The other night, I went to dinner with a number of good friends I hadn’t seen all summer. Over drinks and Pad Thai, we were able to catch up, talk about our crazy summer schedules, and wonder at how fast time flies.
A new school year was fast approaching. Our children had gone to preschool together, had attended each other’s bar and bat mitzvahs the year before, and were now entering high school. I am truly lucky to have a circle of friends who have supported each other through the ups and downs of raising children.
Inevitably during our conversation, though, the topic of religious school came up. Whenever this happens, I grow quiet, nursing my drink, and listen as my friends discuss this subject.
“Are your kids going to Kulanu?” one of my friends asked about the local Hebrew high school that meets on Sunday nights. Another friend nodded and said, “We aren’t giving him the choice. We think it’s important for him to graduate.”
I had decided long ago that I wasn’t going to force my daughter to attend Hebrew High. Not because it was inconvenient on a Sunday evening. Not because I don’t value the importance of a good Jewish education. But for one simple reason—I want her to be happy.
Like myself growing up, my daughter only made one good friend in Sunday school. Our synagogue organized many wonderful programs and ice-breakers to help students connect and foster relationships, but the fact remained that she only ever bonded with one girl who she had grown up with. Being quiet and introverted, it takes her longer to make friends.
It is a shame she doesn’t have a larger circle of Jewish friends, but I often remind myself that I didn’t at her age either. Only in my 20s and 30s did my social circle expand to other moms who were raising Jewish children. And I value that I have friends from a number of different religions and backgrounds.
I’m sure I don’t share the same philosophy as other parents. Some parents make their children do things they don’t necessarily want to do, to build character and independence, to force them out of their comfort zone. I’m in no way disagreeing with this way of parenting. But on the other hand, I’ve always taken into consideration my daughters’ individual personalities. I make sure my girls are safe. I make sure they brush their teeth, take their vitamins, eat well-rounded meals. I require them to study and do their best in school. I present them with opportunities I think are good for them, such as Hebrew High. But knowing my daughter’s personality, and knowing the fact that her one friend won’t be attending either, I’m not making her go.
Some of the points my friends made I agree with wholeheartedly. Continuing Hebrew High gives teenagers a sense of community. It encourages them to seek out colleges where there is, perhaps, a stronger Jewish presence. But I believe that my daughter doesn’t identify with being Jewish just because of Sunday school. She learned it at home, where we light candles and say the prayers on Shabbat. She learned it through tradition, in family gatherings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Passover, and Hanukkah. She learned it through a sense of heritage, in the stories we’ve shared of her great-grandparents’ survival in the Holocaust. She loved her bat mitzvah and learned so much in the process.
For my younger daughter, it will probably be different. She has more friends in her Sunday school class. She enjoys Hebrew school. She wants to be a madricha (student leader) when she reaches high school so she can help in the classes with the younger kids. She wants to do Jewish sleepaway camp with her friends.
Both of my daughters are different and unique. So too is how they acquire and celebrate their Jewish identities. And if you ask them, Sunday school or no, they both love being Jewish.