Stephen Flatow’s op-ed last month resonated with me. I was a Conservative Jew for most of my life. I didn’t become Orthodox until my daughter married Orthodox. It was a long, slow path, but I made it. How?
Let me go back several decades. In fact, let me go back to 1907 when my mother’s grandfather helped start a Conservative shul back when Conservative services were the same as in Orthodox shuls, except that men and women sat together. That was true when I was a boy as well.
But something changed over the years. For decades, the Conservative movement failed to educate its members or challenge them to properly fulfill the mitzvot. After a while, members belonged to their shul only so their kids could be bar- or bat-mitzvahed and identify Jewishly – as if a bar or bat mitzvah were a magic talisman.
When I was young and single, being Jewish meant going to shul three days a year to please one’s parents. At 24, I was a Jew with one foot out the door. Joining a singles group that happened to be Jewish was the first time being Jewish wasn’t a boring burden for me.
Fast-forward a few years: I married a Jewish woman and was looking for jobs in small towns. My wife wanted to keep a kosher home as a way of identifying as Jewish. But there had to be some consistency in what we did. I couldn’t explain to a six-year-old why we could eat pork spare ribs at a Chinese restaurant, but not at home.
We sent our children to the local Conservative day school. When he was almost eight, my son asked why we didn’t build a sukkah. I gave him the answer I wish I’d gotten at his age: We built one.
It became an annual family project. We ate in it and slept in it, weather permitting. Every few years, we kicked it up a notch until we found – after having moved 500 feet from shul – that we were the only members walking to shul. We passed Conservative Judaism going the other way, and 12 years ago moved to the Orthodox shul down the street – and didn’t look back.
Since the 1980s, non-Orthodox shuls have been listening to their congregants – only a small portion of whom knew or practiced much Judaism. Rare was the rabbi who had the guts to stand up to his congregation. When my son was 12, the rabbi insisted everyone come to shul with their 12-year-olds for a class during Shabbat services. I looked around that Shabbat and asked my wife, “Who are all these people who say they’re members? I’ve never seen them?” She said she didn’t know.
If you practice nothing, that’s all Judaism will mean to you – nothing. The local Conservative day school ultimately closed because most parents didn’t want their children to be “that Jewish.”
I was recently in a Conservative shul for a bat mitzvah. The rabbi concluded his sermon by saying a difficult passage in the Torah was wrong! And the services felt almost “New Age” rather than Jewish. Reform services, which I’ve attended for family events, make me feel like I were in a church.
In his op-ed last month, Stephen Flatow stressed the importance of Jewish education. He’s right to have done so, but the Jews I grew up with wouldn’t have sent their kids to a real Jewish school even if it were free lest their kids come home and expect them to live Jewishly!
What is truly needed, therefore, is adult education – kiruv. How you sell that, I’m not certain. All I know is that if people saw the joy in living Jewishly, you’d have a lot less difficulty selling them Jewish education for their kids. That’s where money needs to be spent – in massive amounts.
And parents: Live Jewishly. If your children don’t get Judaism at home, what they get at Hebrew school, afternoon, or day school will be disconnected from reality and totally irrelevant to them. It’s what a child learns at home through deed – and the celebrations and the joy – that will stay with him for a lifetime.