Monday, December 24, 2012

what does Judaism mean to you?

Today I got a phone call, asking about homeschooling and one of the questions raised was, what do I do to make being Jewish special to my kids? In other words, how am I assured that my kids will not turn after the surrounding world and abandon Judaism at the first opportunity.

I did not have a good answer on the phone. I said that, in my opinion, for kids, making being Jewish special sometimes leads to being snobby and thinking that others are somehow less than you. I said that my kids are confronted with being Jewish and being different all the time; when they are asked about the head covering, when they are asked how they celebrate holidays, when we skip on certain events because they conflict with Shabbos or take place in a church. They know that they are different. The caller was insisting that I need to make being Jewish special, or it will be too late, and they will be not religious.

Once I got off the phone, I started thinking: do I really need to pull out Uncle Moishy "I am so happy to be a Jew" to increase  my kids' positive feelings about Judaism? Is being Jewish to them all just about restrictions and differences and not fitting in?

Then I thought about the reasons I am homeschooling. One of them, from the outset, was to make Judaism not just something that we do because everyone else is doing it, but to bring meaning and logic to it. When I learn Chumash with 8 yo, I try to stick to the p'shat, and show him how many wonderful lessons we can learn. When we talk about davening, I explain how it builds our relationship with Hashem. When we talk about halacha, I mention the underlying logic. When Israel comes up, it is a holy place, our land, with a long and storied history. When we go to a rally, it is about showing our support for other Jews. Somehow, I hope, my kids get the idea that being Jewish is different and special.

Since this question was still bugging me, I asked the boys during dinner what they thought about being Jewish. In hindsight, it is quite brave, because it is not like they have a choice. 8 yo immediately gave it thumbs-up. 6 yo was more nuanced, he said being Jewish is sometimes good and sometimes bad. I asked him to elaborate. His answer: "It is good because we know about the true G-d, and it is bad because we don't get to do everything." 8 yo changed his mind, and sided with his brother's answer. He added that being Jewish is good when you can say Shema and think about Hashem protecting you. It is bad when you cannot drum on Shabbos, or watch Pokemon.

And that was it, no dwelling on missing out, no confusion over what it means to be Jewish.

So, for now, I think we are OK.

When we were in Houston, an old rabbi gave a d'var torah in which he said an amazing thing. He said that he was not guaranteed that his kids will stay religious, but now, that he sees that his grandchildren are frum, he feels assured that he has a legacy. Think about it: he waited till his grandchildren to see how his children will turn out. There are no guarantees. Nobody knows what will happen. You do your best, and hope for the best. And you think about these things, not just assume that because the kids are getting a Jewish education, or you keep mitzvot, that everything will turn out fine.

What do you do to make sure that your kids feel special about being Jewish?


  1. Shuie does "parsha stories" with the kids every night as part of their bedtime routine. Although they're still young (4 and 2.5), they LOVE it. And they remember so much! Now that we're almost done with sefer bereishis, we're having an "ice cream siyum" with them and a couple of their friends from school, which they are totally excited about. I'm hoping this will give them good long-term associations with learning torah, instead of feeling like it was something boring that was forced on them, or that they have to know only so that they can spit it back out on a test.

  2. i was surprised that you felt you didn't have a good answer to that question. just from reading your blog, aspects of judaism and being jewish come up all the time. your children are clearly immersed in learning about judaism.

  3. and not just immersed, but excited and interested and involved and with zest.

    1. I think just being put on the spot, and on the defensive made me a bit speechless. I also like to think out what these things mean.
      Also the person had a very negative experience with Jewish education, but he has his own plan. I think he needed to express his reservations about homeschooling, to make his plan look more attractive. That put me on the defensive, because the supposed reason for the phone call was to find out more about homeschooling.

  4. I don't know if we do anything to make Judaism "special". For us, and in our home, we're trying to administer it as a way of life, a lifestyle. It is just what is. We also plan on homeschooling, so inevitably, this will come up again and again. Judah (3) understands we keep kosher, and that means he can't eat certain things at our family members homes. However, being Jewish also means we get treats that are limited to Shabbat. I will certainly be thinking about this post in the years to come.

  5. It's so interesting and min ha shamayim that you brought this issue up. I recently picked up an article in the Jewish Action magazine put out by the OU titled "touching our teens neshamos." The article brought up the very scary reality that many of our orthodox teens are straying off the derech. Additionally, there is also a Webinar coming up by the Torah home education people about jazzing up our children's jewish learning experience. All of these things got me thinking. I think, whatever we do with our children that is related to Judaism has to be positive. If my 7 year old doesn't want to daven (as happened today) I'm not going to make him. I did however, have him sit next to me while me and my other two boys aged 5 and 2 happily sang the tefila. I think each child also connects to their Judaism in different ways and we as parents need to figure that out and try to attract them through that mode. Sort of like teaching to their particular learning preference. If I make my son pray, he will be resentful. If I am tolerant, he will learn tolerance and know that hashem is tolerant. Parents need to work on their own Judaism connection because we are their primary models. We are hashem to them. Our behaviors will remain in their mind and as they get older they will connect those behaviors, both good and bad, with Hashem's characteristics (this is what happened in Foreskins Lament). In the long run, it's not about the content or amount of limudei kodesh that we taught our kids, it's about the EXPERIENCES that we share with them. That is why I am leaning toward unschooling or relaxed homeschooling (my kids are currently in day school). The child is not forced to do things that they are not enjoying yet they are surrounded by wonderful experiences that will eventually and hopefully (there is so much faith involved in this process) end up exploring and delving into those very same subjects that are conventionally taught. Rituals are important for children because they are concrete experiences. When I light candles, I pray to Hashem out loud so that my children understand that praying isn't only from a siddur, it comes first from the heart. I hope and pray that we all succeed in working on ourselves and teaching our children to grow and get closer to Hashem.