Crafting Adult Jewish Identities
The vast majority of American Jews are raised non-Orthodox, and their primary experiences with Judaism come from home (or their grandparents’ home), Jewish preschools, synagogue schools as they prepare for Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and sometimes Jewish camping. A tiny minority (around 2-5%) of non-Orthodox children attend Jewish Day Schools in the US. Studies have demonstrated that Day Schools are far and away the best predictor of Jewish affiliation and engagement in adulthood, with teen engagement in youth groups and camping both coming in second place with a significantly smaller effect. Given these statistics, it should not be a surprise that so many adult Jews feel completely disconnected from Judaism – most of them never have the opportunity to understand the texts and traditions beyond the level of adolescence.
Barry Shrage, a professor at Brandeis University, and former CEO of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Federation) in Boston, tells a great story about the impact parents have on their children’s sense of what matters in the world.
A kid comes home from Hebrew school and says, “Mom, Dad, Hebrew school sucks.” Mom or Dad says, “Son, it was terrible when I went, it was terrible when my parents went, and it’ll be terrible when your grandchildren go. So be quiet, and when you’re bar mitzvah, you can stop.” It’s not exactly an argument for being Jewish.
On the other hand, the kid comes home from public school says, “Mom, Dad, they’re teaching me a new play. They say it’s in English, but I don’t understand a word.” And the parent says, “That’s Shakespeare! It’s filled with wisdom and knowledge and beauty, and it’s worth finding out more about.”
While it certainly isn’t all on parents, they are far and away the most important factor in whether or not a child grows up with a sense of connection to Judaism, so this story is an important illustration of the messages we send our children in so many ways.
My personal theory is that a childhood connection to Judaism is crucial, but it only lays the foundation upon which a true adult relationship with texts and traditions still needs to be built. If our children never progress beyond the so-called “pediatric” version of what it means to be Jewish, then they will not have the opportunity to use this rich system of wisdom to create meaning in their lives – it won’t stick. That is a loss, because living a Jewish life fills and fulfills many of the universally human essential needs we all share like community, relationships, celebration, mourning, marking time and seasons, telling stories, and much more. I always caveat by saying that this one system among many that exist in the world…but it the one I was born into, and I am grateful to have the knowledge to engage deeply in it. I believe every Jewish child deserves that opportunity as well.