Kids’ Questions are the Antidote to the Pew Study's “Jewish No Religion” Category

July 13, 2015Rabbi Paul Kipnes

In a world increasingly populated by people who the Pew Research Study's "A Portrait of Jewish Americans" designates JNR (Jewish No Religion), it turns out that if you ask Jewish middle school students to get real about God and spirituality, the depth of their questions and their unceasing quest for understanding will astound you!

That what happened during my recent visit to URJ Camp Newman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, CA, when a group of Jewish preteens peppered me with profound questions about Judaism, belief, agnosticism and peoplehood. I was visiting came with my wife, Michelle, with a delegation from our congregation, and while there, I also served as faculty member for Shomrim, the eidah (unit) of sixth and seventh graders.

The camp’s leadership challenged visiting faculty members like me to create prayer services that were musical, creative, and deeply relevant. We took up that challenge during the first t’filah (prayer service). Reflecting upon the V’ahavta prayer, which instructs us v’shinantam livanecha (parents should teach Jewish tradition to their children), we challenged our campers to become the guides of their own Jewish spiritual quest. We asked, “At the end of your four-week session at camp, what questions about Judaism, God and spirituality would you like to have explored?”

Once the conversation got underway, the campers’ questions came pouring forth. It was as if this were the first time they could ask these questions without feeling foolish (or worse). They asked questions like:

  • “If I'm not sure about God, should I still say the prayers?”
  • “If I don't believe God takes care of the good and punishes the bad people, am I still a good Jew?”
  • “The Romans had so many gods, but Judaism teaches there is only one God. Why are we right and they are wrong?”
  • “My grandmother died too young but she was a really good person. Where was God?”
  • “Can I be spiritual but not religious?”

These preteens shared an unquenched thirst for real Jewish conversations. In our discussion, we promised each other to continue to ask even the most difficult questions and urged the campers to push – unceasingly, both at camp and at home – for answers that make sense to them.

As we began to address their questions, the next two weeks were full of spiritual searching.

We held a mindfulness meditation service to find eternality in the present moment – spirituality without fixed prayers.

We had an engaging conversation about why the Avot v'Imahot prayer – about the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah” – mentions “God of” so many times. Why? Because each of our ancestors had different relationships with God than the others did. And because while there is but one God, there are infinite ways of connecting with God.

We did a “God-shopping” program that introduced campers to more than eight unique Jewish concepts of God. 

We conducted a scavenger hunt around camp to connect texts on Jewish spirituality with multiple religious and non-religious locations, thus experiencing the holiness inherent in… well, everywhere.

We held a yoga service, during which we embodied the themes of the prayers. 

And we held a discussion before the Sh’ma about why Jews say there is one God when the Romans and others posit many gods.

My two weeks at camp ended too early, as we were just scratching the surface of possible answers to their many questions. Campers’ evaluations at the end of this period evidenced that they were both engaged and intrigued.

Young people – whether at camp, in our synagogues, our day schools and at home – are thirsty for open, honest God-talk. Parents, educators, rabbis and youth workers everywhere do well to create meaningful opportunities to wrestle with deeply profound questions about the existence and nature of the Holy One.

We can transform the Jewish future – for our children and for the whole community, by inviting our young people to ask their questions and then together exploring the variety of Jewish God-concepts.

Looking for a place to start? You might begin by:

  1. Reading the deeply spiritual books of Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the variety of ideas in Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions edited by Paul Citrin, or the multiple God-concepts in Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme.
  2. Viewing and discussing the ideas in the G-dcast videos.
  3. Sitting down together with a rabbi, cantor, or Jewish educator to create an individualized path to explore these spiritual questions.

I’d love to hear how you’re engaging Jewish youth in discussion about God and faith. Leave a comment below to share your wisdom.

For more ideas on how to engage your own kids as spiritual searchers, check out Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November MSSW’s new book, Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015).

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