As we approach the end of the holiday season — or as I call them, “the Fall Four” — most of our children’s schedules now will be guided by the secular calendar of school, extracurricular activities, and the observance of American holidays. So, with this in mind, I want to address an important topic that is rarely discussed among parents or, when discussed, done so in the elephant-in-the-room kind of way to, God forbid, avoid offending anyone!
The topic is how do we pass along Jewish identity to the next generation?
I have written this tongue-in-cheek list of five things not to do to open a discussion and raise some consciousness. I am not so arrogant as to claim that these are predictive of anything or to believe that this list is exhaustive. I do believe though that the below are significant ways to decrease the odds that your child will grow up with a Jewish identity.
1. Don’t ever have your child miss a soccer game for Hebrew school: Make sure that your child understands how important it is that he doesn’t let his soccer teammates down, since, like most Jewish children, your child is very likely to have a professional soccer career. Don’t let the fact that there are only seven Jewish professional soccer players from the United States dissuade you from believing he will be the next Messi or Renaldo. Moreover, make sure he understands that it is much more important to be a good member of his team than a member of his faith, even though he will likely have less than 10 years of playing soccer while he will have a lifetime of being Jewish. And if he is in physical, emotional, or financial need when he is older I am sure that he will be able to contact one of the members of his seventh grade soccer team for help.
2. Don’t renew your synagogue membership the year after your last child’s bat mitzvah: As an extension of #1, nothing shows your commitment to your local Jewish community like cancelling your synagogue membership. Let your child know that being a member of the most local of Jewish institutions, which will be there for you and other Jewish people in times of joy and sorrow, doesn’t mean enough to you to remain a member. Moreover, make sure to let your child know that you just joined so she could have a bat mitzvah, and see how deeply her Jewish roots will grow. I am sure that she won’t notice that you don’t feel that supporting your local religious institution, participating in the Jewish holidays, and attending services, even if just for a few days a year, is important to you, or is a valuable use of your money.
3. Make sure that a trip to Israel is never taken or discussed: If you have the financial wherewithal to travel abroad, make sure that you and your family visit all of Europe and Asia, but do not visit nor even contemplate a trip to Israel. It is much better for your children to appreciate everybody else’s history, culture, and homeland than their own. Don’t let your children know that Israel is a special place, a haven for Jews built from the ashes of the Holocaust, a democracy among dictatorships that they should be proud of, and one that Jewish people should make sure to visit. As a corollary, never discuss Israel with your children, or explain to them its unique position in the world and challenges it faces. Let them get all of that messy information from the other students and professors on campus, who are sure to share their objective views on Israel with your child.
4. When selecting a college do not consider the Jewish population or the strength of the school’s Hillel: Building on #3, as there are a lot of important things that go into selecting your child’s college. You shouldn’t have to bother with worrying about the number of Jewish students or the quality of Jewish student life on campus. It is good for them to face adversity and see the ugly face of the BDS movement, right? It builds character, doesn’t it? [Yes, but only if they are equipped with the background and support of a strong Jewish campus life to counter it. If not, they will either be destroyed or run away from Judaism when it becomes too painful to be openly Jewish on campus.]
In addition, since you don’t keep kosher, your child is not going to go to Hillel even if it is the only place that will welcome him or her for Passover! It is only four years, so during this time it is probably better for them to just forget about the seder. There will be time for that again when they graduate. Besides, every December, you send your child a nice Chanukah gift, with chocolate gelt and a dreidel. That should be enough to remind them that they are Jewish while they are away at school.
5. Give all of your charity to the arts, schools, disease and hunger prevention (all worthy, by the way) while reserving none of it for Jewish organizations: Why should you give money to the Jewish federation, the local JCC, or Jewish Family Services when you don’t know where it goes [even though you have never taken the time to inquire]? And you’re sure you heard, somewhere, from someone, although you’re not quite sure who or where, that they have expensive administration costs.
There aren’t any poor Jews in our area anyway, are there? If so, let somebody else pay for their Meals on Wheels! You don’t need to worry about the Jewish people in the Ukraine when you don’t know anybody there. Also, isn’t Israel so successful now with its high-tech industry, that the children of Sderot don’t need you to build their bomb shelters or pay for counseling? There are a lot of poor people in America, so why should you be concerned more about the Jewish ones, even if only the Jewish community will take care of its own?
Let your child know this every time you write out a check and by making a face and throwing out the appeals from every Jewish organization. Let them see where your priorities lie.
Do (or don’t do) all of the above. Remember, though, that children do as you do and not as you say. In any event, whatever you choose, know that your actions have a lot to do with establishing a Jewish identity in your children. Furthering that you should be mindful of the prophetic lyrics from Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “I’m gonna be like you Dad, you know I’m gonna be like you.”