This is an essay I wrote a few months ago. I was thinking of sending it to a Jewish newspaper, but whatever. The topic has been bugging me for a while, so I share with you in hopes it will reach someone who can relate.
Sometimes coincidental occurrences over a short period of time relegate me to thinking that my life consists of monthly themes. One month my focus and thought will be on a particular question related to a Torah narrative. Another month I'll be preoccupied with an educational philosophy question. A fascinating book might occupy the better part of a few weeks' conversations, as messages and lessons gleaned from the book are consistently raised in the course of daily dialogues I'll engage in.
Of late, I've had a number of people, particularly parents in the 38-48 year-old range, approach me to talk about their children. The story is more or less the same. "My kid is a teenager. Judaism has no meaning to her/him. S/he has no interest in davening. How can I get this to change?"
While I don't have solutions to this challenge, I have been sharing an anecdote that a colleague shared with me a few years ago. In a right-wing community, a survey of a large number of kids was conducted in which, among other questions, they were asked, "Why are you observant?" An overwhelming majority answered, "Because my parents are" or "because that's how I'm being raised." A minimal percentage said, "Because it is the emes (truth)."
The follow up question from the parent now is, "How do I get my kid to realize this is the emes?"
In my view, we have a number of challenges.
#1. Many of our children grow up extremely privileged, and have no idea what it means to really need or want something, or to work hard to earn something. Many of us may think we do a decent job of not spoiling our children. But, despite our best efforts, our children are very spoiled. For most people, the only real time they turn to God is when someone very near and dear to them is very very sick.
#2. We put too much stock in the education we provide for our children by sending them to school or yeshiva, and don't do enough at home to reinforce what we would like them to get out of their education. If a child davens in school every morning, but on a day off is allowed to "sleep in," what kind of message is that? Days off from school should translate to shul shacharit minyanim filled with kids. If need be, parents should sponsor a breakfast in shul as an incentive, and get the shul rabbi, or a few of the rebbeim who live locally to learn with the kids for an hour.
When I went to camp, the P.A. system was silent for the 80 minute morning learning session. When the period was over, they would announce "Learning never ends. Learning groups are now over." If "learning never ends," we parents, who are supposed to be the most invested partners in our children's education, ought to make sure a day off from school is not a day off from learning.
A friend of mine put it to me this way. Too often we view home as a supplement to what our children get at school. But the truth is, school should merely be supplementing the Jewish education our children should be getting from our homes.
#3. We must must must teach more than by example. We must take our children by the hand, and help them experience what we experience. We could be the most consistent shul-goers. We can attend the most classes and shiurim. But if our children are never there with us, they don't see how important it is to us, or how meaningful the Jewish experience could be in transferring truths.
If we set time for Torah study, but don't set time to study Torah with our children, we are failing in our efforts to show them "this is emes."
#4. We have to demonstrate true respect for Torah and Torah scholars. If we talk when the Torah is taken out, or during Torah reading, our children notice. If we speak ill of the rabbi, or talk about how the rabbi is wrong, our children notice. We may be right! We may be referring to a political opinion he holds. We may disagree with a certain thing he said – which is legitimate. We are entitled to disagree. But our children need to hear that we respect the rabbi. They need to understand the specific point, to understand on what we are basing our opinion. And how even when we disagree, it does not take away from the appreciation and kavod hatorah we exhibit to the person who plays a significant role in our lives.
I have asked many children, "Why is it important to be Jewish?" Usually the answer they give is, "Because Judaism teaches you how to be a good person." They'll give a little speech about morals and ethics – the Jewish way.
And I say, "Hogwash." A person need not be Jewish to be a good person. Anyone who volunteers and does acts of chesed (kindness) for others is a good person. The difference between a good person and a good person who is Jewish is "Torah and Mitzvot."
A dedicated Jewish life is committed to spiritual pursuits, to getting closer and closer to God through our Torah study, through our davening, through our commitment to Godliness in this world. In Maimonides Book of Mitzvot, Positive Commandment 8, and in Sefer HaChinukh 611, we are commanded to imitate God. The Talmud in Sotah 14a explains how to do this. Just as God clothed the naked (Adam), we are enjoined to clothe the naked. Just as God visited the sick (Abraham post-bris), so must we visit the sick. Just as God comforted mourners (Isaac, when Abraham died), so must we comfort mourners. Just as God buried the dead (Moses), so must we bury the dead.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. A Jewish life doesn’t begin or end at Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It begins the minute we are born, and only ends when we are dead and buried.
Children can be introduced to all aspects of Jewish practice and life at an earlier age than we sometimes think. Shul going should begin when they are able to sit in shul and daven. If shabbos davening is too long, take them during the week.
If funerals and burials are too much for them, take them to a shiva house. Show them how to behave, how to relate to the mourner. How to be respectful.
Bake with them, cook with them, and bring the food to the ill or to the house of mourning, or to the family blessed with a new baby. Why should their food deliveries be limited to mishloach manot on Purim?
Demonstrate your love for the mitzvot you do – tefillin, mezuzah, kosher, candle lighting, keeping Shabbos. Make your holiday experiences be joyous ones and not burdensome ones.
Explain to your children that you work hard and that you believe God provides everything you have. God gives you the ability to work, to produce, and that you have employment on account of God's good graces. If you are going through rough times, tell them you believe in God and His kindness and you know this period is a test. And with the right attitude and the right effort, things will turn around.
Learn with them. Have meaningful conversations. Ask them about what they learned in school. Show them it is important to you. Show them that you care.
Parents are the most influential people in the lives of children. If we demonstrate, in everything we do, that Judaism and the Torah are "emes," our children will come to realize it too, sooner than we could ever imagine.