by Fern Remedi-Brown

This is our family’s story:

Before we adopted our now-12-year-old daughter, Maya, from Guatemala, we had decided on her name. Her biological mother had given her the name María Guadalupe, which means “river of black stones.”

We are a two-mom, bi-cultural family. I was raised Jewish, and my wife, Ginny, was a former nun and raised Catholic. We had made the decision to raise our children as Jewish, due, in large part, to my having lost all of the family on my father’s side in the Holocaust. Therefore, we felt that it would be incongruous for her to have a Catholic name.

We did, however, want a name starting with “M,” to remember Ginny’s mother, Mary. We decided on “Maya,” which is used in many different cultures and means different things in different languages. But it is significant to us because it derives from “water” in Hebrew, like the water of the river Guadalupe. And, true to her name, she has loved water from an early age.

For Maya’s middle name, we needed a name beginning with “E” to remember Ginny’s brother, Ernesto. We selected Ezrela, which means “God is my strength.” This felt significant because the black stones of the river Guadalupe also symbolize strength. Also true to her name, Maya is a very strong and resilient person, having endured much in her 12 years.

When Maya was 9 months old, she had her conversion ceremony at Mayyim Hayyim. The rabbis told me to completely let her go into the water, even though of course, she couldn’t stand up at the bottom. I was frightened to do this, but when I brought her to the surface, she was clearly filled with glee!

Maya’s name and her longtime love of water have become more significant as we have created a family nonprofit, Sowing Opportunities, Inc., our venture to aid her biological village, Chajmaic, so that they can have access to clean water. The ample, but polluted, water from the nearby river, el Río Cahabón, is a source of multiple illnesses among those living in the 1,600-person village of Chajmaic. Maya is working on what we call, “Water for Life,” as one of her community service projects for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah, which includes a live music fundraiser on September 16.

Maya and Ricardo

In her 6th grade classroom, Maya was reading about Harriet Tubman, who was called “Moses in the Promised Land.” I told her that Harriet Tubman was extra significant because our associate and friend in Guatemala, Ricardo, spoke to me about Moses earlier that day. He said, “Remember the prophet, Moses. He was afraid to speak to Pharaoh and he became the liberator of the 12 tribes of Israel. It’s our turn to free Chajmaic of oppression, hunger, and misery, and bring this to all Guatemala. Go forward, Fern, always forward.”

Ricardo called Maya a messenger of God, because, without her, this project wouldn’t exist. It was Maya’s insistence at age 6 that led us to locate her biological mother and village of Chajmaic. We found them in January 2015 and visited her biological mother in July 2015, when Maya was 10½.

This photo is with Maya’s biological mother and aunt at
Cero de la Cruz, Antigua, Guatemala.

A few days before hearing the story of Harriet Tubman, Maya received her Torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah. The Biblical selection is “Bo,” which is Exodus, where Moses delivers the Israelites out of Egypt. How fitting that this is the portion she will chant in Hebrew on her Bat Mitzvah.

As we prepare to celebrate Maya, her passion for justice, and this Jewish milestone, we’ll be joining Mayyim Hayyim for their mother-daughter program, Beneath the Surface. Spots are still open! Won’t you join us?

Fern has a passion for eliminating global healthcare inequities, and works closely with the Guatemalan NGO CorGuate, inspired by her daughter Maya’s Guatemalan heritage. Her published works on Guatemala can be found here. She lives with her wife Ginny and their two daughters.