Allow me to share with you a failure of mine that had a profound impact upon me as both a teacher, parent and grandparent.
At the end of the year, I give my students an opportunity to reflect upon the course, including to some extent my own performance. In one particular class in Jewish thought, I got strong to rave reviews, until I got to the evaluation which essentially said, “You covered a lot of great material, presented it in a really engaging way, answered all of our questions about Judaism, but it felt like you never really explained why it should matter.” This one student was clearly struggling with her own commitments and so I was tempted to dismiss her comment as an outlier. Even so, I was crestfallen (we teachers can be an idealistic lot) for I thought that I had been working hard the entire year to explore the beauty of Judaism. Or, had I?
A variation of this question is present in many a limudei kodesh class and home. We teach considerable amounts of Tanach and Gemara and Halacha, but do we ever stop to tell our students what it’s all for? Do we ever stop to ask them what it means to them, to their inner world, to their beliefs, and life and, yes, to their relationship to HaKadosh Baruch Hu? In that sense, the way that some people “do” Jewish education hasn’t really changed very much. They teach subjects and assume that the students share their underlying assumptions and appreciation of the text and so there is no need to talk about them; all you need to do is teach content.
Even if that were true, the needs of this generation may—in any event—call out for more. Educators everywhere lament the fact that students are simply not as text-oriented anymore, that they do not have the same patience, in English or in Hebrew. There is, too, a sense that more than ever, young people (and adults) are looking not only for cognition but for connection, not only for halacha but spirituality, not only for the intellectual but the emotional as well.
In my own school, we have been taking some pretty innovative and effective steps to address these concerns—not watering down our offerings, but rather shaping them more appropriately—and, most especially, being more explicit about why it all should matter and make a difference in your life. But what is true of these latest challenges in education, is even more true of parenting.
Here is how: The vast majority of social science research all points to the fact that the single most important influence on the religious development of children and adolescence is the family. Not schools, not youth groups, not summer camps or the media or teachers. Parents play the leading role, hands down. Now there was a time, perhaps, when parents could make assumptions about their children’s underlying commitment. We send them to day school and summer camps for Jewish learning and experiences, we observe Shabbat, we make sure to keep kosher in all the exotic places we travel to, we belong to a shul and the list goes on. But for a variety of reasons, we can no longer rely on those efforts to be enough.
Our children are exposed to the world at large in unprecedented ways and it is not a place that is always supportive of our religious parenting. Religious affiliation in America is on the decline in historic ways, the Internet’s focus on personal choice, individualism, non-judgmentalism, all fly in the face of adhering to a religion that insists on certain standards of belief and behavior. Internally, we talk a lot about observance but not so much about God, and many children wonder then, “What’s it all for?” We simply cannot afford to rely on old assumptions that “our kids will turn out like us.” As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once said, “the apple does not fall far from the tree—except in a tornado.”
What is called for, then, is to infuse our family lives—like our classrooms—with renewed passion and explicit expressions of our love for Torah and Israel and the Jewish people … and God. When was the last time that you spoke to your child about HaKadosh Baruch Hu—not as a philosophical entity or an abstract name—but as someone with whom you have a relationship? “I thank God that He sent you into my life.” “I am grateful to Hashem for something that happened today that I want to share with you.” “Did you thank Hashem for X today?” How often do we share with our kids what we love about Shabbos, what our favorite tefillah is or what we love about each individual holiday. Our kids often know our favorite foods, our favorite color or sports team. Do they know what our favorite parts of being Jewish are? Have we expressed it to them at least as often as those other favorites, or do we just assume they know it and that, somehow, it will transfer to them? How often do we prioritize davening above other things? How often do they hear us say brachot out loud, or see us sacrifice an activity or pastime for the sake of listening to or attending a shiur? What is called for then, is not so much a radical change in our parenting but rather, in the intentionality of the parenting we do.
We spend a lot of time thinking about and planning for our children’s social lives, academic lives and about their physical health and wellbeing. Especially now, we need to do so about their religious and spiritual health and wellbeing as well. We need to be proactive not only about their minds and bodies, but about their souls. But in order to do so, we will first have to think long and hard about our own inner world of the soul before we can hope to impact our own children. Parenting for the soul refers not alone to our children’s spiritual wellbeing, but to our own as well.
Rabbi Jay Goldmintz EdD is a veteran day school educator who teaches at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning “Koren Ani Tefillah Weekday Siddur,” and its companion Shabbat volume, as well as having published widely about curriculum, religious development and religious parenting.