Josh Segal was the Jewish Family Educator at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton, Mass., and coordinates the JCC's Creative Judaica Interfaith Program for interfaith families.
Parenting for a Positive Jewish Identity
My first summer working at an overnight camp, the head counselor prepared us for Visiting Day with words that have stuck with me ever since: “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” This pearl of wisdom was intended to warn us that our “difficult” campers probably had “difficult” parents. Nonetheless it still rings true in the work that I do with families today. With all children--and certainly children of interfaith families--the apples do not fall far from the tree. In short, young kids who have a parent who models a positive relationship with Judaism often mirror that positive and rewarding relationship.
I coordinate a series of programs for interfaith families that give kids and their parents an opportunity to create ritual objects that help in their home celebrations. This year, a child whose older sister made a ceramic Hanukkah menorah in the program three years ago was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to make her own--and not because of competition with her sister--or at least not only because of competition with her, but because she saw the excitement her sister exhibited for celebrating the holiday and wanted to share in that as well. The eagerness for this project was also enriched by memories of spending time as a family celebrating Hanukkah and a desire to create a piece of that celebration. This child identified the magic that takes place at the moment when a family celebrates Judaism together. When kids have positive Jewish experiences, they learn to love being a part of the Jewish people.
The truth of the matter is that more goes into creating a child's positive Jewish identity than a few holiday celebrations, although they can be a good starting point. Both formal and informal Jewish education can also play a role. And not only for children. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a nineteenth century mystic, when asked to give a blessing that a child would be studious in matters of Torah, advised, "If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise they will not themselves study Torah, but will simply instruct their children to do so." Wherever you are in your lifelong journey through Judaism--learn more. I am not saying that everyone needs to be a Jewish scholar, but I have seen parents model Jewish learning--and I've seen their children follow.
I also always enjoy having the opportunity to learn with children and encourage parents to do the same. Whether it is reading Jewish stories with kids or downloading a summary of the weekly Torah portion from any number of websites and discussing it at a family meal--it is invaluable to take time to study with your children. I am always amazed at children's insight into aspects of a 3000-year-old religion and their unique approach to Jewish stories. They always teach me things I never thought of.
All of these elements that individually help endow children with a positive connection to Judaism can come together through Shabbat (the Sabbath). Time and time again I have heard testimonials about the special place Shabbat has in the life of an interfaith family. On Friday evening families create a special meal, while involving their kids. They set the table nicely, with a special tablecloth or silverware. They light candles. They tell their children a reason why they are special and encourage everyone in the family to share something special that happened in the past week. Taking this time to talk as a family and celebrate as a family will add another whole level to Jewish celebration and children's joy coming from Jewish ritual.
Of course, the home is not the only place where children connect to Judaism. Jewish day schools do a wonderful job--but serve only a very small slice of the population and are not right for many interfaith families. On the other hand, children need to be given the opportunity to experience Judaism and Jewish learning with their peers. Finding programs in synagogues and Jewish community centers that help young children explore the wonders of Judaism and help them see how others celebrate will enrich their understanding of the diversity within Judaism--and will give them permission to figure out their own individual relationship to their heritage.
Finally, a word must be said about Jewish camping. Whether sleep-away or not, good Jewish camps are total immersion experiences where kids have fun and the Jewish environment just feels natural. Kids learn that Judaism can be a part of their ongoing “secular” life. You can rock climb and canoe with other Jewish kids singing Jewish songs. It is certainly important for children to have a diverse group of friends. It is also important for Jewish youngsters to have Jewish friends. The experiences that occur at camp can last a lifetime.
It is not easy to raise a child. Meeting the physical and mental needs of any kid can be an all encompassing and somewhat overwhelming task. Still, it is important to provide for the spiritual and religious aspects of a child's life. Even though it might seem hard, the rewards will enrich your children and your family for a long time.