10 Ideas to Ensure Jewish Survival
by Rabbi Peter Kessler, Temple Ohev Sholom
Throughout each summer, Temple Ohev Sholom and Beth El Temple come together each week to worship together. It is is great to foster a sense of community with our Jewish neighbors, especially at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise and anti-Israel statements are often on the front page of newspapers and magazines.
This season, I’m not looking at the past, and speaking about the rough summer we are enduring with mass shootings, church burnings, and the defacing of synagogues. I’m speaking about the future, and what we can do to ensure that we will have the opportunity to worship at our congregations…for the next 10, 20, or 30 years.
I think the answer to our survival comes from our children, and our grandchildren. A rabbinic colleague of mine down in North Carolina, Rabbi Fred Guttman, came up with a list of “10 Things we can do to insure your child’s Jewish future” about 10 years ago. I’ve adapted his list slightly to fit our own Jewish community here in Harrisburg, and changed it a little as the world has undergone a massive change in the past 10 years. Some of us here don’t have kids, or have children that are grown, so if your children are already grown, think of this list as the 10 things you can do to ensure your grandchildren’s future. And if you don’t have any children at all, think of the list as a way to help educate any Jewish family you may know – it may mean the difference between the survival of our people, or the chance that we may simply cease to be.
1) Let your child know that being a Mensch (a really good individual) is far more important than grades or soccer (or other sports). We have been taught for generations that good grades are the key to bettering ourselves and our families. But in reality, being a Mensch is better than getting good grades. And being a Mensch is far more important than soccer, or basketball, or football.
This is not to say that playing soccer or basketball won’t make a mensch out of your son or daughter – it probably will, if they learn about being a team player learning the rules of fair play, or better still, coaching the younger kids at Iddy Biddy Basketball at the JCC. And getting good grades can also make a mensch out of your son or daughter.
But becoming a mensch is something that needs to be taught by parental example, and by attending Religious School. Otherwise, its importance may be diminished. That the other things are only the bonus they enjoy if they do things correctly – it is much more important to make sure they are a mensch before they excel at math, science, or making touchdowns.
2) Have a family Shabbat meal on Friday night (at which attendance is mandatory, even for teens!) and perform the Shabbat rituals. I hear excuses about this one all the time. Rabbi, how can you expect my kids to sit down together on a Friday night for dinner when Friday is football night, and date night, and the night when most school activities take place? Do you want my kids to feel even more left out as Jews than they already do at school?
Of course I don’t want your kids or grandkids to feel left out, but I do know for a fact that families who have regular Friday night meals, complete with the necessary rituals, are far more likely to be involved with synagogue life, continue to keep their temple memberships after their children have grown, and have their dreams of Jewish grandchildren fulfilled than those who do not.
Again, it’s up to you. If you want Judaism to survive, and you have young children or grandchildren, remember that keeping the Sabbath, in some small way, may be the key to our survival. Even if it means lighting candles, having Kiddush, and taking a bite out of a challah before they pile into the mini-van for the Friday night football game.
3) Do not allow your child to attend school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. This may seem like an easy one to follow, but when you remember that most of the Jewish community is unaffiliated, this becomes a very important concept.
Jewish children must remember that the High Holy Days are essential to observe. If Jewish children go to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, it sends a message to the school board that our families don’t think it is important to observe our faith. I know we’re a minority, but that doesn’t mean we need to be a silent minority. And if school is in session on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, ask the principal or the teacher not to schedule tests on the High Holidays.
Of course, there is no way in the world to stop prayer at the flagpole and we will never be able to convince those school boards that Christian prayer before a football game for a public school is not to be tolerated, but we should never keep silent about them. If we are silent, the rest of the community will think that we don’t care. And we do care.
4) Send your child to a Jewish Summer camp. You know the rabbis, cantors, and educators who make a difference in your children’s or grandchildren's lives? All of us went to Jewish summer camps. Every one. If you hope that there will be Jewish professionals in the next generation or two, they have to be made, not born. We need to make sure that our children go to Jewish Summer camps, or camps that have some kind of Jewish content.
5) Either in High School or College, send your child on a trip to Israel. Nothing cements our connection to the Jewish people more than a visit to Israel. Those Jewish professionals I just spoke of– the ones who are leaders in the Jewish community who went to Jewish summer camp – well, we all went to Israel, too. Don’t worry about the cost – Jewish college students can go to Israel for 10 days absolutely free on Birthright.
6): Demonstrate that Jewish learning is important to you by doing it and let your child see you studying. Jewish learning doesn’t end with Bar or Bat Mitzvah – it’s a lifelong process. Children learn by example – how do we expect our kids to keep learning about Judaism if they don’t see us doing the same thing?
Take an Adult Ed class. Make sure your children and grandchildren see you practice your Judaism in action as well as in word – let them learn by your example. Become more active at your synagogue…and teach your children that supporting Jewish institutions will keep them alive for their children as well.
7): Don’t drop your temple membership just because your kids have finished their B’nai Mitzvah training. Probably the most important of the 10 ideas to keep Judaism alive. It’s hard enough to convince the Jewish community to join a congregation. And the idea that Jewish families don’t want to invest $200 a month to make sure their children remain Jews after they become B’nai Mitzvah, and make sure there is a congregation for their grandchildren to attend, when they spend that much each month on their cable and cell phone bills alone, well, it doesn’t make the future of Judaism look that bright at all.
The idea that anyone would say that they couldn’t afford to be a member of a synagogue when they just don’t want to make the financial commitment is one of the saddest statements about Judaism that is made in the world today. If you’re already a member of a synagogue, please stay affiliated – and if you know of a family who is thinking about leaving when their kids become B’nai Mitzvah, help us change their mind.
8): Make Passover Seders important by means of great food and lots of friends and family. Take it seriously and do not be in so much of a rush, especially in the section after the meal. The holiday celebrated most often by the Jewish community in America is not Rosh Hashanah or even Yom Kippur. It is Passover. The Passover Seder has become one of the most important Jewish observances of the year. It often is the only link we have to the unaffiliated community.
If you are planning a Seder, please invite guests – people at the temple who don’t have family, and especially your unaffiliated neighbors. Help them understand the importance of learning more about their history - and the importance of teaching the joys of being Jewish to the next generation.
9): Help your child understand that the size of the Jewish Population and the availability of Jewish studies courses are to be serious determinates in his/her choice of a college or university. There’s a reason why many Jewish people are drawn to Jewish neighborhoods – because we like to live within our own community. And if you think that it’s important for your children to associate with other Jews, you’ll need to make sure they’re not the only Jew on campus wherever they attend college.
Make sure there is a Hillel organization on campus. And if it’s your goal to have your children or grandchildren to marry Jews, make sure they attend a college with a strong Jewish environment.
10): Teach your children that keeping Judaism alive is their responsibility. We all know that we can’t survive as Jews unless we take our survival very seriously. There is already a shortage of capable Jewish professionals, and synagogues are struggling all over the world.
Your children and grandchildren will have lots of options as they grow and mature. Make sure that they know that teaching their Jewish heritage to the next generation is a non-negotiable item.
So thanks for listening. Now…will these 10 items really help to save the Jewish people and keep our Jewish communities vibrant? I think so, but I’m just one of the rabbis around here. It’s up to you to make your own personal commitment to the survival of our people. We’ll help you, but we’ll all need to work very hard to accomplish this goal.