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Do My Children Really Need Formal Jewish Education to be Good Jews?

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I want to raise my children with a strong sense of spirituality and connection to their Jewish heritage. But I’m struggling with the reality that my children do not like going to religious school, and have only a passing interest in attending services with me. They love going to the synagogue, just not so much actually participating. There is a lot of arguing about going to Hebrew school, and why it’s a good idea to occasionally step into services, as opposed to just wrestling with your friends in the lobby, or hiding out with a good book in a quiet corner of the synagogue. But after going to school all day, they resist going for another two hours of instruction twice a week at our religious school.

And it makes me wonder, how important is formal Jewish education?

READ: Some Parents Don’t Need Jewish Day School, But I’m Not One of Them

I find myself questioning whether I’m doing the right thing, to encourage their religious identity and connection, especially if the way I’m doing it involves browbeating, bribing, or cajoling them into attending religious school. I want them to go to religious school, because I think that’s what Jewish kids are supposed to do. I want them to go because I want them to read Torah, to understand the meaning behind the prayers we chant in synagogue each week. I want them to be encouraged to learn and read and study, and question and discover. I just don’t know if forcing religious school is the only way to accomplish those goals.

The thing is, I think all children have a natural interest in religion and spirituality, and mine are no exception. My oldest daughter is 12, and her favorite part of the bat mitzvah study is writing her d’var Torah (commentary on the Torah portion) and the discussions with the rabbi. My 8-year-old son is as intensely spiritual, but in a slightly different way. While my daughter is thoughtful and questioning about everything, my son is emotionally connected to the idea of God and nature. He sees God everywhere, even going as far as announcing that his 4th birthday party was going to be just him and God, out in the backyard together.

READ: My Daughter, The Hebrew School Dropout

My youngest, age 4, is right in the middle of this stage. She’s full of questions, wondering what makes us Jewish, who’s Jewish, and who isn’t. What does being Jewish mean, and why are certain traditions Jewish and some aren’t? The other day, she confided that she thought God was like our owner, and that we were all his little robots. This led to an in-depth discussion of free will and choices and the importance of mitzvot–and while I was explaining all of that to her, there was a part of me that was also thinking–SHE’S FOUR. We talk about how my mother, Grammy, isn’t Jewish, and what that means, and I found myself struggling to explain the nature of paganism, and the representation of the Divine as both God and Goddess, and how that differs as it relates to what we believe. To a 4-year-old.

Of course I’d rather have them love going to synagogue, and have positive associations about being there, than have them resent the time they spend in the classroom. I’d rather have them find connection and fulfillment in their relationship with God and the community that we’ve chosen to raise them in, and that might mean that we step back from religious instruction for a bit. Maybe a tutor would work better than attending our local community religious school. Maybe if we ease up on the pressure to attend, they’ll find themselves wanting to go. Religious studies shouldn’t be reduced to a power struggle, right?

My kids are Jewish, and their childhood memories are going to be filled with crowded Shabbat dinner tables, and afternoons tearing around the synagogue with their friends and community. I know I can’t control if my children will grow up to be practicing Jews. What I can do is make Judaism a central part of their childhood, and set the example of being an engaged and involved Jewish member of our community.

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