I hate fractions. In fact, math has never been a great love of mine. So imagine my reaction last year when I saw that my daughter, who was then in first grade, was studying fractions. I thought to myself: First grade? Fractions? You’ve got to be kidding!
I could wax nostalgic about the old days, i.e., the years when I was in elementary school. I could lament the fact that today, in contrast to “when I was a kid,” our children are expected to do a far greater amount, and a higher level, of schoolwork than used to be the case.
In reality, now I do not even think twice about the “Daily Homework Agendas” that my children have in grades one and two, or the “minimum required reading” they must do each day. These are not bad things per se. My wife and I want our kids to work hard and learn.
However, as with everything else, there is a trade off. In addition to schoolwork, we want our kids to experience dance, music, karate, and swimming. Fitting all of these wonderful activities in is not easy.
As the parents of four young children, my wife and I know full well how challenging it is to make sure our kids get their schoolwork done, arrive at their various activities on time, eat balanced and nutritious meals, and are generally good citizens. Time is at a serious premium.
And then, of course, there is religion. Many Jewish families strongly value their Judaism and want to ensure that their children grow up to be knowledgeable, proud Jews. And that also takes time and commitment.
As a rabbi and as a parent, I know firsthand how much effort it takes to make Judaism a meaningful part of our lives. It is important to today’s families, and they struggle to fit it all in.
One tempting solution to the dilemma of how to fit Jewish education into an already crowded schedule is to go the minimalist route. There is no shortage of ways to get our children some kind of Jewish education and a bar or bat mitzva without a large commitment of time or effort. While it is true that something is better than nothing, and while I understand why parents would want to go that route, I believe that ultimately, that approach does not serve our children well.
Judaism will only grow in importance to our children as they grow, while most of their extracurricular activities will diminish in importance as they grow. Let’s face it, most of our children will be lucky to make the college baseball team. But our children will create their own families, face life’s complexities, and find themselves in need of a spiritual grounding when they are adults. And it is Judaism that will help them greatly in all of these areas.
If we want our children to take Judaism seriously when they grow up, the best way to do that is to show them that being Jewish, yes, takes some time and effort — it takes commitment.
We value that into which we put time and effort, and we put time and effort into the things we value. If we treat Judaism as so inconsequential that it requires very little of us, then our children are likely to grow up thinking that Judaism is not particularly important.
If we want our children to grow into adults who feel Jewishly competent, capable, and committed to their faith, then the time for us to start teaching them that Judaism is a commitment is now.
We do that when we make Jewish observance a regular part of our lives and when we participate in a Jewish education program that invites parents to learn along with their children in a variety of interactive ways; when children are asked to devote time and effort to Jewish studies both in class and at home; and when bar and bat mitzva is seen not as an end in and of itself but as one major stop on a child’s Jewish journey.
Jewish education in our time works best when synagogues make participation in that education manageable and when families make a firm commitment to devoting some portion of their lives to it.
I have found that at our synagogue these principles have served our families well. Not only are our children well prepared for their b’nei mitzva, but the entire family is an active participant in Jewish learning.
And over the years, a high percentage of our students continue on in our youth programs after they become bar or bat mitzva.
Now that’s a fraction I really like.