What My Children Have Taught Me About Jewish Identity
Who is wise? I believe it is the one that learns from his children. As I read about megatrends in Judaism and religious life, I understand what I read through the lens of my two adult children.
Here’s my Jewish background so as to explain what may seem to be my approach. I am a shul goer. I am an avid reader of Jewish books. I dress liberal and accessorize conservative.
Of my four grandparents none were observant. None had Jewish education or any formal education. None had any wealth to bequeath. Their best expression of Jewish identity was to feed us gefilte fish and fight with family. I know of no relatives that died in the Shoah and have no ties to distant cousins living in Israel. Yet, I have obsessed about the Holocaust and I identify as a Zionist.
Even without a family rooted in institutional, ritualistic, rabbinic, or practiced Judaism, I grew up longing to participate in Jewish community. I asked my father to build me a sukkah, which was a rarity in our predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I attended synagogue on holidays even when they occurred on school days. I liked Hebrew School.
And at 56 years old, I was ordained.
The cosmic Jewish joke in my life is that I gave my children every Jewish experience I thought I lacked growing up. Thirteen years of day school, 11 years of Jewish summer camp, sleeping in the sukkah, sumptuous Seders, and hikes on Shavuot. We visited Israel often. We participated in Jewish events, demonstrated the need for philanthropy and made shabbos, even when were weren’t at home. One of my children rejects Judaism as a religion. The other understands Judaism as a motivation and an opportunity for joyful community.
I have a research sample of one. We are one family of four that made Judaism a focal point of our lives and the result was wide-ranging. Do you want to say that attachment to institutional Judaism is on the wane? I have a child to prove that. Do you want to say that millenials employ Judaism as an entryway to community and meaning? I have a child to prove that too.
My path was to increase my Jewish learning and adapt my practices to new understandings. My insight is that Judaism is an ever-evolving religion and I now welcome the next phase of Judaism. As a rabbi, I followed the advice of financial guru Peter Lynch, who said invest in what you know. I created a new-fangled, not-a-synagogue targeted to adults. I determined that the best-educated, politically powerful, financially secure Jewish generation – the baby boomers – was ripe for engagement with Judaism. Why? As we age we have more need for answers about mortality. As we near retirement, we often have more discretionary time.
Moreover, I have been disturbed by a pediatric approach to Jewish philanthropy that invests most of its resources in children, teens and young adults. I believe that if young Jews see their parents and grandparents as disengaged, they will believe that Judaism is an institution from which you graduate. I want to create vibrant Jewish life from birth all the way through mature adulthood.
I read about the megatrends and know that all seem valid to an extent. But no one explanation completes the discussion for me and no one survey predicts the future accurately.
Perhaps Judaism as a religion of rules and obligations is undergoing a necessary corrective. I have tried to understand Judaism as a reference guide or a constitution. I approach Judaism for how it correlates to my lived experience rather than define my life by the rules of Judaism that I obey.
My day school educated children aren’t devoted to a halakhic lifestyle. Yet, their identification is Jewish and their Jewish practices, while limited, resonate strongly for them. Here’s an example. My son reported with great pride that he made a break the fast meal in his New York apartment. Yet, he had gone to work that day. I wondered how he worked on Yom Kippur but found a break fast meaningful? I wondered if less observance is sometimes sufficient, and, if so, sufficient for what purpose?
As Irwin Kula asks, what is the job we ask Judaism to do? For me, Judaism gives my life structure, meaning and purpose. Engaging in Jewish practices I connect with community. For my children, Judaism is an association of people and ideas. I think they are missing out on the depth and beauty of our religion. They disagree. They think that membership as a world citizen of the 21st century surpasses particularism or tribalism. And they are disinclined to hold sacred the rules codified in the 2nd century.
I am not decrying my children’s choices. I think that they are fabulous human beings with the potential to reconfigure Jewish life for the 22nd century. I am reminded that not all ethical and moral precepts are particular to God-given rules. Even in Torah, Abraham has to chide God into reexamining the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with an internal sense of saving a city even if for the sake of only ten righteous people. God didn’t teach Abraham those values. Abraham brought them forward and shared them with God.
The trends that identify the transformation of Judaism for the 21st century are often couched in terms of what is being lost. Lost support for institutions; abandonment of halacha; and diminishment of Jewish identity are all of concern to me. I have cherished my experience of Jewish organizations, my adherence to codes of Jewish life and expressions of my Jewish identity. At the same time, I am encouraged that the changes to come will be based upon values that preserve the planet and respect all people. My children have taught me to know that I have given them a foundation in Judaism that informs their contributions to the future. It just might not include a Judaism that looks much like the one I love.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame was ordained by ALEPH: the alliance for Jewish Renewal in January 2015. He is the co-founder of The Jewish Studio and Bayit, and continues in his career as lawyer focusing on estate planning and disability law.