Happy 17th Birthday, Sarah! An Open Letter to My Niece

March 3, 2014

Dear Sarah,

Happy 17th birthday! It seems like just yesterday – and also like forever – that you came into our lives. But really, you have been with us now for six-and-and-a half years: from the time you were 10-and-a-half.

Your mom and dad, my brother David and sister-in-law Marilyn, were so excited when they told us about you. “Sarah loves people.” They told us. “She’s so warm and friendly and she’s looking to be loved. She wants a family and a place to call ‘home.’ We can’t wait for you to meet her.”

Sarah with David and Marilyn on one of their early visits with each other, prior to their becoming a family.
Sarah with David and Marilyn on one of their early visits with each other, prior to becoming a family.

You moved in with them on December 21st, 2007. Everyone was so excited! You are their only child. They had been “Big brother/Big sister” to others, but never had a child of their own. You chose them to be your parents and they chose you to be their daughter. All of us could not have been more thrilled when you became part of our large family!

Most of us don’t have to make this choice in life. We are born into our families of origin, our families of birth. We grow up with our birth siblings, parents and grandparents. But your life circumstances did not turn out that way. Your story is yours alone to tell. But your life led you to us, and for that we all feel so eternally blessed.

In many ways, your kind of story is one that has been part of our Jewish tradition for thousands of years. We have many tales in our Jewish history where people longed for children of their own, but were not able to have them. Our bible shows how people prayed to God asking for children to come into their lives. Some were blessed to eventually give birth to children of their own. Some found a way to use surrogate mothers to bear children for them. And of course, adoption has always been part of our Jewish culture. When a parent adopted a child, they would bounce the baby on their knees and name that child. Those two acts together would embody the ritual of adoption. Bouncing a baby on one’s knee symbolically represented the physical care and nurturing that parents would now bestow upon the child entrusted to them. The act of naming symbolized the idea of “ownership” or acquisition. When I bestow a name upon someone, that person is now a part of me, it belongs with me, that person is now “my family.”

Children represent continuity for the future. You will carry on our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations after we are no longer alive. You will inherit a legacy of family keepsakes and traditions and imbue them with your own meaning and your own values. And you will keep our memories alive, long after we our gone. Our children, our tradition teaches us, are our guarantors.

Sarah, I’m writing to you on your birthday, because I want you to remember all those things. And above all, I want to remind you that you ARE a special person and have many gifts to offer. You are so very loving, gentle, kind and caring. You have an uncanny ability to relate to young children. Your love of animals knows no bounds – whether it’s caring for your beloved Greyhound, Sweet, or your pet chickens, or a wounded bird. Your heart has the capacity for tremendous empathy and love.

And in turn, you are loved by so many others. Your mom and dad love you to the moon and back. And we, your extended family – your aunts, uncles and cousins, also love you and care about you and want to see you happy, healthy and successful.

My mother, aka, "Bubbie," David, Sarah and Marilyn, the day Sarah's adoption became official.
My mother, aka, “Bubbie,” David, Sarah and Marilyn, the day Sarah’s adoption became official.

Bubbie (my mother), was there to celebrate with you when your adoption became official on April 2, 2008. She was SO thrilled to have you join our family and to sign the “Zeved Ha-Bat” (“Gift of a Daughter”) adoption covenant that your mom created to commemorate that moment:

"Zeved Bat - Gift of a Daughter" Certificate, Creating a Covenant between Sarah and David and Marilyn.
“Zeved Bat – Gift of a Daughter” Certificate, Creating a Covenant between Sarah and David and Marilyn.

In this covenant, your parents promise to take you as their daughter, to love you every day and to keep you forever.

You promise to take David and Marilyn as your parents, to love them every day and to keep them forever.

The three of you promise to celebrate the flow of the seasons and the passages of life with your family, your friends and one another, as well as to care for one another always.

I remind you of these words, Sarah, because sometimes, we take family for granted. Sometimes, it is easy to forget to show love to the ones who love us the most.

Loving a child unconditionally means accepting who they are as a person, helping them to overcome any obstacles in their life and guiding them toward a life of love, success and fulfillment. Sometimes, loving a child means setting boundaries and saying “no.” Loving a child means helping them to achieve appropriate educational goals so that they can take care of themselves later on in life. Loving a child means understanding their pain, their frustration as well as their joys and hopes and aspirations. Loving a child means laughing with them, celebrating with them, crying with them and putting band-aids on their boo-boos (or sitting with them in hospital ER’s at all times of day and night).

Loving your parents means accepting that your parents want what is best for you, even if you don’t always recognize what that is. Loving your parents means recognizing that they are people too, with feelings and emotions. And sometimes, it means remembering that “it isn’t always about you.” Loving your parents means that the covenant you signed at the time of your adoption is a three-way partnership: the three of you need to work at your relationship each and every day to show each other how much you love each other – even when you are upset. Loving your parents means learning how to be patient and learning how to breathe. Just like they are trying to be patient and learning how to breathe too.

Sarah, you might be your parents’ only child, but your dad has three brothers, two sisters and you have seven Sobel cousins. Your mom has one brother and one sister – and you have more cousins on that side as well. Your extended family is even larger. You have also reconnected with some of your birth family. The circle of people who love you and care about you is large.

When you are happy, we are all happy. When you are sad, we’re all sad. When you’re in pain, we’re in pain.

The journey of your life Sarah, will be filled with many twists and turns, as you know only so well. There will be smooth sailing at times, as well as rocky patches. Sometimes you’ll encounter bumps and curves that you don’t expect. But through it all, you have each other – your mom and dad, and your loving extended family. We are your guideposts along the way. We will help you steer your course. And through it all, we will always be here for you, loving you with open arms and full hearts.

Sarah, as you celebrate your 17th birthday, we wish for you wisdom and strength and the maturity to make healthy decisions. We wish you laughter and joy, success and fulfillment. Most of all, we wish you a lifetime of love, health and contentment. May you and your parents continue to be blessed by the richness and beauty of your loving relationship with each other!

I am so glad that you are part of our family!

Happy birthday, gorgeous! I love you lots!

Auntie Sharon

Sarah today - my beautiful 17-year old niece! Happy Birthday!
Sarah today – my beautiful 17-year old niece! Happy Birthday!

The Miracles of the Every Day

Today it is gray and the temperature is again 16 degrees F. The snow has been falling steadily since 6:00 PM last night. Driving is a nightmare because the roads are a mess.

The polar vortex, with its record-breaking cold temperatures, and endless snow, is beginning to get everyone down. “I’m so OVER this weather!” “I can’t wait for spring!” These are the common refrains we hear from our friends and family on a daily basis.

One of the people in our office slipped on black ice outside her gym, fell between two parked cars, and hurt her back, knee and ankle. She is definitely not having a good time walking around with a leg brace and crutches on the ice and snow.

And yet, despite the weather, despite the bitter cold and the dryness of the air inside, I have found some incredible beauty outside each and every day.

I am very fortunate that my synagogue sits on lakefront property on the North Shore of Lake Michigan. I also happen to live on the lake as well. Each and every day I feel so incredibly blessed to look out on a stunning view – no matter what the weather – and see something beautiful, new and unique. The water constantly changes colors: from gray, to blue, to green to turquoise. Now, it is white: frozen and covered with snow.

Congregation B'nai Torah view of Lake Michigan. The Lake is frozen and covered with snow.
Congregation B’nai Torah view of Lake Michigan. The Lake is frozen and covered with snow. Photo credit: Sharon Sobel

In Jewish tradition, as part of our morning ritual, we recite a series of blessings called “Nisim B’Chol Yom – For Daily Miracles”. We think about the miracle of our own physical being: the fact that we are able to open our eyes, have clothing to wear and have purpose in life. And then we express our gratitude to God. At the same time, these blessings remind us, that life is indeed MIRACULOUS. Wow! I woke up and my body did indeed work as it was intended to work! They remind us that we are all made in God’s image, as free people. These blessings nudge us to celebrate that freedom. These blessings remind us, too, that the earth on which we live is a gift to us from God, and we must nurture it and protect it.

One of these morning blessings thanks God who “stretches the earth over the waters.”

A view of Lake Michigan from B'nai Torah on a sunny and cold day. Still beautiful!
A view of Lake Michigan from B’nai Torah on a sunny and cold day. Still beautiful! Photo credit: Sharon Sobel

I live out this blessing on a daily basis. I never grow tired of looking out my window at this beautiful view. It definitely is one of my daily miracles, this beautiful work of creation.

In addition to the “Nisim B’Chol Yom – The Daily Miracles” blessings we recite in the morning, there’s a tradition in Judaism of reciting 100 blessings a day. There are blessings to say upon smelling a lemon, or seeing a rainbow, for taking a journey, or for study, among others.

Two of my favorite daily blessings thank God for the “Wonders of Nature”. They go hand-in-hand with reminding us about our daily miracles. The first is recited upon seeing large-scale wonders of nature, such as mountains, hills, deserts, oceans, rivers, lightning and the sky. And the second is recited upon seeing the small-scale wonders of nature, such as beautiful trees, animals and people.

We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes the works of creation.


We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, that all things such as these are in Your world.

I think that both of these blessings would be appropriate when we saw the sunrise at Congregation B’nai Torah last week, early one morning:

Our Daily Miracle: Sunrise on Lake Michigan as seen from Congregation B'nai Torah. Photo credit: Chris Engelman
Our Daily Miracle: Sunrise on Lake Michigan as seen from Congregation B’nai Torah. Photo credit: Chris Engelman

Or, when we happened to look out the window during our 7th grade class last Wednesday and happened to see this magnificent sunset:

Sunset on Lake Michigan, view from B'nai Torah. Photo credit: Sharon Sobel
Sunset on Lake Michigan, view from B’nai Torah. Photo credit: Sharon Sobel

These are just some of the “miracles of the every day”that brighten up my dreary winter days. They make me smile and feel warm inside. They remind me that I am truly blessed to be living in such glorious splendor.

I know that each one of us has our own “miracles of the every day” in our own lives. May they warm your heart and spirit and bring you light on these dark, winter days!