May 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Transmitting Our Vision to the Next Generation

In a letter written to his wife, Abigail, future President John Adams wrote, “I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry, Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Though often underrated as a Founding Father, Adams had a clear view as to the purpose of the grand experiment that he and his compatriots were undertaking—they would occupy their time with the necessary activities of nation-building so that the next generation could focus on building a thriving and thoughtful nation. And that would, in turn, allow the third generation the opportunity to engage in those pursuits that were more aesthetically pleasing, intellectually stimulating and personally elevating.

The pioneering visionaries who founded our first local day schools decades ago in industrial hubs such as Jersey City and Paterson may have had a similar thought process to that of President Adams. Ivrit curricula and Erev Shabbat programming were the farthest things from their minds. Their role was to undertake the monumental task of creating Jewish schools and to convince people to entrust their children to the educators in those schools, in order to preserve Jewish life in America for another generation. As our community has grown and our schools have increased both in number and in size, we have indeed had the luxury to no longer worry about the existence or survival of the schools, but rather to focus on the degree to which we are able to care for the educational, spiritual and emotional needs of each and every one of the thousands of students in our schools.

And yet. And yet for all of our successes in building communal institutions to a degree of sophistication unimaginable to previous generations, we nevertheless find so many of our children struggling to find meaning and purpose within the framework that has been bequeathed to them. How often do our children not see the connection between the lesson learned in Chumash class and the behavior expected of them in their daily lives? How many children show up in shul on Shabbat, unsure where to go or what to do? How many seconds after Shabbat—hopefully, after Shabbat—do our teens turn on their phones so that they can maintain their “streak”? (Ask a teen if you’re not sure what that means.)

There is an old adage in wealth management that serves as a useful counterpoint to John Adams’ vision. It claims that “the first generation makes the money, the second generation spends the money and the third generation goes to work for someone else.” Studies have shown that somewhere around 10 percent of family-owned businesses are still run by the grandchildren of the founders, and a surprisingly low percentage of wealth in this country has been inherited. Why is this so? Simply stated, as each generation inherits wealth, it fails to also inherit the appreciation for what went into creating that wealth. Never having experienced a sense of want, they don’t understand the effort involved in maintaining that which they were given. Many businesses frame the first dollar that they earn; children lucky enough to receive birthday money from their grandparents tend to run out and spend it.

As with material wealth, so it is with spiritual wealth. The founders of our older schools were not all as halachically knowledgeable as today’s communal leaders are, and yet they intuitively understood that the Jewish community in America could not survive without an educational system that would provide their children with both the knowledge of and love for Judaism. Their success was seen in the growth and development of our communities, as Bergen County has grown from a handful of shuls, three schools, a few kosher food establishments and no local mikvah in the mid-1970s, to the amazing array of institutions, services and organizations (even multiple Shomer Shabbat sports leagues) that we are so familiar with today. Asking for accommodations due to one’s religion was once a risky proposition; today it earns supportive national coverage for our yeshiva sports and mock trial teams. Thankfully, the vast majority of our children have rarely, if ever, had to sacrifice in order to maintain their observance.

And therein lies our challenges, both as educators and as parents. How do we instill in our children the sense that all that they have inherited was built for them so that they may do something even greater with it? How do we teach them that there is more to do, when so much has been done already? How can we help them find meaning in something that was simply presented to them?

How do we instill in our children the sense that
all that they have inherited was built for them
so that they may do something even greater with it? How do we teach them that there is more to do,
when so much has been done already?

So many recent innovations in what takes place in schools flow from an attempt to answer these questions. From looking for teachers who are as inspirational as they are intellectual, to color war and chagigot, to Friday night onegs and winter break kollels—all of these and more are efforts to touch the souls of our students and to provide them with opportunities to push themselves religiously and spiritually. It is a monumental and never-ending task in an increasingly distracted age, and it is a task that cannot be accomplished by schools alone.

As parents, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can to inspire our children to continue to strive religiously. Do we make the same effort to get them to shul that we do to get them to little league? Do we encourage them to admire and have as role models people who exude middot, or celebrities whose morals may be far from our ideals? Do we send our children to learn in Israel, while silently praying that they don’t become “too frum” while there? In short, do we know what we want for our children, or do we assume that raising them in a strong and vibrant community is enough to ensure that they will come out fine?

John Adams was wise to clearly articulate his vision. His son, John Quincy Adams, would follow in his footsteps to the presidency; his grandson, Charles Francis Adams, would become an ambassador; and his great-grandson, Henry Adams, would author one of the most important and celebrated American memoirs. The task before us is to do the same—to articulate, first to ourselves and then to our children, on an ongoing basis, our vision and dreams for their spiritual and religious growth and development. By doing so, we will hopefully instill in our children the passion and commitment that our predecessors possessed.

By Rabbi Aaron Ross, EdD

 Rabbi Aaron Ross, EdD, is the Yavneh Academy Middle School assistant principal.

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