Question: My son recently had his barmitzvah but now he feels that since he goes to a Jewish secondary school, he has enough Judaism during the week and no longer wants to go to shul. How do I convince him otherwise?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.
There is no such thing as “enough” Judaism. It is an all-encompassing, all-pervading faith that impacts on every aspect of one’s life. Jewish education is not just about teaching skills and knowledge, it is also about conveying a sense of passion and enthusiasm for living Jewishly.
It seems to me that, at least in this regard, your son’s Jewish school is letting him down. Many of our community’s Jewish schools are in reality nothing more than schools for Jews. The distinction is an important one. A Jewish school is one where every aspect of school life, both formal and informal, is pervaded with Judaism.
A school for Jews is one where more attention is given to admitting a Jewish student body and excluding non-Jews than imbuing its students with deep knowledge of, and love for, Judaism. The problem with such “Jewish schools” is that they simply do not allocate enough time in their schedule for Jewish studies.
It does not help that many of the parents who are so desperate to get their children into a Jewish school view time spent on Jewish studies as a nice extra so long as the main focus is on secular studies. Some parents — and I have met them — see Jewish studies as a price they have to pay to have their kids attend a nice, middle-class “Jewish” state-aided school. Unless these schools are prepared to invest serious time and energy in Jewish studies — as do their American counterparts — they will continue to produce graduates who are uninterested in Judaism.
I would certainly have a conversation with your son’s school and put the challenge to them as to why it is that your son is so uninspired Jewishly. You might have to get him extra tuition from an inspiring Jewish teacher outside school hours. You also have to ask yourself if you are giving your son consistent
messages about the importance of Judaism.
Shul-going is but one aspect of living a full Jewish life. If he sees you being selective about which aspects of Judaism you adhere to, he will do the same and his selection may look different to yours. It may be that despite a stellar Jewish education and a strong Jewish home, your son is just not interested in Judaism. It happens. It may be a passing phase or it may last longer.
Don’t turn this into a battle. Try to be encouraging but give him some latitude. No good has ever come from forcing someone to go to shul.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
There may be several different factors behind your son’s response, and they need to be separated.
One is that his reaction — “had my barmitzvah; no need to go to services anymore”— is not uncommon whatever type of school one attends. Boys (and girls, too, in Progressive synagogues ) sometimes feel that they have devoted much effort towards their ceremony, and, like after winning a gold medal at the Olympics, now want a break.
It is also a time of growing up — which can mean flexing one’s independence muscles and showing how one is different from one’s parents — and not going to shul is one way of expressing that for some teenagers.
There is also a built-in dilemma for parents. At bar/batmitzvah, we say that they are on the road to adulthood and must start taking responsibility for their own decisions, but then we object when we do not like those decisions!
Then there is the entirely separate issue of going to a Jewish secondary school. Those who favour them sing their praises, but they also admit that one consequence is that they become communities in their own right — both for the children and their parents — and the hub of social and cultural activities. This can have the effect of lessening the appeal of synagogues, which have never just been about worship but also about education, social life and sense of camaraderie.
Families who might otherwise have been involved in cheder and wider synagogue life now have less incentive to do so when their Jewish needs are largely served by Jewish schools.
One response to your son is to explain why you yourself value shul (I hope you meant to say: he no longer wants to come to shul “with us”), be it tradition or community or being there to support others.
Another approach is to ask the rabbi to put on youth services or discussions that might be more appealing to his age-group. Or get him involved in youth activities, tours and camps.
A final option is not to worry too much. Allow the Jewish boomerang to take its traditional path - going away in the teens and returning later on – for if he is getting Jewish involvement both at school and from home life, then he should remain sufficiently strong in his Jewish identity even if he does not come with you to services for now.