Remember those peanut butter commercials from the 90’s that told us “choosy moms choose Jif”? What does it mean to be “choosy”? Choice is not just about having options; it’s about exploring, engaging, and eventually committing to something that is meaningful. I’d like to be a “choosy mom” too, though with peanut butter allergies in my house, I’m not choosing Jif! Instead, I am trying to raise my children to be “choosy” Jews-by-choice.
On the holiday of Shavuot, we receive the Torah and, more specifically, the 10 Commandments. We also read the story of Ruth, the quintessential Jew-by-choice, who follows her mother-in-law and clings to her and her people. From Ruth’s model we learn the value of choosing Judaism, not just for those who convert, but for all of us.
I don’t mean to sound exclusionary or to debate any sense of “chosen-ness.” Instead, I hope to suggest that we can all be Jews-by-choice, whether we were born Jewish or we converted to Judaism. Our challenge is in demonstrating to our children that they too can be Jews-by-choice.
Full disclaimer: Since I am a rabbi, my children (PK’s, preacher’s kids, as they’re known) have Judaism handed to them on a silver platter (and sometimes thrown at them in kosher take-out boxes). Even still, making Judaism relevant and meaningful is, and will continue to be, a challenge in our family. I believe that regardless of family background–or a parent’s profession–making Judaism engaging and accessible is an obligation for each of us.
Here are my suggestions on how to raise a “choosy” Jew-by-choice:
1. Educate. Read books about Jewish themes. Send your child to religious school or a Jewish day school. Explore Jewish museums. Watch Jewish-themed TV shows and movies.
2. Expose. Be where the Jews are! Synagogues are an obvious choice, but so are concert halls, and just about everywhere else. It’s not the place that’s as important as the conversation you have with your child while there. What does Judaism teach about how to treat the fish at the aquarium?
3. Engage. Invite questions. Allow your child to wonder and wander. Who is that old woman with the numbers tattooed on her arm and why? How did this bread on my plate get here? Share stories from your own childhood or personal path to choosing Judaism.
4. Endow. Give tzedakah and talk about it. Plant and build today with your children, so they will continue to plant and build tomorrow. Support your local Jewish institutions. Clean out your wallet every day (or every Friday in honor of Shabbat) and put money in a tzedakah.
5. Explore. Children’s minds are theologically open, much more than ours. Theories of God are more pliable and forgiving. Explore and encourage their wildest proposals. I once asked my child, who was four at the time, why it rains. His answer: Perhaps it’s God crying.
We are “choosy” parents in so much of what our children do–at least I am! So why not choose Judaism too? We are all Jews-by-choice. As we celebrate Shavuot and receive the precious gift of Torah, let’s raise our children–an equally precious gift–to choose Judaism.