Staying Jew used to be almost an “automatic” thing, but it is no longer that way. The world has changed. Today, being Jewish is essentially a lifestyle choice. We must be better at transmitting the Jewish identity than in previous generations because that which used to work no longer does.
Studies show that most Jewish parents want their children to remain Jews. They may not know much of what Judaism is all about, or they may not have a clear understanding of what they need to do to keep their families Jewish, but they have an inner feeling that transmitting their heritage is quite important.
What should parents do?
There is a limited number of fundamental principles on which to focus. Here are some of them:
The greatest Jewish influence in most children are the parents. Most of us, feeling unable to keep up with the model of Jewish behavior, would prefer to entrust the issue of “Jewish inspiration” to a religion teacher. However, the reality is that if parents are interested in Judaism, there is a high probability that their children will remain Jews. Otherwise, the odds will be much lower.
Does this mean you have to drastically change your life? No. But it does mean that you have to find something nice and Jewish that you weren’t used to doing, and give it a try. You could go to a weekly class, make your family dinners on Friday nights instead of Sunday evenings (you’ll later worry about the candles and challah), find a synagogue that inspires you, celebrate a Jewish holiday you’ve never celebrated before… The key is to be an active Jew, not a perfect one.
Practice a joyful Judaism
About 59% of American Jews do the traditional Yom Kippur fasting and many others commemorate the day in some way. Five days after the Yom Kippur there is another Jewish holiday called Sukkot. How many Jews celebrate Sukkot? The numbers are very low. You can tell yourself: How many Sukkot do you see around you? Including Orthodox Jews, perhaps 15% of Jews celebrate Sukkot.
Now, think for a moment how these two festivities are perceived: Yom Kippur, although it is a beautiful and happy day (since we are able to amend our mistakes and start the year with a clean slate), it’s usually perceived as a difficult day, a solemn and boring one to most Jews. It should not be so, but it is. Sukkot, on the other hand, is an incredible feast that lasts a whole week.
Yom Kippur is holy and crucial. But if our children grow with an overly serious and boring Judaism, we’ll lose them. What should you do? Celebrate the fun festivities too! Buy interesting books about Judaism. Dance on Simchat Torah and sings on Friday nights. Celebrate the Purim. Make something cheerful out of Judaism.
Get the children involved
When a person invests in something, that thing begins to matter to them. In Hebrew, the word for love, Ahava, comes from the root “hav”, which means “to give”. The lesson is simple: If I pay attention to something, then I’ll start caring about that something.
The point is that even though parents may be very inspired with Judaism, if the kids are not involved, then their very own feelings will never develop. We can provide “Jewish things” to them while they live under our roof, but the Jewish commitment will quickly deteriorate in the future because it was never there in the first place. They never invested in their Jewish identities, so they never developed any feelings of Jewish commitment.
Get them involved with youth movements, crafts for the holidays, summer camps, field trips, good books to read. Each child is different and each age is different. In the meantime, focus on the basic principle: the more a child does, the more likely it is that he or she will remain Jewish.
The studies are clear: the more Jewish education a person has, the more likely it is that he or she will remain Jewish as we already mentioned. The Jewish world has learned this the hard way: after years of focusing on Israeli dance, Holocaust memorials, Tikkun Olam and other things (most of them are actually quite important), the Jewish world is finally realizing that the center of all activities is Jewish education. With Jewish education, there will still be Jews who will do all the other things. Without Jewish education, Jewish communities disappear.
The best option is the Jewish day schools. Judaism retention rates are impressive and its graduates receive an excellent secular education: the Ivy League accepts graduates of Jewish day schools more often than graduates of other schools. There are many scholarships and usually, there are other ways to pay (such as budget cuts) – and the results are worth every penny.
Sadly, although Jewish education should be easily accessible to all, it is not. It may be expensive. So if day school is not an option, you could find the best complementary school in your city and hire a tutor to come to your home. A good tutor, in one or two private 45-minute sessions, each week, can dramatically increase your children’s Jewish identity. They’ll study whatever the child is interested in. Children will have a role model. It works great, and it is usually much easier to afford.