Dr. Eytan Chen, the warm and gentle pediatric dentist and owner of Growing Smiles in Englewood, has more than his Harvard credentials that are impressive. Dr. Chen (his name is an anglicized version of the Hebrew word “chein” meaning grace) spent his formative years growing up in the country of Liberia.
Now a resident of Teaneck, a community rich with Jewish life, Jewish amenities, and many Jewish options, when he and his family lived in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, their home became the de facto “shul” on Shabbat, as there was no synagogue. And his late father, David Chen, who brought the family to the West African County from Israel because of his work as an economist for The World Bank, became the de facto “shochet” or ritual slaughterer, as there was no market to buy kosher chicken.
When the Chens wanted chicken for Shabbat for instance, the family would go to a local farm and buy live chickens. His father, who had been a rabbi before becoming an economist, would “schecht” the chicken in their backyard. Kosher beef was not an option.
“My dad knew how to schecht a chicken, so once a month we would get chickens and he would schect them in the backyard. We had a very big backyard. It wasn’t like here in Teaneck,” Dr. Chen said. “The chickens would be cleaned and kashered. He would do it for anyone else who brought a chicken to him.”
Dr. Chen, the youngest of three boys, attended secular private school in Liberia, and his mother, Miriam, who is a sixth generation Sabra, supplemented his Jewish education at home.
What seems so exotic in the telling now was quite ordinary for Dr. Chen, who remembered his house was filled with Jews of all affiliations and nonaffiliations during the Passover seders that his family hosted.
“When you’re outside of a place like New York or New Jersey, and you live in a place like Liberia, and you’re a Jew, the Jews find each other and become one cohesive group,” said Dr. Chen, who lives with his wife, Rebecca, a neuropsychologist, and daughters, Hana, 17, Maya, 14, Noa, 10, and Tal, 5.
For middle and high school, his family decided it was best to move to the United States where Dr. Chen would have easy access to formal, Jewish education. Dr. Chen, his mother and brothers lived in Brooklyn, New York, while his father stayed in Africa. His father eventually changed jobs to one at the United Nations and moved to Zaire, now known as The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Israel-born Dr. Chen and his family would spend summers in Africa with his father. His parents had a commuter marriage until Dr. Chen went to Yeshiva University in New York for college, and his mother returned to Africa to be with her husband. Eventually, his parents moved back to Israel.
“It is only in hindsight that I realize how different my upbringing was,” said Dr. Chen.
If there is any take-away, he said, it is that he sees the Jewish world as one.
“We try to teach our own kids to be open-minded and as inclusive as possible, in every aspect. No matter where people daven or go to school, everyone is Jewish,” he said. That perspective of inclusiveness, he added, “might be one of the take homes from my experience in Africa.”
Heidi Mae Bratt is the editor of About Our Children.