My daughter Emery was born in late 2016. By the start of the next year, the exhaustion of new motherhood and the frigid Chicago winter had me feeling perpetually restless and isolated, so I reached out to the only mom friend I knew for suggestions on how to keep busy during the remainder of my maternity leave. She suggested I look for a jBaby New Moms group; I was lucky enough to find one starting nearby the following week.
As a suburban Detroit native, I grew up well connected to my Jewish community -- I was on the board of my temple's youth group, I visited Israel on an organized teen trip, and I had a tight bond with my rabbi. My Jewish identity began early through my bubbe, a Holocaust survivor and Hebrew school teacher. She taught me how to say the blessings, took me to Israeli dance classes, and had us over for Shabbat dinners.
Then, during college, I took a Hebrew class, where I met my husband -- a real life example of kismet. Or, as we say, "bashert."
But upon moving to Chicago after college, I unexpectedly lost that connection to a local Jewish community. Although I attended services on the High Holidays at various congregations and, eventually, began spending the holidays with my in-laws, my husband and I never joined a temple -- and I never re-created the sense of Jewish belonging I felt during my earlier years.
I figured this was a normal part of adulthood, a sort of in-between period when I aged out of being a member of my parents' congregation, but not quite ready to join a temple on my own. I accepted this as the way things were and never really assessed the invisible loss that lack of connection created.
Fast forward to the start of 2017, when I joined the jBaby New Moms group. I was nervous to attend that first meeting, worried that it'd be a group of women who either already knew each other well or had figured out this new mom thing much better than I had. I was quickly -- and gratefully -- proven wrong.
I bonded from the start with two other new moms, Allison and Dana. The three of us were all transplants to Chicago, had daughters within six weeks of each other -- and we were all in over our heads. We shared our frustrations over feeding, travel tips, fears about returning to work, and laughter over our pre-mom naivety. Our friendship began with the playgroup and continued with other organized events, eventually expanding beyond the structure of jBaby. As we re-entered the "real world," we stayed close, met up for moms' nights out, parent nights, and playdates several times a month.
As Passover approached that first spring, we naturally included one another in our seders. When I found myself without plans on Rosh Hashanah with a husband stuck on a business trip, Allison immediately offered Emery and me a place at her holiday table. As our daughters have grown from infants to little people, we've teamed up to find the best spot for High Holiday tot services and, this past fall, watched our three girls (adorably) sing songs together at Yom Kippur services.
We've welcomed a fourth friend into our circle and added monthly rotating Shabbat dinners. Although our stressors are different now, and our daughters are much harder to keep from destroying each other's homes, our traditions have already set in. As I reflect on the importance of these incredible women in my lives, I realize they not only helped me establish myself as a mom -- but also a Jewish community that I hadn't realized I missed until I rediscovered It.
In becoming a mom, I knew that my husband and I wanted to help cultivate our daughter's Jewish identity, but the Jewish milestones seemed far off -- trips to Israel, attending Sunday school, preparing for her bat mitzvah, etc. Little did I know that when I signed up for that jBaby playgroup with a newborn just shy of six weeks, would I be making the first big step in her Jewish upbringing. Becoming a mother and creating this community, I have re-established the importance of Judaism in my life and a deep understanding of how very significant that sense of Jewish belonging is in all our lives.
jBaby Chicago is a JUF program welcoming new parents and babies to Chicago's Jewish community through playgroups, classes, holiday celebrations, and fun. For more information, visit juf.org/jbabychicago.
Rachel Zimmerman is a mom and educational technology consultant living in Chicago with her daughter Emery, husband Ryan, and their dog, Hattie.