10 Ways Busy Parents Can Share Judaism With Their Kids

Rabbi Erin Polansky

We all lead busy lives, running here and there and everywhere. It can be difficult to find time for ourselves, let alone to nurture a spiritual or religious life. But there are many ways to feel Jewish and to impart Jewish feelings, customs, and knowledge to our children without investing much more time into our already-busy schedules.

Play Jewish music in the car

Driving from school to soccer, baseball, dance, art class, Hebrew school… for many parents, time spent in the car seems never-ending. What if that time could also be Jewish time? Instead of “Mom, are we almost there?” your family could be rocking out to Rick Recht’s “Free to Be the Jew in Me,” or Julie Silver’s “Halleluyah.”

Sing prayers as lullabies

One of the times we recite the Sh’ma is before going to sleep at night. It can be sung in many different tunes, many which sound like lullabies. I tell my daughter that the words of the Sh’ma remind her about God when she’s going to sleep, so it helps to keep the bad dreams away.

As a new mom, I began singing Sh’ma at bedtime to my son when he was six months old. When he was 2, he surprised me one day by breaking out in the Sh’ma. He knew all the Hebrew words! (Well, they were close.) I realized that a young mind is like a sponge and could absorb anything, so I began singing the Four Questions at bedtime, slowed down to lullaby speed. Six months later, at age 2 ½, he impressed all of our relatives by asking the Mah Nishtanah at the seder table on Passover.

Express grateful sentiments often

I learned from a friend how easy it is to infuse gratefulness into our kids’ lives. While driving her kids between activities, she made a point of expressing awe and thankfulness at the beautiful world around her. “Wow, what a gorgeous tree that is,” she would say, “Aren’t we lucky to have a God who made such a beautiful world?” This helps to raise the children’s consciousness about God every day and to see that there’s a lot to be thankful for – no matter how difficult today’s math test was or how mean that popular kid was at recess.

Light candles on Friday night

It’s hard to take an entire day and make a full stop. But how about 10 minutes? Gathering together even for a short moment to acknowledge the Sabbath, connect with each other, offer some blessings, and wish each other a “Shabbat shalom” can have a profound impact on children. It doesn’t even matter if dinner is take-out! Shabbat can be whatever you can handle. Just don’t skip it.

Read Jewish books 

If your child is 7 years old or under, check whether your city has PJ Library®, a service that sends families with young children a Jewish book, DVD, or CD every month – for free! If PJ Library isn’t available in your community, or if your children are older, help them find books with Jewish themes, characters, or storylines. Tablet offers a great list of suggestions.

Require kids to donate part of their allowance to tzedakah (charity)

Historically in Biblical times, 10% of our earnings were tithed (paid as taxes to the Temple). Today, we have translated tithing into a requirement to donate to charity. In Jewish tradition, this is an obligation, not a suggestion. Even the poorest person who receives charity him- or herself must donate to others.

Try this: 10% of your child’s allowance goes to a cause of their choosing, 30% goes to savings, and the rest is theirs to do with as they please. (Maybe they’ll even donate more of it!) Choosing a charity can be a terrific exercise, giving parents the opportunity to engage with kids about Jewish values and help them see that even a young person has the potential to do good in the world.

Put a mezuzahmezuzahמְזוּזָהLiterally, “doorpost;” a decorative case that holds a handwritten parchment scroll of the Shema and V’ahavta. Mezuzot are placed on external and internal doorposts of homes to fulfill the commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5-9 “inscribe them [these words] on the doorposts of your house.” on your door

This is an easy one that keeps us aware of our Judaism every day. You can buy a mezuzah at any Judaica store, along with a scroll to go inside. Hang it on the right side of your door (when entering from outside), with the top of the mezuzah pointing slightly into the home. You might consider letting your children select a mezuzah for their bedroom door. Every time you walk through your doorways, you will be reminded that this is a Jewish home – and so will everyone who visits you. Some people kiss the mezuzah every time they walk through the door as a way of acknowledging love for God, the commandments, and our tradition.

Light yahrzeit (memorial) candles and talk about your ancestors

Judaism gives us many meaningful times to remember our loved ones who have died. The anniversary of one’s death is called the yahrzeit, and we light a candle on the evening leading into this day. A special yahrzeit candle can be bought at any Judaica store, or your grocery store may carry them in the kosher section (if it has one). The candle burns for a full day, and no blessing needs to be said. It gives us the opportunity to talk about our loved one, remember them, and share memories with family members who may not have known them. In addition to the yahrzeit, we light the same kind of candle at Yom Kippur and the three festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Hang Jewish art on your walls

A blessing for the home, a mizrach (art depicting Israel placed on the eastern wall in a home to remind us of Jerusalem), Jewish symbols and scenes – any of these items on our walls give the feeling of a Jewish home and remind us of our Judaism every time we see them… which is every day.

Use the word "mensch"

Mensch literally means “man,” but we use it to refer to a good person of any gender. When you praise our kids for good behavior, good choices, and kind words, try calling this behavior “mensch-like.” Not only will children understand that they have done or said something of which you are proud, but they will also understand that they are being good Jews. Caught doing a favor for a sibling? What a mensch! Helping set the table without being asked? What a mensch! Standing up for the underdog? Now there’s a mensch. Let’s make sure our kids know that Judaism values these small acts of kindness.

Judaism doesn’t have to be limited to inside the walls of the synagogue. As we learn in Deuteronomy 6:7, from the V’ahavta, the section following the Sh’ma, we can and should make it part of our everyday lives “when we are sitting in our homes, and when we are going on our way.”