Growing up the child of a Jew-by-choice, everything about Judaism was a choice for us. For my mother, Judaism was a gift. She felt very proud to count herself among the Jewish people. She felt blessed to have the opportunity to do Jewish things. And she felt great joy in being able to give me Jewish experiences. To this day, she calls Jewish overnight camp “the best investment I ever made.”
In our home, I don’t ever remember hearing the words “have to” when it came to Judaism. I only remember hearing “get to.” We get to light Shabbat candles. We get to go to synagogue. We get to remove the bread from our cabinets on Passover. We get to skip school, work, and all the regular chaos of the week and spend a long day in Yom Kippur services. And, “You get to go to Sunday school.”
Truth be told, I didn’t know until I was a teenager that my experience was any different than anyone else’s. By the time I saw all the other kids at the synagogue, we were removed from the parents and we all had a good time. We laughed and played together. We told jokes and whispered secrets. I always felt best at synagogue and Jewish places. I always felt like I could just be me. I felt happy and relaxed and at home. I didn’t know that other kids were told they had to come, that they had to have a bat mitzvah, or that they had to come to a long service on Yom Kippur.
Today, I am a professional in the Jewish community. As many of us in this field know, Jewish population studies play an important role in the organized community. Following a national or a local study, there will often be a flurry of activity – meetings and committees, lots of decisions made about money and areas of focus, new programs, new grants, and new goals. These studies look at the kinds of experiences adults have had in the past and the kinds of Jewish behaviors they do today, like lighting Shabbat candles and attending services. They then link for us what kinds of experiences in childhood are most likely to produce Jewishly-engaged adults decades down the road. And they have bad news for us. They say we’re a shrinking group with less and less engagement.
I see a fundamental problem in this concentration. We don’t have control over who people will become. In a day and age when people have ultimate choice and are exposed to every option available, we cannot say what the magic formula is to create the adults we want to have tomorrow. And besides that, who are we to say who these adults should become? Any decent parent will tell you that their children are who they are and there’s very little they can do make them anyone else. All of us can point to families where siblings, from the same home and same parents, are vastly different adults.
We can’t control for all these variables. We can’t “make” our kids become anything. And why should we want to? We’re addressing the wrong goals. These behaviors that we pay close attention to – lighting Shabbat candles, attending services, keeping kosher, et cetera, et cetera – they are not the ends; they are the means.
We need to start asking a much more important question, one that should change the framework of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we interact with one another. Let’s start asking this question: How are we making a difference in people’s lives right now? Not 25 years from now, not next year, right now. Right. Now.
When a child walks in the door of her synagogue, I want to know how we are working to make her feel safe and secure. I want to know when a teenager comes into the synagogue how we will make sure he has friends there. I want to know how all of our kids will feel like they can and should ask big tough questions in the halls of our congregations. Not the simple straightforward questions, but the big ones about bullying, sex, violence, pain, joy, and God. And even more importantly, I want to know what we are doing to make sure that when those kids walk back outside those doors of our synagogues, they feel more equipped to face the world head on.
I feel very lucky as a Jewish mother that I have the tools at my disposal to help my children face the world head on. All these teachings that may seem so ancient at first glance, they can help us understand and face the most seemingly modern of problems. The cyber bullying. The Wall Street injustices. The body image issues. The wars and crimes. All of it.
We have a gift. We are the carriers of an ancient tradition that offers the tools to live resilient and joyful lives, right now. We get to do Jewish. We get to. Lucky us.