An Empty Nester Loves the Liberated Life – Until the Jewish Holidays Arrive

Brunch is back, supermarket shopping is out, and my social life has been reborn. But with the kids at college when holidays roll round, there's a void I struggle to fill.

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Woman lighting Shabbat candles (illustration)
Woman lighting Shabbat candles (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime

Last week, I returned home from the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Washington, D.C. in the late afternoon and opened my refrigerator in search of something to quell the audible growling of my stomach. I don’t know what I was expecting to find there. After a long weekend in Chicago visiting our newly minted college freshman, and two days at a conference, the possibility of finding anything besides fat-free half and half and several bottles of wine was quite unlikely. I moved a few condiment jars and discovered two Greek yogurts. Unfortunately, they were days past their expiration dates.

Adjusting to the "Empty Nest" is both liberating and depressing. If someone invites me to meet for drinks after work, the only person I need to check in with is my husband. If I’m too tired to stop at the market on my way home, I can make the executive decision to eat out. And, after a 20-year hiatus, brunch is back!

There is, however, a flip side to "Empty Nesting." Both of my kids attend colleges that require a plane ride (or a very long drive), which, for the most part, rules out Jewish holiday visits, as coming home for a night in the middle of the week is often too difficult.

When Jake left for school in the fall of 2012, I couldn’t bear the prospect of celebrating Rosh Hashanah without him. So, my husband and I decided to do something entirely different to the yearly family dinners and took Samantha to Paris. The three of us had a wonderful experience, even attending shul abroad and meeting some lovely fellow travelers over meals and in our hotel, but we all felt Jake’s absence. When we returned, I couldn’t even entertain the thought of putting up our Sukkah, something we’d all done together from the time the kids were little.

Jake and I share April birthdays, one day apart, so we have always celebrated them together. We often have to settle for eating some version of the much-maligned Passover cake. Last spring, when Passover was almost upon us, I realized that Jake hadn’t been home since winter break. The first Seder fell on a Monday evening, hardly conducive to easy travel. We were chatting on FaceTime, and I asked him what he planned to do for the holiday. He hadn’t really thought too much about it at that point, and I just blurted out, "Why don’t you come home for the night?” Ultimately, he appeared in our living room just as the rest of the family was about to sit down for the Seder – and left 12 hours later. I still smile when I think about how incredibly happy I was just to keep feeding him.

By the beginning of September, Samantha was off to college, too. A few days before she left, she told my husband and me, “I love you guys, but I have to get out of here.” We all laughed, and then I started to cry. I knew she was right - it was time for her to go. Although I wasn’t sure I was ready to let her.

But I did.

With our children gone, my husband and I decided it was time to move to a new shul. With our new status as Empty Nesters, we were looking for a synagogue that could provide us with a deeper level of spiritual fulfillment, and a stronger connection with the community and clergy. When August rolled around and the High Holy Days were almost upon us, we finally decided on a new shul.

But the High Holy Day experience was an epic failure. There were many reasons for this, but beneath them all was the fact that it was exponentially more difficult to celebrate the holidays without either one of our children with us. Samantha had always been my sidekick. We walked to shul together, slowly, because we refused to ditch our heels. She kept me in line during the service and on the way home, we discussed the merits, or missteps, of the sermon. I really missed her this year.

I believe my greatest strength as a Jewish parent is to demonstrate daily the centrality of family, Jewish learning and unconditional love. I sent my kids off to college with Jewish Day School educations, a deep love of and connection to Israel, and the hope that this foundation would help them forge their own Jewish paths. College is a time for experimentation, exploration and newfound freedom. The same can be said of Empty Nesting.

Jill Max is the Director of the Baltimore Hebrew Institute of Towson University. She has a 23-year history of professional and volunteer leadership in the Baltimore Jewish community. 

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