Staying Jewish used to be almost automatic, but no longer. The world has changed. Today, being Jewish is essentially a lifestyle choice. We need to be better at passing on Jewish identity than previous generations because what used to work doesn't anymore. Just look at the ever-increasing assimilation rates for proof.
Studies show that most Jewish parents want their kids to stay Jewish. They may not know very much about what Judaism is all about, or have any clear understanding of what they need to do to keep their families Jewish, but they have an inner sense that passing on the heritage is really, really important.
So what do parents need to do?
According to the research, literature and my own 20 years of experience in the field of Jewish education, there are a limited number of core principles to focus on. My new book, Raising Kids to LOVE Being Jewish (Khal/Mesorah, 2009) outlines the principles and associated practical tips. Here are some highlights:
The single biggest Jewish influence on most kids is ... the parents.
Bad news, I know.
Most of us, feeling unable to live up to title of Jewish role model, would prefer outsourcing Jewish inspiration to the religious school teacher. However, the reality is that if parents are ‘into' the Jewish stuff, there is a strong chance your kids will stay Jewish. If not, the chances are much, much lower.
Does this mean you need to radically change your life? No. But it does mean you should find something Jewish and enjoyable that you don't do now and give it a try. Some options are: joining a weekly class, making your family dinner on Friday night instead of Sunday night (you'll figure out the candles and challah later), finding a shul that inspires you, celebrating a Jewish holiday you've never celebrated before, etc. They key is to be an active Jew, not a perfect one.
2. Practice Joyful Judaism
How many Jews keep Yom Kippur? Take a guess. 59% of American Jews keep the traditional fast and many others commemorate the day in some way. Five days after Yom Kippur there is another Jewish holiday called ... Sukkot. How many celebrate Sukkot? The numbers are so low that they are not even measured in federation studies. Look for yourself: how many Sukkahs do you see around? Including Orthodox Jews, perhaps 15% of Jews celebrate Sukkot.
Now think for a moment about how most people experience these two holidays: Yom Kippur, while a beautiful and happy day (we get to fix our mistakes and start the year with a clean slate), is usually experienced as a difficult, solemn, and boring day for most Jews. Shouldn't be that way, but it is. Sukkot, on the other hand, is a week-long celebration.
Yom Kippur is Holy, and crucial. But if our children grow up with a Judaism that is too serious and not fun or interesting, we've lost them. The point? Celebrate the fun holidays as well. Get interesting Jewish books. Dance around on Simchat Torah and Friday night. Celebrate Purim. Make Jewishness happy. The more positive Jewish experiences are, the more likely they are to last.
3. Involve the Kids
I like whales. I've gone whale-watching and hope to again. But on my list of personal priorities, Save the Whales is pretty low. But what would happen if I were to devote the next 12 months to volunteering for Greenpeace? I'd ride on boats trying to stop whaling ships, attend demonstrations, send faxes, chain myself to government installations...really give my all for the whales for 12 months. How would I feel about them after a year? Would I care more?
You bet I would. When a person invests in something, they come to care about that thing. In Hebrew, the word for love, Ahava, comes from the root "hav" which means to give. The lesson is simple: what I give to, I come to care about.
The point for us is that even if the parents are on fire for Judaism, if the kids are uninvolved, their own feelings will never develop. We can provide the Jewish stuff for them while they live under our roofs but Jewish commitment will deteriorate rapidly in college and beyond, because it was never really there in the first place. They never invested in their Jewish identities so they never developed feelings of Jewish commitment.
How to get them involved? Youth groups, holiday activities, summer camps, Jewish teen tours, good books to read. Each kid is different and each age is different. For now, focus on the principle: the more a kid does Jewish, the more likely they are to stay Jewish.
Human beings are social creatures. We like to belong to groups. It gives us identity and companionship that we crave. Kids especially want to know what group they belong to, what teams they support, etc. It is therefore crucial for parents to help their children feel they are connected to other Jews. Locally, this means getting involved in a synagogue and youth group. If the kids are surrounded by other Jewish youth, they'll want to be involved. If not, not.
Youth group conventions and Jewish summer camp extend the Jewish connections to different regions and the country. Visits to Israel can cement these Jewish feelings. Parents can be even more effective when they show concern, read and talk about Jewish communities worldwide and events in Israel. Only family vacations, visit Jewish sites (they exist everywhere) and interact with local Jews.
Feeling connected to the Jewish people doesn't only mean Jews living today. Someone who feels connected to the Jewish past is likely to want to be connected to the Jewish future. So buy books, watch videos, and show interest in Jewish history. The stories are dramatic and interesting, and the people involved are inspiring. Children who grow up feeling connected to other Jews are likely to stay connected to other Jews.
The studies are clear: the more Jewish education a person has, the more likely they are to stay Jewish. The Jewish world has learned this point the hard way: after years of focusing on Israeli dancing, Holocaust memorials, Tikun Olam, and other things (most of which are quite important, actually), the Jewish world is finally realizing that the center of all activities is Jewish education. With Jewish education, there will be Jews left to do all the other stuff. Without Jewish education, Jewish communities disappear.
Best option? Jewish day schools. Their Jewish retention rates are astounding and their graduates get a great secular education: Ivy League schools accept Day school graduates at higher rates than non-day school graduates.
Too expensive? Look again. Many scholarships exist and there are usually ways to make it happen (cutting back on something else, for instance) – and the results are worth every penny
Really can't afford it? I understand. Times are tough. Sadly, while Jewish education should be easily accessible for all, it isn't. So what do you do if day school is not an option? Find the best supplementary / afternoon school in town and hire a private tutor to come to your home. A good tutor in 1-2 private 45 minutes sessions a week can radically upgrade your kids' Jewish identities. They'll study what interests the child. They'll have a role model. It works great, and is usually quite affordable
In my talks around the world, I've noticed a running theme: Jewish parents often underestimate themselves, thinking they don't have the power to maintain the Jewish heritage. Don't lose hope, parents! You don't have to be a rabbi or a perfect Jew to keep your family Jewish. By choosing one or two small (and enjoyable!) baby steps, you can have a major impact on your family's Jewish future.