All In The Family

For religious schools, it’s time to clean out desks and cabinets, send home projects and paperwork and wrap up a year of Jewish learning. Parents are satisfied their children have learned alef-bet and answers to big questions such as “why be Jewish?”

Teachers are pleased with their students but happy to get their Sunday mornings back.

Religious school directors, what becomes of them over the summer months? They renew their commitment to supplemental Jewish education.

It’s not easy to teach Jewish traditions and customs, there’s so much indifference among some Jews. It’s not easy to teach particularism in this universalistic world. It’s not easy to carve out time for Torah on Sunday mornings and Monday nights and Wednesday afternoons. There’s soccer.

To be a religious school director these days in a progressive synagogue, it takes an act of faith. Like Nachshon from the Exodus story, who jumped into the Red Sea before God parted it, a religious school director takes a leap every Sunday when he or she asks families to bring in tzedakah or undertake some sort of Shabbat observance or make some sort of commitment to Israel.

I recently attended a retirement service for Susan Edelstein, the religious school director at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Pa. In a sanctuary filled with admirers, we praised her 17 years of leadership.

As I listened, I got to wondering, “Why be a Jewish educator?” One of Susan’s substantive qualities is that she has faith in the Jewish family. Not just your family or my family, the Jewish Family, with a capital J and F. The family that has lasted through generations.

One of greatest challenges of modernity is the dissipation of the family. Our families are not what they were 40 years ago, and they are unrecognizable from the tightknit, closely interwoven families of 100 years ago. We wonder: Are we doing it right? Will our kids like each other when they’re adults? Will they lend each other money or offer support in time of need? Will they gather for the Passover Seder?

But most Jewish educators know this truth: Children and families are most likely to be connected when they have a strong “intergenerational” self, when they know and recognize they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Author Bruce Feiler, in “The Secret to Happy Families,” makes this argument. He exp-lains that researchers in Georgia have found that children who know more about their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives, both their highs and lows, have higher self-esteem and greater confidence to confront their challenges. They found that being aware of family history is the single best predictor of a child’s emotional connectedness. Why? They fundamentally know that they belong to something bigger than themselves.

This is what dozens of religious school directors do at scores of synagogues: explain this fundamental truth to scores of children and parents. Yes, we belong to the Jewish Family. We have strong Jewish narrative.

When a late Saturday night makes you think, ah, let’s skip Sunday, find the faith to come.  This way, the family narrative will continue to be told and retold.  And we will all draw each other closer.

As summer approaches, may this be our blessing.

Rabbi Hanna Yerushalmi is a spiritual leader in Arnold, Md.

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