(or, What to answer your child when they say, “Mom, Grandpa isn’t Jewish! He doesn’t wear a Kippah.”)

By Chani Okonov, Educational Director, Mazel Day School

IMG9.jpg“Papa, you can’t eat that. It is not Kosher!”

“How come we don’t keep Shabbos in our family?”

“Mom, Grandpa isn’t Jewish! He doesn’t wear a Kippah.”

Hearing such statements from the mouth of your child can be quite disconcerting to a Russian-Jewish parent. In fact, it is this worry that drives many to choose to avoid or limit their children’s exposure to Jewish experiences at all. Who would want to put themselves in a situation where their own children come home and “instruct” them as to how to conduct their lifestyle or ask questions to which they may be helpless to answer?

Yet, it is this deeply rooted apprehension that represents what I believe is the single greatest threat to the continuity of the Russian-Jewish community in America. For this worry drives many to choose to disconnect not only their children, but also themselves personally from exploring their own relationship with Jewish identity and from finding a place within their birthright and among their people.

One might say that it is easy for me to speak about this issue when I was raised in a country of religious freedom in a home that was fused with Jewish observance. Growing up, Judaism represented the pathway along which I could fulfill my greatest dreams and aspirations. More than a set of “rules and rituals” it gave me grounding and perspective to deal with any and every situation life has put me in thus far – whether it be loss of a loved one, raising children, or financial worries. It brought me joy, wonder and mindfulness. It gave me the sense that I have a purpose and mission in life, one that I can achieve no matter what “others” may say.

The Judaism of my childhood gave me an identity that is now the stalwart of my adult life. For me, this has been the greatest gift given to me by my parents and family.

It is true that, thank G‑d, I have never experienced anti-Semitism in the real and tangible way that every Russian-Jew has (and hopefully I never will). Unlike my own grandparents, I am a second-generation American Jew living in the lap of a culture that relishes “Identity”. Today, multiculturalism and diversity are key values in American society. I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like to grow up in an environment where Judaism represents the pathway along which all of your dreams and aspirations cannot be fulfilled, to grow up in a society that cannot forgive who you are and your identity is denied full expression. After all, this is one of the greatest crimes a human being can commit to another.

Yet, I ask – for precisely this reason, isn’t it our collective obligation to break free from the past crimes committed to Soviet Jewry, to indulge in the gift of our Identity for our own sake and especially for the sake of our children. We are no longer trapped in a Soviet world – we are Americans, free to explore our heritage and birthright.

Interestingly, I recently attended a lecture by the awe-inspiring Natan Sharansky, the famed Soviet “refusenik” and activist in Israeli politics. Mr. Sharansky spoke before an audience of over 1000 members of PEJE, an organization devoted to the mission of American-Jewish education. He described his travels across North America speaking on college campuses advocating for the State of Israel. There, unfortunately, he has met many Jewish students who express shame and discomfort with their “Jewishness” and the “Jewishness of Israel”. In response to this sad reality, Mr. Sharansky declared, “We need a critical mass of kids who know and who are not afraid.”

“Identity is what makes your life bigger than your physical existence – what gives meaning… You have a history to which you belong,” said Mr. Sharansky. “Suddenly you’re not lonely. There are Jewish people all over the world.” Mr. Sharansky went on to discuss the power Identity gives a person. “[Identity] is what gives you strength to fight… Suddenly you have the strength to be a free person.”

This secure sense of self is what I hope to impart to my own children and to the many children under my care at Mazel Day School.

As the world stands on the threshold of tumultuous times, children today need the foundation of a solid identity now more than ever before. An identity is what allows a person to find the inner strength to stand up to the pressures of negative influences, peers and existential threats. By imparting knowledge and imprinting memories of warm Jewish experiences, I know that we can inspire the next generation of Russian-American Jews to find their rightful place among the Jewish people (along with their parents and grandparents).

With all this in mind, we still come back to the concern mentioned at the opening of this discussion. This may sound wonderful, but in the back of every Russian-Jewish parent’s mind is the worry that when they or their child will begin to explore their Jewish identity they will “fall so in love” with it that they will be compelled to force changes in their and their family’s lifestyle. This is a completely understandable fear; it is quite human to be afraid of change. I am too! But – this does not mean that the conclusion should be to completely avoid the challenge.

By definition, this very concern acknowledges that the exploration of one’s identity is an extremely powerful and compelling experience. How can one say that the appropriate conclusion is to avoid this experience at all? That would be called “denial”.

The reality of our being is that discovering identity is an existential question every human will explore at one point of life or another. In its most natural progression, this exploration takes place during childhood. Yet, if one does not receive a solid grounding in identity as a child, he or she will be left with a gap that will remain as “unfinished business” for a later point in life. When that point will come, the child (now teenaged or adult) will either suddenly discover their identity and embrace it, or will become disillusioned and reject it, or worse, will become apathetic to it and be left with a sense of emptiness and insecurity.

This is especially true concerning the question of Jewish identity – which is connected to a child’s soul. This inner spark drives each and every Jew to seek the truths of life and of G‑d. History has shown that no matter how hard the nations of the world and the Jews themselves have tried to bury this soul and “kill it off”, it always comes back like the phoenix. There is no way that we can fool ourselves into thinking that we will be able to deny our children’s souls during their youth and that they will be spared from having to grapple with this aspect of who they are.

It is well known that there is currently a major movement among Jews who were raised in unaffiliated and completely secular homes to reclaim their Jewish identity as adults. Known as the “Baalei Teshuvah” movement, Jewish men and women are “returning” to their roots and finding meaningful ways to integrate Judaism into their everyday lives. They have reached the point of asking themselves the existential question, “Who am I?” and have chosen to embrace the response.

Generally speaking there are two types of Baalei Teshuvah: Some throw themselves into Jewish life with full force, completing accepting all major observances, from Kosher eating to Shabbos, within a very short time frame. Others take a much more gradual approach, slowly increasing in traditions that they are comfortable with, through a long-term process of self-education and awareness that may occur over a span of time from 1 year to 10 or more years. This type of Baal Teshuvah is most common among adult Jews who are married and have families that may not be ready to make such complete changes in their lives. Thus any changes take place in a much more gentle and gradual way that is more proportionate to where the individual and his or her extended family is holding.

The reason I mention these two approaches is because I find that many Russian-Jews are under the misconception that Judaism is an “all or nothing” religion. They view the gap between their current lifestyle and what they know is “observant Judaism” and come to the conclusion that the only “solution” would be to either adopt all Jewish observances, or, to remove one’s self from Jewish life or Jewish education altogether. For most, since such major change is obviously too overwhelming the latter is the preferred choice.

The truth is that Judaism is not an “all or nothing” religion. Maimonides famously stated that Judaism is a religion of Mitzvos (good deeds) and that each individual act committed by a Jew has positive merit. Rather than viewing what a Jew is NOT doing, G‑d looks at what a Jew IS doing. From this perspective a Jew who is not observing the full gamut of Jewish practice can appreciate that there is still huge value in whichever traditions or Jewish values he or she does adopt.

This approach is rooted in Judaism’s belief that “a good deed leads to another good deed” (Ethics of our Fathers). Perhaps today I, for example, may only observe the Mitzvah of Shabbos candle lighting, yet eventually I will be ready to hold a Shabbos meal afterward as well.

The intention is that we should not limit ourselves to where we are right now, but rather to view ourselves as in a constant state of growth. This, in fact, is a critical value in Judaism and perhaps the very answer to the Russian-Jewish community’s dilemma.

Based on this, let’s imagine how a parent might be able to respond to a child’s questions with regard to Jewish observance in their family. For example a parent’s response can be honest yet open: “In our family this is how we express our Jewish identity… Different families do different things…“ Parents can point out the many Mitzvos that are observed in the child’s family, from acts of Kindness to ritual traditions. When the child expresses a desire to observe more than what his or her family is comfortable with, a parent can find a “middle ground” solution where the child is able to enjoy their Jewish identity, yet in a way that is still appropriate for their individual family. Children can also know that when they grow up and enter adulthood, they will be able to make their own choices about the level of Jewish observance they would like to practice.

Thus the conclusion to the Russian-Jewish parent’s inner worry about how their children will integrate their knowledge of Jewish life into their current homes and lifestyles doesn’t have to be to disengage from Judaism and Jewish education. Instead it can result in a commitment to work to find a healthy solution. Every Russian-Jewish parent can ask himself or herself, “How can Jewish life be integrated into our family in a way that whatever changes occur are healthy and gradual, through a process that will not break or invalidate what exists already? What meaningful observances are we willing to incorporate into our life?”

Rather than making decisions about our children’s education out of fear, we, as parents, must make decisions that are proactive and empowered. Although the concern about how Jewish education will affect the child’s home life is understandable, is it really a fear that should warrant NO Jewish education at all? Should the fact that a parent may have been denied Jewish experiences as a child or even as an adult warrant that their own children be denied as well? At what point does the tragedy that was done to Soviet Jewry come to an end?

After all, our children’s souls cannot be denied. They crave spiritual nourishment and warm, Jewish experiences. They plead with us to acknowledge this essential truth – that Jewish identity cannot be ignored and that it must find its way into one’s daily practice (even if, at first, only in small, comfortable and bite-size pieces).

I encourage you, dear parents, to explore your own relationship with Judaism. Give yourself and your children the gift that was given to me and to generations of Jewish children that came before us. Find opportunities for Jewish education from adult education programs, early childhood preschools, Jewish day schools and supplemental Hebrew schools. Educate yourself about that which your children love, find YOUR comfort zone within your Jewish life and teach your child what Judaism is really all about – growing!

I invite your comments and ideas on this crucial issue. Please email me at [email protected]. Let’s open up a conversation and explore possible solutions together.