You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up.
- Deuteronomy 6:5-7
In these Torah verses, which immediately follow the words of the Sh’ma prayer, we are exhorted to teach “these words” (the commandment to love God with our entire being) to future generations. But what does it mean to love God, and how can we teach our children to love God? One way is by living lives devoted to Torah (Jewish learning), Avodah (Jewish worship), and G’milut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness).
In synagogues and religious schools, we teach Torah, prayers, and acts of lovingkindness to our students. As our children mature, we hope that they will strengthen their connections to these foundations of Judaism. We pray they will continue to prioritize Jewish learning, rituals, and good deeds in their lives.
While some Jewish youth may unfortunately abandon any connection to Judaism, many find their way back to our tradition and pass along Jewish teachings to future generations. Some may never stop observing the mitzvot and rituals we hold sacred, seeing them as a foundation that anchors them to the past, present, and future as they navigate life’s challenges.
I have known many teachers who do a truly remarkable job of planting the seeds of Jewish learning in the hearts and souls of their students. They have a deep commitment to teaching and are invested in helping them find their own personal Jewish path. Adults act as guides, but ultimately, our students will choose their own life trajectories. Encouraging them to think for themselves and ask questions about our faith and traditions will hopefully set them up for success in their own Jewish journey. It is our responsibility to prepare them for this journey then watch them fly.
Jewish clergy and teachers bear only part of this Jewish educational responsibility. It is family (parents, grandparents, etc.) who can fulfill the rest of this partnership. How? By living Jewish values such as performing acts of lovingkindness. By celebrating Shabbat and Jewish holidays joyfully and purpose. By discussing the weekly parsha (Torah portion) in terms children can understand and encouraging them to ask questions. By showing children that if we ourselves do not understand aspects of Jewish tradition, we take the time to learn about them.
Teaching children to live Jewish lives must go beyond dropping them off at Hebrew school. If Jewish learning stops after a child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah, we cannot expect them to figure out on their own how to live Jewishly. This important milestone in a Jewish child’s life should be a starting point for deeper questions, with an awareness that Judaism has a lot more to offer than reciting a few lines of Torah and Haftorah and having a celebratory party.
How our children see their family members and other role models living Jewishly may be a good indicator of how they will choose to live Jewish lives, even as the responsibilities of life pull them in a multitude of directions. Jewish educators, clergy and parents have a wonderful opportunity to collaborate in providing children with positive Jewish experiences while they are in our care. Hopefully, our efforts will provide them cherished memories that will last a lifetime and encourage them to sustain our Jewish heritage.