Many years ago, my family was running late to a family Sunday school program. We had raced across town from my kindergartener’s flag football game. As we dropped the 5- and 3-year-olds off to the age-specific education before joining the adult ed, the teacher said to us, “Thank you for taking the time to be Jewish today.”
Though I did not say anything at the time, that comment did not sit well with me. My children are Jewish, I wanted to scream. They are Jewish when they go to their non-Jewish public school. They are Jewish when they play at the park. And they are Jewish when they play flag football. The concept of needing to allocate time to be Jewish seemed both ludicrous and offensive to me.
Ten years later, I hear the teacher’s words differently and I want to apologize to her for the negative thoughts I had in my head that I never said out loud. Because she was right. As a parent, it is important to take the time to be Jewish. Yes, my children are Jewish every moment of their lives the same way that I am Jewish every moment of my life. But at 3 and 5, they did not know that. Jewishness has to be taught, and getting them to Sunday school — even in a jersey with eye black on — we were teaching our children that it was important to take time to learn Jewish, to do Jewish, and to be Jewish.
We frequently read about the “December Dilemma,” focusing on the tension between Judaism and Christianity in our Christian-dominated society. But I often think that we should spend more time reflecting on the September Dilemma. As summer winds down and September rolls around, many Jewish parents whose children are not in full-time day school or yeshiva enroll our children in different versions of Sunday School — part-time, supplemental Jewish education.
But we are also confronted with conflicting priorities — both ours and our childrens. Perhaps it is travel baseball or soccer or volleyball. Perhaps it is a dance team or art class or robotics. Perhaps it is children split between separate households. Perhaps just a desire for family time or exhausted children who want a day to sleep in. There are so many things pulling on us and our children. There are so many conflicts on the calendar. There is just so much.
And in the chaos of back to school, perhaps Jewish education gets overlooked or does not feel as urgent or as filled with instant gratification. “I can start them next year,” we say. They have years until their b’nai mitzvah,” we say. Or — on the other side of things — we say, “They already became a b’nai mitzvah. It’s not important to keep going.”
I get these emotions. I get the struggle. I get the conflict. I get the exhaustion.
Years ago, when my husband and I talked about Jewish education and what our goals were, we had one goal. When they grew up, we wanted them to be able to walk into a synagogue and feel like they belonged. A few weeks ago, I dragged the recently-three-year-old (who is now 12) with me to Friday night services. She would have rather been home studying her new dungeon masters guide for Dungeons & Dragons. In a compromise, I told her she could bring the guide.
Then, I watched the most amazing thing happen. She sat with me in the back row sacrilegiously reading a section about mythical polytheism. Then we rose for the Amidah, and she closed the book and began chanting the Amidah from memory. This continued throughout the service. With apologies to the Rabbi, I am sure she did not listen to a word of the sermon. But throughout the service, she would alternate between her D&D book and her prayer book, sometimes joining us in prayer or song, and sometimes retreating back to her own world.
Now, was this a perfect moment of Jewish parenting? Clearly not. But I also realized that without the years of Jewish education that preceded it, she would not have been able to say the prayers or step into (and out of) the service as she chose. Because of her Jewish education, she now has the ability to be Jewish even when she is studying Dungeons & Dragons or playing basketball or sketching figures. She has been given the knowledge to allow her to truly be Jewish all the time.
So as we each face our own versions of the September Dilemma — as our Jewish identities stretch and change to fit the changing contours of our life — I would never presume that the answers that my family has found fit for every family. But thinking back to that teacher from many years ago, I hope that you and yours can take the time to be Jewish this year.