Before we had children, my wife and I spoke about someday joining a synagogue. We desired an end to shuttling back and forth between our parents’ places of worship on holidays. We desired a place of our own, but did not necessarily want to make a major commitment of time or money. We always promised to join when we had children. Until recently, however, it did not happen.
Not belonging to a particular congregation was more than all right with me. I come from a family of synagogue-wandering Jews. As a child, I attended services at two synagogues in Brooklyn as well as a number of other synagogues throughout the city.
In our adult years, my wife and I have attended services in various places and for a few years joyfully attended Ohel Ayala, a free walk-in service for the High Holy Days aimed particularly at young adults run by the wonderful Rabbi Judith Hauptman, who happened to have married us. When our daughters attended a Chabad-run preschool, we also prayed at their services. And, while we felt entirely welcome there, it also felt temporary.
We never precisely articulated why we might join a synagogue only after we had children. Perhaps we hadn’t joined because we were at an age of flux and a synagogue is more rooted. Indeed, it seems many younger Jews now prefer impromptu one-off informal Jewish gatherings unconnected to synagogues and what they view as “establishment.” But I knew our ultimate desire to join had something to do with one of the parenting/life questions that has been bouncing around in my brain since the past summer: “What does it mean to be Jewish?”
This fundamental question is not an easy one. We have all heard the sayings “every Jew has his or her own deal with God” and “two Jews, three opinions.” A professor I had once defined the Jewish people as a “unique group of people who are defined by arguing about what it means to be Jewish.”
Some might argue that what makes us Jews are values. Others say it is ultimately the Torah because “there would be nothing without the ‘words written on a scroll of parchment.’”
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, in discussing Jewish continuity and how to ensure our grandchildren are Jewish, notes there are “cultural Jews,” those who live by “Jewish values” and still others who say they “feel Jewish.” But, she observes, many voice regret when their children and grandchildren do not continue certain traditions or marry outside the tribe. Pogrebin suggests we invest in deepening Jewish knowledge, study of the Torah, and creating more programs and opportunities for Jews to access their heritage.
Let me suggest that being Jewish and raising Jewish children must be more than a feeling, more than values, more than culture, and more than study of the Torah and our heritage. In the end, it is about moving from the theoretical to the practical, from theory into action. As Carla Naumburg noted at the end of last year, what we do and don’t do as Jewish parents matters.
For me, while this means engaging in and teaching my children “the language of Judaism, the prayers, songs, the practices, and the rituals,” it means something else, too. It means community — both at home and in Israel. We are members of a tribe, after all.
Last summer, my family traveled to Israel. This was significant not only because we wanted to visit family, but also because I am determined to pass on my love for Israel and its people to my children. We think and worry and argue about Israel often from a distance. But how can we truly engage with, understand, defend, love, criticize, and discuss Israel and its problems without being in touch with its inhabitants, without visiting, without considering ourselves part of its broader community?
Similarly, I’ve realized the importance of being part of Jewish community at home, which is why we have finally joined a synagogue. In truth, while this came about initially because we wanted to enroll our older daughter in an afterschool Hebrew school program and chose one connected to a synagogue, we have enjoyed children’s and adult services, and holiday, children’s, and other community events held at the synagogue.
My older daughter really enjoys going to Hebrew school each week and both of my children have come away from tot Shabbat with smiles on their faces and songs on their lips. I think the more we go to our synagogue, the more it will start to feel like a second home for them.
Throughout all this, it has been most meaningful to connect to other families and to the rabbi, who has quickly made us feel so welcome and valued in the community and provided guidance when we asked.
In a recent post reflecting on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Rabbi Rachel Ain of the Sutton Place Synagogue discusses how we should define how we live not by the Holocaust or modern-day threats but by living with joy. She recommends finding your place in the community, integrating meaningful traditions into your family’s lives, and interacting with your biological and broader family and friends in a “compelling way.”
In other words, it is imperative we connect with our Jewish community however we define it and wherever we find it. Who better to argue with about what it means to be a Jew?