans decades but that connects both cultural and physical distances with a strength that surpasses even the most securely engineered bridges.
There is a level of trust and understanding built into Bethany’s and my interactions that not many people can comprehend. So I don’t blame her mother-in-law for freaking out over Bethany’s decision to leave me—a single, Latter-day Saint mother of three who lives six hours north of them—in charge of caring for her three Orthodox Jewish grandchildren for a week while Bethany went on an overseas trip.
Why didn’t Bethany ask a family member? Why didn’t she ask someone who lived closer to her and her husband? Why didn’t she ask someone in her tight-knit Jewish community? Those are all good questions—questions that I can’t really answer for her. But I can attest to this: the trust and faith Bethany has in me both as a parent and as someone who lovingly respects her religious beliefs left me feeling overwhelmed with a deep sense of both humility and honor.
Bethany and I both converted to our respective religions in our late teens. Our conversion stories are drastically different in the details, but more or less similar in the overarching story of a convert. We were both raised in a small, farming community in upstate New York by parents who didn’t raise us to be religious . We bonded over our strong political interests at a young age. We related to one another as only children in atypical family structures. We both ended up moving away from home and both took a deep interest in our different faiths the older and more mature we became, causing both of us to follow the path of conversion. And through all of our individual tests and trials when it came to our religions, we’ve both committed to raising our children in a traditional, orthodox sense of the Jewish and Latter-day Saint faiths.
Knowing from my own experience how important religious observance is to Bethany and her family, I knew watching her kids and caring for them for seven straight days wouldn’t be easy. (Let’s be honest, caring for someone else’s kids for seven straight days isn’t easy regardless of the religious aspect!) It probably would have been simpler to feed her kids the same thing I usually fed mine. It would have been quicker to just include them in my own family prayer routine at bedtime. And it definitely would have been easy enough to just read her kids the same bedtime stories I have memorized from reading to my kids over the last decade. But when she left her children in my care, it wasn’t just their temporal wellbeing she entrusted me with. She also left me to handle their spiritual wellbeing, which I felt was nothing short of a solemn responsibility.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that when we become parents, we are charged with raising literal children of our own Heavenly Parents. Throughout the scriptures and in the words of our living prophets, we hear the continuing commandments to raise our children in righteousness, to teach them repentance, to teach them of Jesus Christ, to lead them down the covenant path. To care for them spiritually as well as temporally. I hope and pray I am doing an adequate job of that every day. And while Bethany’s exact beliefs may differ from my own, she has been given that same charge and strives to follow it the same way I do. Honoring her beliefs and responsibility to raise her children in righteousness was something I committed to do— not just because she asked, but because I understand her desire to do so as a faithful and religious mother in my own right.
So for the last week, I and my little flock of six children shopped, cooked, and ate kosher food. While it challenged our typical menu options and made me rethink daily dinner plans, I was grateful for the opportunity it gave me to talk to my older kids about what that meant, and my kids had the chance to explain to our three tiny guests how and why we pray over every meal as a family. In the evenings, the children got to hear me narrate “Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” from memory, but they also got to her me fumble my way through “Five Little Gefiltes.” At bedtime we would read from the Book of Mormon before going upstairs and thanking HaShem (a prayer offered directly to God as a prayer of thanks). And we closed every night by both having family prayer and reciting Shema Yisreal (a scripted nighttime prayer taken from the Torah in Deuteronomy 6:4).
The viciously divisive world we live in today is constantly thrusting an, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” mentality toward us concerning everything from politics to parenting. It is not hard to get swept up in a debate, especially when your own stance is being attacked. With that at the forefront of my mind, I had to take a step back every night (while I folded an endless supply of laundry) and feel encouraged in what I was doing. I was not just keeping six tiny humans alive. I was not just helping my dear friend. In my own way, I was fostering an environment of love, respect, and tolerance among two very different families with two very different faiths.
I am not Jewish. I don’t pretend to know the how and whys behind every aspect of the religion, nor do I think I will ever understand the fullness and complexities of it. But I respect it. I applaud my dear friend for devoting her life to Judaism, and as a fellow religious mother, I will never stop championing her on in her quest to raise her children fully immersed in faith.
I will also likely never take on the responsibility of watching three additional children for an entire week, but that’s a different story.