How to Keep Your Kids Thinking Jewishly after the Bat Mitzvah

By Cheryl F. Coon

October, 2004


“I don’t want to go anymore”, my daughter said adamantly. “You SAID that after my Bat Mitzvah I could choose and I’m choosing. I’m NOT going.”

I listened to my daughter slam the door on any further participation in Jewish teen activities at our temple and my heart sank. I knew the subtext she hadn’t mentioned. Her father isn’t Jewish. He doesn’t care whether she remains involved in the temple. I care and she knows that. I was watching all the makings of a control struggle building to a peak.  

“Okay. Feel free to change your mind anytime. I know cantor would be glad to see you,” I started to say but she cut me off and stormed out of the kitchen.

When we had first talked about marriage, Jim and I knew that religion, my religion to be exact, was an issue. He was raised as a Presbyterian and had disowned Christianity by the time he was in college. His view of institutional religion was exactly as his characterization of it would suggest — religion was something for people who didn’t want to think too hard or figure out their own beliefs. He was more favorably inclined towards Judaism but he would never convert. What he did agree to do, and this was critically important for me, was to raise our children as Jews. What that would mean exactly wasn’t spelled out.

As our children grew, the meaning of that decision changed. Perhaps it was prompted by becoming a mother, but bringing all the cultural joys of Judaism into our home became increasingly important to me. So we celebrated holidays, and little by little, Shabbat, the Sabbath, became part of our weekly routine. On Shabbat we decorated the table and held hands as we recited the blessings. We lit not only Shabbat candles but tiny votive candles as well, scattered about the room to provide a warm flickering light. We sternly avoided Christmas (for which I was acutely grateful) and put up Hanukkah decorations. We encouraged our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah celebration and we avoided conflict. But I knew that insisting on our daughter’s continued participation after her Bat Mitzvah would create conflict not only with her, but with my husband, as well. For him, it would be a reminder of his teenage years, when he was forced to continue to attend church after he no longer believed.

Though I continue to believe that being part of a Jewish youth group would offer my daughter the opportunity to learn about Judaism as it relates to a modern-day world, I did not insist. I chose another route.

Several years ago, I taught third grade in our temple religious school. I was startled to discover how few of my students had a sense of the rich contribution Jews have made in every area of human achievement. Since I grew up in a family in which my parents always pointed out, not merely with pride but with personal ownership, every person who was Jewish who had done something important, my students’ ignorance disturbed me. We made a mural that year that encircled the entire classroom. It was a list of names. Every person on that list was a Jew. I know that my kids were astonished by the range of names, from rock stars to comic book hero creators to scientists, doctors and their favorite authors. And like my parents, when I announced those names I reminded them that this was their heritage, their background, their people.

I took a similar route with my daughter. She attends services only on High Holidays and doesn’t belong to the youth group. I won’t be surprised if, after his Bar Mitzvah, my son doesn’t attend either. Our rabbi delivered a passionate plea at High Holiday services recently for teenagers to remain involved, and my daughter shrank in her seat. But it didn’t change her mind.

What I do instead isn’t difficult. Whenever I read about a Jewish accomplishment, I point it out. When I read about issues that Jewish people care about, I point it out, emphasizing the connection with Jewish values. When my son tells me he’s an environmentalist, I tell him about tikkun olam, the Jewish value to repair the world. When my daughter tells me that she’s going to attend the Model United Nations as a delegate from Turkey, I ask her whether she knows anything about the Jewish community in that country. I talk about my relatives and the struggles they faced as Jews in Russia and Austria. I weave Judaism and pride in their heritage into every relevant place in the conversation.

Do they get tired of it? Do they tease me about it? You bet. Do they still hear the message that they are Jews, that it is a source of pride and responsibility? I believe they do.

My son asked me recently, “Would you want me to not marry someone I loved, just because she wasn’t Jewish?” “No,” I answered. “Of course not.” “Don’t worry Mom,” he said, “Of course we’d bring up our children as Jews.


About Cheryl F. Coon

Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.