One of the most important responsibilities that comes along with being a rabbi is insuring that the next generation of Jews grows up to be committed to and knowledgeable about their Judaism. I enjoy spending many hours each week studying Torah with our bar/bat mitzvah students, exploring American Jewish history with our 7th graders, engaging in incredible conversations about contemporary issues with our post-b’nai mitzvah students, and hanging out at Dunkin Donuts with our high school kids. I am proud of our youth groups and youth programs and the involvement of many of our teens in these as well as programs in the larger Jewish community. And, I have been lucky enough to travel with many Ramat Shalom children and teens to places like the Reconstructionist Movement’s camp in Pennsylvania and the US Holocaust Museum in D.C. I consider myself very lucky to be able to teach and, in turn, learn from Ramat Shalom’s children and teens.
While I truly love doing my part to insure that our children will be passionately connected to their Judaism, I must admit that engaging our children and teens, particularly after the bar/bat mitzvah, is often a very frustrating process. It is not the kids who make it frustrating. It is the parents. So many of them see those of us who work at the synagogue to be their children’s primary Jewish teachers. These parents want us to expose their kids to Hebrew, Jewish history, rituals, and prayers. They invest a great deal of resources into making certain that their children can chant their Torah at their bar/bat mitzvah. And they expect us to make the Jewish experience entertaining, exciting, even amusing, because they don’t want to fight with their kids to get out of the car as they roll through Torah School carpool on Sunday mornings. You might be reading this saying,”this is exactly what I want you to do!” If so, please keep reading.
Without a doubt, the education and youth staff at Ramat Shalom provides top notch Jewish education, prepares children very well for their bar/bat mitzvah, and even makes the experience engaging. But, for the parents who just want to drop their kids off at the synagogue and have them Jewishly trained and educated, it doesn’t matter how great our staff is – most of these parents are raising children who will not have a deep and meaningful connection to Judaism. In the Ve’Ahavta, the first paragraph that follows the Shema, we chant words from Deuteronomy which say, “you shall teach them (the morals and values of Judaism) diligently to your children.” While Judaism certainly encourages us to get good teachers for our children – our tradition teaches us very clearly that the primary and most important Jewish teacher for a child is his or her parent or primary caregiver. Parents must teach their children about Judaism.
I often tell people that I know if a bar/bat mitzvah student will be successful as soon as the child walks into my office for the very first tutoring session. I don’t need to hear the child read Hebrew. It doesn’t matter if he or she understands his/her Torah portion or s/he can write a d’var Torah (speech). The telltale sign for me is if a parent accompanies the child to the appointment. If a mom or dad or grandparent comes in with the child, I know, without a doubt, that the bar/bat mitzvah experience will be meaningful and the child will develop a wonderful connection to Judaism.
It doesn’t matter if the parent or grandparent who attends knows Hebrew or the prayers or has any formal Jewish training. What matters is that they are there, with the child, sending the message that this experience is important – so important that I (parent) have taken the time to join you (my child).
Why should a child feel that coming to the synagogue on Sunday morning at 9:30 is important if his/her parents never set foot in the synagogue? Why should a child have a desire to attend a Friday night service or a youth event if his/her parents have no time to attend a service or another event at the synagogue? In the fifteen years that I have been working as a Jewish educator and the eight years that I have been a rabbi, I have learned that if nurturing a connection to the synagogue and, thus, to Judaism is important for mom and dad – it will be important to the children. On the other hand, if the synagogue is a place where a kid gets dropped off on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons to learn a foreign language and some prayers – and that is the extent of the family’s involvement in the synagogue and, thus, Judaism, a child will most likely not develop a meaningful connection with his faith. This should not surprise anyone.
Quite often, after a bar or bat mitzvah, a parent will call me and say: “Rabbi, will you please talk to my kid and tell her she has to continue going to Torah School even though the bat mitzvah is over? Will you make her come to youth group?” Sure, I am capable of talking to your children and encouraging them to attend (I have no magical rabbi powers that can make them attend!) – but if remaining involved after their bar/bat mitzvah is so important to you as a parent, I need you to ask yourself: “Why is it a choice? Why is it not an expectation? Why is Judaism an option?” Sadly, the reason Judaism is often not that important to our kids is because it is not all that important to us. Are you actively involved in the synagogue, Jewish learning, or the larger Jewish community? Why on earth would a teenager think he needed to study with me twice a month or go have donuts with me a few times a year or attend a youth group event at the synagogue if his own parents have little to no involvement in Jewish life? Can you blame him? Even in their rebellious teenage years, our kids look to us as role models. If you are not involved in the Jewish world, why should they be?
As your rabbi, I will promise you that Ramat Shalom will always offer meaningful Jewish programs for children and teens and the best staff will be leading these programs. We will be happy to reach out and encourage your children and teens to get involved. But, we can’t do it alone. I ask you to join me in making certain that the next generation of Jews is strong. Your job: get yourself connected. I am not saying you need to become a “super-Jew”. I am, however, asking that you volunteer, take a class, learn Hebrew, attend a shivah minyan, make a meal for an ill congregant, come to services, join the book club, help in the office, attend a social event – develop a relationship with the synagogue that shows your children that Judaism is important to you. It is only after you do this that you can expect your kids to get involved. And it is okay to tell them that you expect their involvement – especially if it is clear to them that Judaism is not a choice, it is what we do as a family. Let’s work together to insure that the next generation of Jews will have a powerful connection to their faith.