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Children and Parenting

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky
holding a newborn's hand

In Ashkenazic practice (Jews of Eastern European origin), the custom is to name a child after a relative who has died, while Sephardim (Jews of Spanish and Middle Eastern origin) tend to name their children after living relatives. Reform practice allows either option. Jews-by-choice certainly may name their children after their parents, since Jewish tradition recognizes that all people, including people who have gone through conversion owe honor and respect to their parents.

Source: Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D., Jewish Living; A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (URJ Press, 2010).

See also: Wh​at is Pidyon Haben?, B'rit Bat: Ceremony for Welcoming a Baby Girl, B'rit Milah: The Circumcision Ritual, How To Find the Right Mohel For You.

A girl crying in a school hallway

Terrorism, gun violence, hate crimes, and natural disasters are all much too common in today’s world. In a digital world dominated by social media and instantaneous news updates, it is often difficult to shield even the youngest children from such realities. What does Judaism teach us about helping our children to cope with terrible news that even we, as adults, find challenging to understand or process? Reform clergy and educators look to Jewish teachings to help guide us in these troubling times with these resources that can offer helpful guidance:

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell
Graduates holding graduation caps

At such a poignant milestone, this prayer captures both the emotion in parents’ hearts and their hopes for their child’s future.

It seems like only yesterday that we were loading up the car, bringing you to school. Where have the years gone? And where will the years take you? To watch you mature into the young adult you have become, to watch you navigate new situations and responsibilities, to watch you overcome hurdles, has been a privilege.

I am filled with pride over all you have accomplished. And I am already proud of all that I know you will accomplish in the years ahead. I am grateful to have accompanied you this far on your journey. The prayer in my heart is that I have done my part to prepare you for this next chapter of your life, as you take your place in the world.

In the words of Debbie Friedman,

May your eyes shine with the light of Torah

And your face be radiant as the brightness of the sky

May your lips speak words of wisdom,

And may the world you live in be the world of your dreams.

Mark this joyous occasion by reciting the blessing of praise, Shehecheyanu.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

Although there is no prohibition against baby showers, traditionally, Jews do not have them prior to the birth of a child. Some couples do not buy any baby items or set up the nursery until the child is born. There is no religious basis for this custom, which is rooted in superstition. Nonetheless, it is a prevalent custom in the Jewish community.

The custom stems from the idea that drawing attention to a happy occasion also draws the attention of evil spirits. This custom also may hearken back to a time when infant mortality was a concern. Though it is much less an issue today, and most people are not overly superstitious, many Jews still shy away from lavish showers, preferring instead to buy only what they need to prepare, or to order items ahead of time that will be delivered only after the baby is born.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell
Young boys at Jewish Summer camp

Sleep away camp is a wonderful experience for children. It is an opportunity for them to grow, learn new things, and become more independent. The thought of a few weeks apart can make parents, a some children as well, a bit anxious. This prayer by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer speaks to those concerns and may help make the camp experience even better.

A Mama's Prayer for Summer Camp

May you find learning and growth of all kinds.
May you gain independence and feel comfort in your Jewish identity.
May the mosquitoes be guided away from you, and may the raindrops not fall into your tent (too much).
May the food be delicious and the pool the right temperature.
May you seek out new experiences and try new things (vegetables would be nice but I'm doubtful).
May you smile brilliantly for the camp photographer and show up daily in the online photo albums.
May you avoid the camp crud and may you never lose your socks.
May you take a shower and brush your teeth every day.
May you not send wet towels to the laundry, because the laundry is charged by weight.
May your arrows fly straight, your fishing line never get tangled, and your tetherball not whack you in the nose.
May you not fall off the top bunk.
May you not spend your whole canteen account on silly junk.
May you not lose your hat and water bottle in the first week.
May you not lose your way in the night to the outdoor bathroom.
May you write me at least one letter besides the mandatory first-day-letter.
May you create a life-long friendship (at least one, if not many).
May you renew old friendships, since they are the most precious. (Are 9 year olds allowed to have "old friends"?)
May you learn more and more about yourself and your spirit and being.

May you return home in one piece with all your belongings,
and may you ever yearn to return to the land of summer camp.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

A father's responsibilities to his son are outlined in the Talmud, Kiddushin 29a. According to the text, a father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem him if he is the firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Talmudic scholars added that a father must also teach his son to swim.

These directives are all intended to help a child grow into a successful and independent adult, one who will be part of the Jewish community, establish a household and find meaningful work. While teaching a child to swim may seem less important than other items on this list, the sages interpreted this as an essential survival skill.

Today, we think of these instructions as incumbent upon both fathers and mothers and applicable to both sons and daughters, as appropriate. Many modern Jews also no longer feel obligated to help find a spouse for their children, though parental meddling is a tradition that seems to endure.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme
blessing children on Shabbat

It is a Jewish custom for parents to bless their children on Shabbat. This beautiful tradition derives from one of the most touching biblical stories. When Jacob lay on his deathbed, he summoned Joseph in order to bless him. Joseph entered with his two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, whom Jacob had never seen. The Torah records this touching seen in chapter 48 of Genesis.

We relive the story of the blessing of the children through a lovely Shabbat ceremony, just after blessing the candles and before the Kiddush. Placing their hands on their children, the blessing is recited.

If there are memories that last a lifetime, a parent's blessing is surely one of them.

Answer By: 
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg

Pumpkins with faces.jpg

Historically a Christian rite—All Hallows' Eve, preceding All Saints Day—Halloween actually originates in several pagan traditions. Our tradition instructs us to refrain from the idolatrous practices of the many surrounding cultures. Halloween clearly has some strong idolatrous roots.

Though it may have served religious functions in the past, today, Halloween is rather devoid of religious connotations; it serves much more as a civic celebration. Even 400 years ago, some rabbis in Europe noted that they had absolutely no issue with those Jews who chose to join their neighbors in costuming, masking, merry-making, and 'snatching' food for certain occasions.

Halloween provides a wonderful opportunity for celebrating alongside our neighbors and being one with our larger community. Just because Halloween is non-religious, however, does not mean that we should check our Jewishness at the door. Rather, we have the opportunity to bring Jewish values to heart for that festival evening:

Kavod l'atzmut (respect for ourselves) — We are made in God's image and ought to treat ourselves accordingly. Often, Halloween serves as an excuse for wearing clothing that does not befit our dignity; we should keep in mind that our bodies are sacred and deserving of respect.

Sh'mirat haguf (guarding the body) — We need to keep ourselves healthy and safe. We do so by keeping eyes on our children at all times, by making sure that costumes allow for full mobility and use of eyes and ears, and that all foods collected are safely wrapped and sealed.

Moderation — This may not be a Hebrew word, but it is most certainly a Jewish concept. The great rabbi and physician, Maimonides, preached moderation at all opportunities for all areas of life. When we enjoy our Halloween gleanings, may we make sure to pace ourselves and consume our sweets in healthy balance. Halloween may not be a Jewish holiday but it can most certainly be observed in a healthy Jewish way.

Still not sure about this spooky holiday? "Halloween: A Jewish Parent's Perspective" can help you decide what's right for your family.

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Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell
A child being reprimanded by his mother

Rather than answering this question myself, I’m going to refer you to this great answer by Dr. William Berkson, director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family, which originally appeared in Reform Judaism magazine. Though Dr. Berkson is not a rabbi, his answer is spot-on.

The Bible says yes. The "rebellious son" is to be put to death by stoning (Deut. 21:18-21), and Proverbs (13:24) teaches: "He who spares the rod hates his son."

But by the talmudic period, these harsh doctrines of parental discipline were replaced with an emphasis on kindness and compassion. The Talmud defines the "rebellious son" out of existence (San. 71a), rules that a teacher could punish a student at most with a leather shoelace (Bava Batra 21a), outlaws hitting grown children (Mo'ed Katan 17a), and declares: "With a child, push away with the left hand, and draw near with the right" ( Sotah 47a)--the right hand normally being the stronger. As a result of these rabbinic teachings, traditional Jewish homes were noted for treating their children with love and warmth. Still, corporal punishment was not eliminated in the traditional religious school for boys--the cheder--in Eastern Europe, where teachers often hit their students for even minor infractions.

Modern social science is still divided on the question "to spank or not to spank." In 1996, Dr. Murray A. Straus, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, and Dr. Robert Larzelere of Boys Town began a continuing debate in the journal Pediatrics on the effectiveness of spanking. Dr. Straus argued that many studies, including his own, show that spanked children become more antisocial and do worse in school. Dr. Larzelere challenged Straus's conclusion, claiming that the damaging effects of spanking are true only in cases of frequent spanking and of corporal punishment of older children. For two- to six-year-olds, he wrote, occasional non-abusive spanking ("two open-handed swats to the buttocks leaving no bruise") is beneficial as a back-up to time-outs and reasoning; when the children turn seven, time-outs and reasoning alone--with spanking in reserve--have become so effective that spanking is no longer necessary.

Both sides of the debate agree that spanking school-age children is undesirable. As for toddlers, nearly half of American parents oppose spanking, but, according to Straus, nearly all resort to corporal punishment on occasion. With the debate on disciplining toddlers still unsettled, a good Reform Jewish approach would be to err on the side of compassion and follow Straus's advice never to spank.

To learn more about parenting through a Jewish lens, visit the Parenting Page on this site, which includes Dr. Berkson's "Guide for the Perplexed Jewish Parent."

Answer By: 
Rabbi Don Rossoff
Parent holding the hand of an infant

Can a child who was circumcised in the hospital but has not had an actual bris be considered a Jew? My husband and I are an interfaith family and we are not sure what to do with our baby.

"Bris" comes from the word covenant. At a bris, the boy is brought into the covenant between God and the Jewish people, in fulfillment of the command given by God to Abraham:

"On your part, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your children after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be sign of the covenant between Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations…" Genesis 17:9-12.

The circumcision is a sign of the covenant, a "membership badge," if you will. As a member of the covenant community, the boy is given a Hebrew name, linking him to his Jewish family and to Jewish history.

If your child has not yet been born, then I would recommend doing a bris on the eighth day. Having said that, I have learned that in intermarried situations, this can be touchy, since the whole thing is so foreign. "You are going to invite all your friends, cut off his WHAT, and then serve BAGELS??!!??" If it is not your tradition, it does seem bizarre. If this is the case, my recommendation is to focus on the religious part of the bris ceremony (circumcision and naming) and downplay the social aspect. There are some traditional mohels (ritual circumciser) who would perform this ceremony for you. If it is your husand and not you who is Jewish, they would consider the circumcision as part of a conversion of a non-Jewish boy. And, depending on your location, in many communities throughout North America there are also Reform mohels who would consider the child a Jew.

On the other hand, if the child has already been circumcised, then I believe most Reform rabbis would recommend doing a ceremony bringing the child into the covenant and giving him a Hebrew name.
By the way, when a girl is born, we do a bris as well, a ceremony in which she is brought into the covenant community and given a Hebrew name. (No, nothing is cut off ). The ceremony which I do uses the Shabbat as her sign of the covenant, so we begin the ceremony by lighting Shabbat candles.

For further information and sample ceremonies, I would recommend picking up some or all of these books:

  • The Jewish Home by Daniel Syme (UAHC) - an easily accessible guide to Jewish life cycle events, holidays, and home observances written from a Reform perspective.
  • On the Doorposts published by CCAR, a wonderful guide to home observance which includes naming ceremonies.
  • The New Jewish Baby Book: Names, Ceremonies and Customs: A Guide for Today's Families by Anita Diamant, published by Jewish Lights.
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