I ran across this article from the New York Times re-examining the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony.
Bar Mitzvahs Get New Look to Build Faith
It's an interesting look at how Reform Judaism is considering re-inventing the bar mitzvah ceremony. It's argued that reading (or memorizing) a portion of the Torah in a language you are unfamiliar with - being forced to sit in Hebrew school for hours each week in addition to regular school - the point of the bar mitzvah being the all important party - not seeing the relevance of Judaism in your everyday life - is pointless and does not create a lifetime active member in the Jewish faith.
I happen to agree with most of the article, the complaints part particularly. I went to a Jewish day school until 8th grade, went to a Sunday morning Hebrew school during high school for about two more years and dropped out.
The new idea being bandied around is to include Tikkun Olam (fixing the world) into the bar mitzvah program. In other words, social action. Social action is certainly important and should be part of the experience, but a relationship with G-d (which is what Judaism is about) should not be replaced by social action projects. They may go together - but one should not be replaced by the other.
What the article does not mention - but I think is the crux, is the parent's role in creating a Jewish feel to their home and their support for Jewish education. I understand that not every Jewish child is going to go to a day school, but there's more to Judaism than what we learn in school.
When I was teaching at a Reform day school (I'm a stay-at-home mom now) I would regularly ask the children in the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most wanted to be professionals of some sort (even in 3rd grade) - doctors, lawyers, veterinarians etc. I showed them using a bar chart of how many years in school they were going to spend learning their trades. I drew a bar for high school, then for 4 years of college, another few for a specialty (a masters degree or medical school), another few for an extra specialty - turn around, you've been in school well into your mid-20s (at least). We drew another bar for our Jewish education... and it ended at 13. As the article puts it ""pediatric Judaism,” an immature understanding of the faith, its values and spirituality." But this is nothing new. This is Jewish education today.
What is missing are the parents and the household environment. Are there any Jewish objects in the home - menorah, Shabbat candlesticks? Jewish books on the shelf (even just one shelf), a mezuzah on the doorpost of the front door, Jewish artwork on the walls? These are all things that create an environment, an identity.
Creating an identity is part of a parents' role in guiding their children. Keeping your child safe, fed, clean, educated - secularly and Jewishly is a 24/7 job. Understanding that you and your child need spirituality in your lives is also important - children see and hear everything you do and say - they reflect what you are modeling. Seeing that Judaism is important to you will ultimately make it important to them.
I applaud all those parents who send their kids to Hebrew school. I applaud all the kids who go to Hebrew school in addition to their many hours at regular schools. It isn't easy. I spent many years teaching Sunday mornings and in after school programs -- I am happy to see parents trying to give their kids a Jewish background. That being said, more needs to be asked of these parents. Expecting teachers within a couple hours a week to be able to give over knowledge, pride and understanding of 3000+ years of Jewish history and religion is impossible. As teachers we do the best we can within the constraints that are given to us.
This article is only the tip of the iceberg. Having lavish bar/bat mitzvah parties without any interest in the Jewish experience is only a symptom of the real problem. Judaism is a religion that is experienced primarily in the home -- I would argue that school and the synagogue are important but secondary.
It is the attitude of the parents that children pick up on. Whether or not you are fully involved in Judaism today there are so many small things that you can do around the house to involve the kids in their Judaism. And remember it isn't only their Judaism that is important - it is yours as well. If you see Judaism as important in your life, it will be important in theirs. Educate yourself so you can educate your children.
Just a few ideas.
I always found that Shabbat is a brilliant invention that only G-d could have come up with. Not just a day off. A spiritual "day of rest." It's clear that when there is no enforced time off, people do not take it. A regular day off becomes a day full of errands and things to do to fill time.
Shabbat - our spiritual "day of rest" - is a great opportunity to come together as a family. Even if you feel your family can't do the whole day - from Friday night to Saturday night - start with just Friday night dinner. Every family needs "alone" time. The television should be turned off, the telephone turned off or ignored, even cellphones - especially the parents' electronics must be off as well - to send a strong message to the children that this is the time that we spend time together.
* Start with lighting the Shabbat candles - this is a fantastic website to help you - if your children are too small to light the candles, let them set up the candle sticks (put the candles in the sticks etc.) or put a coin in the tzeduka/charity box before you start.
* Try to prepare a special food that you know the family will enjoy and that you generally don't have during the week.
* Sometimes it is hard to start a discussion at the table. My suggestion is to start with "gratefuls" - my mother instituted this. Everyone has to come up with three things that they did or things that happened to them over the past week that they were grateful for. There were rules to this: "Gratefuls" couldn't be sports related, nor could they be 'gee, I'm glad the week is over', or something that was coming up in the future. In my house there was no way around the gratefuls, even if you had an horrible week - there had to be something (even something incredibly small) to be grateful for. This made for a positive time around the table. It also trains you to look for positive things during the week since you know you will be sharing around the table on Friday night.
Even if Friday/Shabbat night dinner lasts a total of a half an hour - without any electronic distractions (and not hurrying out due to prior obligations) - it will be clear to you and the children that spirituality is real and important. G-d gave us the special gift of Shabbat, a spiritual time to spend reconnecting with our families and community (synagogue). We spend all week running to and fro, always complaining that we are rats running on a wheel going nowhere, why don't we take advantage and drop out for a few hours, or even a whole day?
Obviously, this article struck a cord - I did not mean to go on like this - but I feel that it must be said... the home is where Judaism begins and must be relevant. Social action is important, but it must not replace creating a connection with G-d. Bar/bat mitzvahs cannot be the beginning and end of a child's understanding of 3000+ years of Judaism. To expect teachers to be miracle workers is unfair, and it is unfair to the children sitting there to make them think that all they need to know about Judaism will be fed to them by the end of their bar/bat mitzvah preparation.
It is time for parents to take responsibility for their children's Jewish education. Start at home. You can even start small - but please start.