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Spiritual Life

Family teams up to raise child Jewish

Meg Dame is being raised Jewish with a lot of help from her grandmother Carolyn Hastings (right) and father, Jeff (behind Meg). Meg Dame is being raised Jewish with a lot of help from her grandmother Carolyn Hastings (right) and father, Jeff (behind Meg). (SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Rich Barlow
May 3, 2008

'It comed off," 4-year-old Meg Dame tells her grandmother in the hall of Meg's preschool in Wayland, her toddler-speak explaining that her headband has dislodged. Carolyn Hastings helps readjust the band for the light-haired child of her late daughter, Caroline.

Meg was just a year old when Caroline died and so was robbed of the gift of remembering the woman who gave birth to her. She will not know what it is to be cooed to sleep with her mother's song or the delight of mother pursuing child across the playground.

Caroline desperately wanted to watch Meg grow, says her widower, Jeff Dame of Holliston, who shared tears with his wife when they realized she probably would not survive the leukemia she had battled for years.

Though she is gone, one thread still binds child and mother. Before she died, Caroline had abandoned her family's Christianity for Judaism, one of the fraction of Americans who have converted to the faith of Abraham, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And it had been her wish to raise Meg Jewish.

Honoring that wish has become the mission not only of Meg's father, who raises her with help from his family and girlfriend, but especially of Hastings.

"She is giving up a hundred times more than I am," says Jeff. It is Hastings, 63, who usually prepares the Friday Sabbath meal and ritual for Me, and who has devoted an evening a week recently to attend a class for non-Jews on raising Jewish children. And unlike Jeff, who is skeptical of organized religion, Hastings, a committed Episcopalian from Stow, had to accept a different path for her granddaughter.

"When Caroline converted, it really hurt me a lot, because I think parents really want to transmit their culture and, if they have a faith, their values," she says. Christianity "was mine, and it wasn't a tepid thing with me."

As for Meg, she says, "I think I spent a fair amount of time between her second and third birthdays kind of grieving over this. It was almost like another loss, because I'd been taking Meg to church with me every Sunday. The people at the church knew her. It just seemed like a wonderful thing to be sharing with her."

Then Jeff shared Caroline's books about Judaism with her. "I started thinking, maybe this is something I could contribute," says Hastings. "I have [Meg] on Friday nights." Her husband, Jeremy Slinn, is Anglican, but he agreed to help with Meg's observance of Jewish culture.

"Caroline made it clear that she wanted Meg to be raised Jewish," Malka Esther, a Jewish friend of Caroline's, says by e-mail from her New Jersey home. Having helped the family with some of its questions about Judaism, she adds, "I was with her the day of her conversion [in 2001], and it clearly meant the world to her to convert."

Caroline told her family that after studying Judaism, she felt as if she had always been Jewish.

Previously a spiritual searcher, she stuck with her Judaism studies even after her conversion had to be postponed because of her illness. When the rabbi who was tutoring Caroline moved away, she found a new one. Slinn, her mother's husband, attended Hebrew language classes with Caroline, "and she really picked it up," he says. "I got left behind."

However reluctant Hastings was at first about Judaism, she has found that Jewish studies illuminate her own faith, rooted as it is in Jewish origins. She has also been struck by what she calls the beauty of Caroline's and Meg's religion. "I want Meg to have a faith and a realization of God's love. The way that the identification is fostered with Judaism is through a lot of different customs," which are "a way of making every moment a reminder of your relationship with God.

"I'm not here just so Meg can learn to sing Jewish songs and eat challah," Hastings adds, alluding to the braided bread. "It's a really beautiful religion. I just stand in awe sometimes. . . . I feel like it's a gift that I've been given somehow."

A gift born of tragic loss, no question. Carolyn Hastings looks down, absent-mindedly fingering some papers and rubbing her eyes as she recalls her daughter's ravaged body in her last days.

"The doctor said she had the heart of . . . an 80-year-old and [that] she had ceased having any circulation in one of her legs," she said. "She was on a ventilator, which was supposed to rest her heart, but it was clear that . . . she was not going to recover."

The family decided to remove life support, something Caroline would have wanted, her mother says. "The only thing I have to regret is that I said I didn't want to remember her that way. . . . I went home. And I know that she would have wanted me to be with her. I'm sorry I didn't stay with her."

In a sense, by raising Meg in her mother's faith, she did.

Comments, questions and story ideas may be sent to spiritual@globe.com.

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