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The Real American Jewish Tragedy

October 5, 2016 | post a comment | Philip Johnson

Over the coming days, many American Jewish parents will take their children to synagogue for the only time all year. And the kids will be bored out of their minds.

From a child’s perspective of the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah offers only one attraction: the blowing of the Shofar. Yom Kippur offers none. Both holidays are somber. They’re not tactile. The services are long. And the prayers are solemn and unfamiliar. I’m not downplaying the importance of the Yamim Noraim. For adults, they can be opportunities to grapple with the course of one’s life. But if parents take their kids to shul on the High Holidays hoping to instill in them a connection to Judaism, they’re likely to fail.

Israelis do it better. In my experience, secular Israeli Jews are less likely than secular American Jews to have spent their youth attending synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But they’re more familiar with Sukkot, Hanukkah and Purim.

They don’t need to go to shul to experience those holidays. They experience them on the street, in school, in society at large. And their experiences are more fun. Sukkahs are one step removed from tree houses. Hanukkah offers donuts, kid gambling and a story you could turn into a Disney movie. Purim is the Jewish Halloween. Yet many American Jewish kids have never eaten in a Sukkah, dressed up for Purim, or imagined themselves as a Maccabee. Even though any of those experiences would be more Judaically compelling than sitting in shul wondering when High Holiday services will end.

In many secular American Jewish families, Judaism evokes obligation, not joy. Chabad understands better. When my daughter went to Chabad preschool, I marveled at the directness of their approach. Only the rabbi handed out the lollipops, and only when the kids kissed the Torah. It wasn’t subtle, but it worked. The Chabadniks understood that with small children, Judaism must begin with fun. From there, understanding and commitment can emerge. But if a child’s earliest memories of Jewish religious practice are of alienation and boredom, that deeper devotion has little chance to grow.

In addition to Sukkot, Purim and Hanukkah, American Jewish parents may find that Shabbat works better for their kids than the Yamim Noraim.

To be sure, attending shul regularly on Friday night or Shabbat morning requires a greater commitment than coming a couple of times a year. But the payoff is greater too. Kids who attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have little hope of gaining comfort with the Machzor. Much of the liturgy will remain totally obscure.

But on Shabbat, the davening is largely the same, week after week. Bring kids a few times and they gain some familiarity. The tunes start to rattle around in their heads. The Siddur and Chumash become a bit less foreign. Because Shabbat services in most Reform and Conservative synagogues are much less well attended than High Holiday services, they also offer kids more opportunity to participate. They offer a better chance to get to know the rabbi. In many American synagogues, the High Holidays are a grand but distant production. It’s on Shabbat that kids can make a synagogue their own.

Finally, American Jewish parents may find that while the High Holidays don’t fascinate their kids, Tanakh can. There’s a reason that American Christians — who though more poorly educated than American Jews in general, often know scripture better — find the Bible so compelling. It’s because the Bible is compelling.

The family dramas and divine acts of creation and destruction in Bereishit can capture the imagination of any eight year old. But most American Jews know these stories only vaguely via popular culture. When my own kids were smaller, I went looking for children’s Torah books and found, to my dismay, that there was almost nothing for the non-Haredi market. For most American Jewish kids, a few hours spent learning the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs, with some intriguing midrash, would be more exciting than sitting in shul on the High Holidays. Yet the former is much more rare.

In an ideal world, obviously, none of the above actions would be mutually exclusive. But American Jewish life in 2016 is far from ideal. Outside the Orthodox community, American Jews are conducting a vast experiment in what happens when radical acceptance by a host society meets radical ignorance on the part of its Jewish minority. The result is an intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews of 71 percent.

I don’t consider intermarriage a tragedy. Love is a blessing wherever you find it. The tragedy is that so many American Jews can’t even make an informed choice about whether to build a Jewish home because they don’t know what they’re discarding. Our community hasn’t taught them. Aside from Israel, Jewish literacy is the great American Jewish challenge of our time. And it doesn’t start with guilt. It starts with fascination and joy. Sadly, too few American Jewish kids experience that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

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