My oldest son is going to turn 13 next month. If he had grown up in a more traditional Jewish household, he would be busy learning prayers, sorting through RSVPs, and finalizing his bar mitzvah playlist. But, we are not a traditional Jewish household.
My husband was raised Catholic and has since become a staunch atheist, while I, despite being born to an Israeli mother, grew up so far removed from any type of Jewish community that I never even considered having a bat mitzvah.
More important than any of that, though, is the fact that my son has no interest in a bar mitzvah. Or religion of any sort. He is a scientist to the core. Any talk of God or spirituality he dismisses as “fairy tales.”
My younger son is just the opposite. He begged me to go to Hebrew School and is already planning his bar mitzvah in Israel in two years.
My husband and I have made it a point to support their decisions. I have never forced my oldest son to have a bar mitzvah, although part of me mourns his choice to reject our traditions. And my husband has never questioned my younger son’s going to Hebrew School, although he, as an atheist, struggles to understand the importance of it.
Instead, we have emphasized understanding and respect for different lifestyle choices. A few weeks ago, at dinner, my younger son talked about the religious Jewish families he had seen in town for Sukkot vacation. He mentioned how happy the kids seemed and how he might, one day, choose an observant life.
My older son was confused and a little annoyed.
“I don’t understand their lives. Do they even learn math and science at school? How can they contribute to the world?”
Although I reprimanded him for being disrespectful, I did understand his point. I myself have struggled with these same questions. I’ve often wondered about our religious friends and all the time they spend studying things that seem so far removed from our modern world.
Last week, the local Chabad rabbi’s wife had a baby four weeks earlier than expected. She happily accepted my offer to help with the other children and suggested an outing to the park. The three kids climbed into my minivan, shyly clutching bags of kosher snacks and water bottles.
As soon as we got to the park, the two older brothers grasped tightly to the youngest sister’s hands. They made sure to take her on every bouncy horse and slide that she wanted to go on before heading off on their own adventures. Even as they raced around the “big castle,” they made sure to check in with her every few minutes to make sure that she was happy being pushed by me on the swings.
When the middle boy got dizzy on the tire swing, his older brother (who was still having a great time) asked me if I could take them home so that his brother could rest. Then, he put his arm around his little brother and led him all the way to the car.
On the way home, I listened as the three kids whispered soothing words to each other and watched as the older boys moved closer so the little sister would have a shoulder to fall asleep on.
When I dropped them off, all three kids remembered to say thank you and left me with beaming smiles that warmed my heart. I kept that warmth with me all day.
I’ve spent enough time with Chabad families to know how much their public lives revolve around doing mitzvahs. But, the kindness and empathy that I saw between those children was much more than a public display. It was a product of being raised in a household that puts the needs of others above themselves.
I started to think about the conversation that I’d had with my son about the “contributions” of observant families. My experiences with Orthodox Jews as a whole has been limited, but I have been fortunate to have had many interactions with Chabad families. Every single time I have been impressed with their love and dedication for the community. As much as I admired that dedication, I don’t think that I really appreciated it fully until I was lucky enough to see how that dedication translates into childrearing.
Perhaps some of these kids will go on to be rabbis. Perhaps some will lead a quiet life of children and learning. Perhaps some will even choose to move towards careers in the math or sciences that my oldest son so admires. The thing is, even if they do nothing more than live their lives with that deep level of empathy that they learned from home, they will be doing more to contribute to the world than most people ever do.
My experience has not changed my stance on my son’s bar mitzvah. I don’t believe in forcing my kids to do things that feel inherently wrong to them. But, it does give me a new appreciation and respect for a way of life that has often seemed alien to me.