Today is January 25, 2020 -
My daughter Jenny turns 18 on Monday. My mother asked, as she always does, “when are we celebrating?” I answered, as I always do, “on Friday night.”
Ilana and I are busy people raising five busy children. Most nights of the week, either Ilana or I or both of us will have a meeting or some other responsibility to the community. Our kids are involved in theatre, music, dance, basketball, volleyball, tennis, swim team, Jewish studies, youth group, work, etc. The likelihood that all of us will be home and awake at the same time on Monday evening to celebrate Jenny’s birthday is very low.
Perhaps this is why my brilliant wife referenced our several-thousand-year-old tradition and declared, as the sun was setting on our fifth day of married life over 20 years ago, that the whole family will sit together for Shabbat dinner every Friday night, with very few exceptions. While neither of us grew up religiously observant, she felt that this was imperative.
So, 20 years later, the 11 of us (Ilana and I, our parents, and our children) have Friday night dinner together every week. Grandparents are excused when out of town. The children are only excused for competing Jewish activities. Tonight, for example, Jenny is spending Shabbat on Long Island with friends from her trip to Israel last summer; Levi is in Binghamton with NCSY; Maya is dining with the University of Rochester Hillel. All are “legal” excuses.
Last night our Women’s Philanthropy event featured Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) speaking on intermarriage. He spoke passionately about our need as people, Jews, family, and community to embrace interfaith couples and welcome them into Jewish life. He taught that the commandment to welcome the stranger is cited more times in our Torah than any other.
Rabbi, thank you so much for this very important message. We cannot agree with you more. Our Federation is partnering with JOI to become a “Big Tent” certified organization, embracing and effectuating your outreach efforts.
While making efforts to welcome interfaith couples, I believe that we should concurrently do all that we can to encourage our children to choose Jewish life and community, with the hope that they will seek a Jewish spouse with whom to share the experience. Statistically speaking, while not guaranteeing it, we know that positive Jewish experiences lead to strong Jewish identity. Jewish camping, trips to Israel, day school education, synagogue attendance, home celebrations of Shabbat and the holidays, youth group activities, and family lifestyle are all statistical connectors. Rabbi, you suggested that even if we give these things to our children, they may wait until after graduate school when our influence has waned to actually marry.
If we spend the first 18 years giving our children as many positive Jewish experiences as we can, they might choose to focus their college searches on schools with a strong Hillel, then we hope that they will choose to be active. They may go to Friday night dinners and to Israel with Birthright. When they graduate from college, they may then choose to move to a community with an active Jewish life. They may go to the Tribefest conference. Our influence does not need to end just because they leave our homes at 18.
As parents and as a community, we must ensure that all opportunities are funded, available, and encouraged. We recognize that they may not work with all of our best efforts, and then we will be there to embrace.
Long-term Jewish connectivity may be a crap shoot, but we can weight the dice.