In many Jewish families today, grandparents are the grandchildren’s only link to Jewish identity. An increasing number of Jewish kids are growing up in homes where Jewish-ness is, at best, a minor part of life. Jewish grandparents regularly tell me:
"I tried my best. My own children had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. I took them to synagogue on the High Holidays. I sent them to Jewish camps. And yet my kids don't seem to care and my grandchildren are growing up with nothing Jewish. I'm not happy about it, but what can I do?"
This common scenario is very painful for grandparents. The problem is exacerbated when the grandchildren are often not being raised in the same city. What can you do, anyway – especially without creating friction?
Over the last 15 years of working with Jewish families, my experience has taught that if you play your cards right, Jewish grandparents can have a very significant impact on the grandkids' Jewish identity. There are no guarantees, of course (is anything in life guaranteed?), but you can make a big difference.
Here are some tips to get started:
(1) Build the relationship: Grandparents have a special place in the heart of their grandkids. In most families, you don't need to discipline, you're not the one to force them to go to school every day, and you don't have to play the bad guy. You can simply be a source of love, appreciation and comfort. Build this relationship as much as possible. It helps your grandkids grow up with strong self-esteem and self-confidence. It helps you feel part of the family. And in the long term, it'll allow you to have more of a (Jewish and otherwise positive) influence on their lives.
(2) Set an example: You don't need to be a perfect Jew in order to be a good example. Be proud of your Jewishness. Research has shown that people – especially kids – are influenced more by role models than by information. So become one: Find new ways of developing and expressing your Jewish identity and go for it.
Here are some ideas: Go to shul more often than you do now. Attend to a weekly Torah study class. Celebrate Jewish a holiday that you haven't before. Read Jewish books. Visit Israel. The better the relationship you have and the more “Jewish” you are, the more influence there will be. You don't need to be perfect. As long as you are active and growing, you can have a big impact.
(3) Make the Jewish holidays fun: Make it so your kids and grandkids will want to come to visit you for the High Holidays, Passover, Chanukah, etc. If they enjoy coming, they'll come back. Prepare for it and plan for it. Make the holiday rituals fun. Take the grandkids out on your own to give their parents a break. Don't ask them to do too much or complain about their lack of visits – whether right or wrong, they are less likely to want to return. Give your grandkids lots of love and attention. Tell stories from when you grew up. (There are good Jewish story books to use as well.) Get lots of treats. Organize games. If you are not together for the holidays, send them big gift/candy packages.
(4) Pay for day school and/or tutor: One of the greatest mistakes we as a community have made is allowing the cost of Jewish education to get so high. Many are working to change that, and scholarships are often available, but the hard reality is that paying for Jewish day school is harder and harder for many families. Without strong motivation, parents are unlikely to make the choices necessary to give their kids a strong Jewish education. As I describe in Raising Kids to Love Being Jewish, a strong Jewish education is key to future Jewish identity. Day school through high school is by far the best choice, and has an excellent success rate at keeping them Jewish. If this is impossible, hire an energetic private tutor. If you can (especially if the parents can't or won't), step in financially to give your grandkids a strong Jewish education.
(5) Take them to Israel: Study after study, and family after family, it is clear that Israel works magic. Will a 10-day birthright trip make up for 12 years of lacking Jewish education? Certainly not, but visiting Israel – as often as possible – gives energy and inspiration to Jewish identity. Make it a priority to take a family trip and hire an inspirational tour guide. (And if possible, pay for it all.) Don't wait till birthright.
(6) Family tree: Build one for them or with them. At some point, they will become interested. Write down the stories. Record them. Show them where they fit into family history – and emphasize the Jewish parts of your past.
(7) Jewish home: Make your home look and feel Jewish. Add in some Jewish art, some Hebrew books, photographs of your trip to Israel, etc. Put mezuzahs on all those doors. Visuals make an impression, and this will help your grandkids feel comfortable with Jewish surroundings.
(8) Jewish values. Teach your grandchildren Jewish values and ideals. Involve them in activities like giving charity, visiting the sick, and hosting guests. Show them how taking responsibility for the world is a Jewish ideal. Shower your grandchildren with praise, and tell them how proud you are, when they act like mentschen.
(9) Talk Jewish, Israel: Make what is happening in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world a subject of conversation. Read about it and talk about it. In doing so, you are showing that Jewish identity is part of daily life – and you are introducing your grandkids to ideas and subjects that may pique their interest. Especially with the anti-Israel groups proliferating on college campuses, it is important that your grandchildren have the confidence to stand up for their own heritage.
(10) Be patient: You are unlikely to see results today, tomorrow, or the next day. That is not the goal. The goal is that as your grandchildren grow up, being Jewish will be important to them. Think long term. You want to have an influence when they make big decisions. So build the relationship and be the best Jewish role model you can be.
Here’s wishing you lots of nachas!