In a beautiful and moving TOI blog (“Hearing the voices of our kids”) posted recently by my friend and colleague Aryeh Ben David, the author highlights the critical importance of unconditional love for our children and he emphasizes the need to see and hear them even when they make life choices that conflict with our core religious beliefs and values. I wholeheartedly concur. The question the writer does not address, however, is what can we do in the first place to increase the likelihood that they will want to remain within the fold?
To answer this question, we must understand something about the world in which our children are growing up today. In the post-modern, inter-connected era, our children are bombarded with information, images and messages from all over the world and they are exposed to different cultures and to competing truth claims. Thus, we can no longer assume that they will necessarily give priority to our traditions and our truths over the others to which they are so frequently exposed. Furthermore, the ease with which our children can move from one community to another is perhaps unprecedented in the annals of history. We must therefore come to terms with the fact that our religious beliefs and commitments are competing with other beliefs, values and lifestyles on a level playing field. In the end, our children’s decision whether to remain within the fold or to opt out is, to a large extent, a function of whether we are able to transmit our Jewish values and commitments in a way that is deemed to be more personally relevant, meaningful and inspiring than the others.
So what can we do to make Judaism resonate more positively with our youth? I believe that a good place to start is by highlighting those aspects of Judaism that are perceived as enriching and ennobling rather than those which seem technical and burdensome, by focusing more on what is permitted and less on what is prohibited, and by spending more time on the laws bein adam lechavero (between man and man) and less on the laws bein adam laMakom (between man and God). Furthermore, we should be less concerned about tzniut (modesty) as a way of determining the length of a sleeve or skirt and more about tzniut as a way of living and interacting with others, we should stop referring to “the observance (shemirat)” of Shabbat and refer instead to the “celebration (chagigat)” of Shabbat, and our tefilot (prayers) should be more about personal meaning and connection and less about rote performance and the mumbling of words.
If we want our children to embrace Jewish life as their own, I believe we need to ask ourselves the following questions: When we light the Shabbat candles is the atmosphere in the home calm and peaceful or is it tense and stressful? When we sit down to eat our Shabbat meal do we engage our children in conversation and take an interest in their lives or do we focus on other things and other people so that they would rather be elsewhere? When our children come with us to shul (synagogue) do we embrace them as we pray to God in love and devotion or do we ignore them and spend the time catching up with our friends? Is preparing for Pesach a time of anticipation and joy or is it a time of anxiety and stress? Do we give our children the space to grow and develop their own personal connections and commitments or do we become angry and defensive when we see that their way is not consistent with our own?
Furthermore, I believe we should carefully consider what demands we make of our children in the realm of religious observance so they don’t feel that it is a weight too heavy for them to bear, and we should be more forgiving when they don’t follow our religious standards to the “T.” Furthermore, we should be willing to share with them our own struggles with religious faith and commitment so that they realize that it is not “us” versus “them” but that we are partners in a spiritual journey. Doing so will also open up channels of communication and increase the chances that they will seek our advice and guidance in the future.
I often say that the litmus test of whether we are succeeding in creating a healthy religious environment in the home is the way in which our children react when they, inevitably, discover that one of their peers has chosen to opt out and no longer keeps Shabbat. Do they feel envy, imagining the day when they’ll have the courage to do the same, or do they feel pity, wondering how anyone can willingly walk away from one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to mankind?
Imparting our religious beliefs and traditions to the next generation has never been easy, however, the challenge of imparting them today is perhaps more difficult than it has ever been before. If we are to have any chance at success then we cannot go on with business as usual and then wonder belatedly why our children have chosen another path. We must see our children where they are, understand the world in which they live, be sensitive to their needs, be attuned to the challenges they face, and speak to them in a way that can be heard. We must recognize that passing our heritage on to the next generation today is like walking a tightrope. Everything we say and do and every step that we take must be carefully weighed and considered.
Given what is at stake we cannot afford to take the religious environment that we create in our homes and the religious education that we provide our children lightly. In the words of Aryeh Ben David, “We need to be “all-in.”