QUESTION: I want my two-year-old grandson to understand and enjoy his Jewish heritage. But my wife — who converted — and I have never been religious in terms of practice or shul-going, although both of us are spiritual and believe in God. My daughter has similar non-religious views. How do I best help my grandson?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.
The best way to help your grandson is by immersing yourself in Judaism.
Children have an uncanny ability to detect what is truly important to the adults around them. If your grandson detects your interest and excitement in Judaism, there is a good chance that he will find it exciting as well.
The people who had the greatest Jewish influence on my life were people who were passionate about their Judaism and made sacrifices for it; most notably, my parents.
Most congregational rabbis would agree that one of the saddest sights is the forlorn look on the face of a kid who has been dropped of at shul on a Shabbat morning by a parent who then drives off to play a round of golf or to do some shopping. Such a child will instinctively feel that his Judaism is unimportant.
On the other hand, a kid whose parents make a visible commitment to Judaism will stand a far better chance of wanting to follow their path as he grows up.
I would therefore recommend that you start exploring your Jewish heritage and that you gradually take steps in the direction of Jewish observance. This in itself will have a huge impact on your young and very impressionable grandchild.
I recall visiting my brother in New York where, one morning I found my three-year-old nephew wearing a blanket over his shoulders and a couple of his father’s neckties wrapped around his arm and forehead. It took me a moment to realise that the blanket represented a tallit and the neckties were the closest thing he could get to a pair of tefillin.
It was very simple; he was playing an adult at prayer. He saw his father pray enough times to realise that this was something very important and very grown up and, like any young child, he wanted to be just like his father.
Our society has become increasingly complex and confusing. Many of our children could benefit from a parental role model that encourages one to aspire to prayer and Jewish observance. One does not have to be a great scholar of Torah to be such a role model. All that is required is to display a genuine love and enthusiasm for Torah and a willingness to make sacrifices for it.
Go on and take the lead, your grandson is more than likely to follow.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
It is noticeable that you say your wife had converted — even though this was probably at least 25 years ago. Clearly, this still weighs on your mind, although this should not have been mentioned, as Jewish law states that once a person has converted they are not to be described as such, so that converts should not be singled out from born Jews or treated differently.
It is also significant that she converted despite neither of you ever being religious. Some might be aghast at this admission, but others will recognise it as a reflection of reality: a person converting may not have a strong faith in God, but can still be genuinely attracted to Jewish culture, ethics, family life and community spirit and want to be part of it.
Meanwhile, the Jewish partner may not be particularly observant but can still value their Jewish heritage, wish to pass it on to the next generation and want a spouse who will share those feelings. There are many different ways of being Jewish.
As for your desire to pass on Judaism to your grandson, that is as much a challenge for any other family. One advantage you have is that you are starting while he is at the right age — leaving it till later is much more difficult.
Another advantage is that Judaism is very child-friendly and home-oriented, so that you can impart a strong sense of Judaism through simple rituals that involve all the senses — seeing candles on a Friday night, hearing the shofar at Rosh Hashanah, smelling havdalah spices, helping build a succah, as well as tasting the different foods for each festival.
Reading stories about the Bible and Jewish life can also be important, and perhaps best done at bedtime when a child is keenest for you to keep talking and not tell him to go to sleep. As he grows older, share your own beliefs and explain why Judaism is important to you.
Experiencing communal life, going to cheder, attending youth groups should also be part of the long-term strategy. What is key, though, is having a positive Jewish identity and
enjoying being Jewish, without which all the other activities will be in vain.
It may be that, in the process, you engage your daughter’s interest and also rekindle something inside yourself. Your grandson’s Jewish education may involve a religious journey for the entire family.