The month of Tishrei is filled with Jewish holiday commemorations and celebrations, with all that goes with them. We begin with preparations for Rosh Hashana; hearing the shofar blasts before and during the holidays, making sure our holiday finery--whether white or colorful--is ready, and assuring that our meals with family and friends are fully planned and outstanding with all the attendant necessities: the round challot with honey, the apple, the new fruit. We continue with Yom Kippur, beating our chests, crying [if you are like me] over our distanced relationship from God and from others, and vowing to ourselves to do better in the coming year. Then we embrace Sukkot with all of its pageantry: the Sukkah, the lulav and etrog, and the dancing to celebrate completing another cycle of Torah reading on Simchat Torah.
Most of our schools provide both intellectual and experiential lessons for the students; as much as can be done with the Tishrei holidays so early in the school year. The children complete all sorts of projects on holiday paraphernalia. They learn about the reasons for and the rituals connected with each holiday, and they practice those rituals in a hopefully spiritual environment in school.
Are these school activities sufficient for inspiring our children to develop an enduring connection to their Judaism? They are single activities, each limited to a specific episode. How can something enduring emanate from a one-hour experience? Obviously, the atmosphere at Jewish schools should be saturated with Jewish values, practices, and life experiences, but is that enough?
I think not. Students spend no more than 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, 40 weeks per year in school. The school--in partnership with the parents--is the key to children developing a life-long commitment to Jewish life and values. Some parents, a small subset, abrogate all Jewish teaching responsibilities to their child’s school. They say, “We will pay you to teach our kids how to be Jewish.” They are the minority.
At the same time, I wonder how many parents who see themselves as an active part of educating their children in Judaism, significantly underperform. “We want our children to give tzedakah.” How many of us explicitly model giving tzedakah, or do we just go online and donate without making it a teachable moment? “We want our children to pray.” How many of us either pray at home in a setting where our children learn that this is something important to us or take our children to the synagogue with us on a regular basis to pray rather than running around and playing? “We want our children to learn Torah.” How many of us take the time, even just a few minutes, each week to sit and learn Torah ourselves? Are we modeling those behaviors we want our children to emulate?
Further, the Psalmist in Psalm 100, verse 2 tells us to “עִבְדוּ אֶת-ה’ בְּשִׂמְחָה; בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו, בִּרְנָנָה--Serve God with joy; come before Him in song.” In thinking about the flurry of activity around Tishrei, one of the mitzvot connected specifically with Sukkot is [Devarim 16:14-15], “וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ...וְהָיִיתָ, אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ--you shall rejoice in your holiday...and you shall be altogether joyful.” Are we truly joyful in our Judaism? Do we look at mitzvot as things we long to do to get closer to God and to improve the world? Are we excited at the prospect of doing any kind of mitzvah? And do we transmit that happiness and excitement to our children? Or, conversely, do we view fulfilling mitzvot as a necessary, onerous task that one needs to do to be a good Jew? Do we keep looking at our watches during services to see when they’ll be over, or do we immerse ourselves in the liturgical experience? Do we revel in sitting at the Shabbat table, sharing good times, stories, and some Torah and singing with family and friends, or do we count the minutes until we can go out and play “shabbasketball”?
I believe that there is no greater influence on children than their parents’ model. Parents understandably often fall into their default behaviors without truly thinking about the effect on their children. Perhaps it is time to turn that around and serve God with joy so that our children, too, can experience the delight that comes from living a Jewish lifestyle.
Whether in Tishrei -- the time of the Jewish year for resolutions -- or any time of year, let us all--parents, and Jewish school and communal professionals--resolve to be truly joyous in our Jewishness, thereby becoming better role models for our children. That is what will be most impactful for them to continue to live happy, fulfilled Jewish lives.