Time to commit to the shul club

View from the Pulpit

November 24, 2016 23:22

Next week, millions of parents around the country will turn their attention to the start of a new school year. The annual excitement of new uniforms, gleaming stationery and (hopefully) fresh teachers will begin in earnest. But, nowadays, something else marks the start of the school year for many families: the chance to sign up to the seemingly endless variety of after-school activities on offer.

In recent years, the increase in popularity of extra-curricular activities, particularly among children of primary school age, has been staggering. A survey funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in 2013, for example, found that some 82.5 per cent of five to 10-year olds participate in sport outside school. And the good news, as demonstrated by a UCL Institute of Education report in March, is that all this after-school activity is often directly beneficial to the attainment of key social, behavioural and emotional goals in Key Stage 2.

It is fair to assume that Jewish parents are no exception to this national trend. After-school clubs are ever more popular within the Jewish community as well. But, for Jewish parents, there is another potential club on the agenda when considering the diet of extra-curricular activities they might like to sign their kids up to this September. That club is the Shabbat morning shul club.

For many parents, the dilemma boils down to a very simple equation. There are only a certain number of hours per week, 168 to be precise. So the question, simply put, is this: is it worth devoting two or three precious extra-curricular hours on a Saturday morning to bring the kids to shul? Will it be as beneficial to their future well-being as any of the other "clubs" on offer?

The start of the new academic year seems as good a time as any to revisit this question. So, despite my acknowledged rabbinical bias, here are my own thoughts on the subject.

Shul-going is important for a child's Jewish identity

The recent Jewish Policy Research report into marriage and intermarriage within the UK Jewish community threw up one central question: Which factors lead young people to "marry in" or "marry out" of the faith? While the data does not provide any magic answers to this question, the authors of the report nevertheless agree that the more, "Jewishly traditional/religious the upbringing a person experienced, the more likely they were to be endogamous", in other words to marry in. By contrast, the report found that "almost half' (47 per cent ) of those raised in "non-practising (secular/cultural) households" are now married out of the faith (JPR Report, Jews in Couples).

The intermarriage rate isn't the only measure of Jewish identity. But it certainly remains one of the clearest, and is extremely close to the heart of most of British Jewry. However, providing a precise definition of a "traditional upbringing" is also no easy task. The jury is still out, for instance, on the true impact of Jewish schools on overall Jewish identity. But one thing is clear. Children, particularly young children, are highly impressionable. They have a deep sense of those things that matter most to their parents. Parents who prioritise and value the family, for example, encourage their children to grow up with that same sense of love for the family.

The same is true of synagogue attendance. Many shuls now have wonderful, innovative kids programmes for Shabbat mornings, and these do far more than simply teach the weekly Torah portion. If yours doesn't, why not offer to step in and help organise one yourself? Taking children to shul on a regular basis demonstrates that this is an important part of a parent's overall value system and, most importantly, that they have prioritised this over the many other extra-curricular options.

And, contrary to certain other views recently expressed in these pages, the time to start creating a positive family value system in an area as important as this, is well before the kids are even born.

Joining a shul and regularly attending may seem both financially onerous and somewhat unnecessary for a newly married couple. But making shul a regular part of family life early on provides a crucial example of the importance of Jewish identity, which can have far-reaching consequences for those critical life decisions taken by children years down the line.

Seen in this light, can parents, and even soon-to-be parents, really afford not to join the weekly shul club?

November 24, 2016 23:22

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