Choosing a life rich with Judaism — or not


I was fortunate to attend a family gathering this summer in the gorgeous lakelands of northern Ontario. With only time, lovely surroundings and an endless procession of gourmet food before us, we were able to chat on end of matters both profound and mundane.

One of the subjects that came up was our family’s connection to Judaism. We are not the most observant group overall — many bar and bat mitzvahs, to be sure, but few active synagogue-goers, and some nonbelievers among us.

Some might find this state of affairs distasteful, still others might be saddened by it. And the more dispassionate or disinterested could fall back on what is my least-favorite phrase in popular jargon these days: “It is what it is.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those responses, of course. But none of them match up with what I wanted to know, which is, “Why?” So being the pushy guy I am, we talked about it.

When our parents decided to move out of the Rogers Park neighborhood in the City of Chicago to a suburban school district, they narrowed the choices to two: Skokie, with its heavily Jewish population and fine public schools, and the eastern portion of Wilmette, in a nationally renowned school district but with relatively few Jews in the residential mix.

They chose Wilmette, and I have to say, I was given the best public school education that money can buy. No complaints. But there clearly was dissociation from Judaism in the neighborhood in which we lived.

Our primary ongoing Jewish connection was through our Reform synagogue in a nearby ‘burb, and of course, through our family practices at home and at relatives’ houses on Shabbat and the holidays.

But there were a few pretty significant issues with the shul as well. For one thing, the majority of kids there went to other schools, so for me it was easy to feel like an outsider both in Sunday school and youth group. For another, we had a rabbi who, though a well-respected scholar, often seemed to pay scant attention to the kids.

Add to all of that the Hebrew school bus that made you sick, the meaningless Hebrew school classes that confused learning characters with knowledge, and a few other factors, and it’s easy to see why “warm ‘n fuzzy” didn’t exactly permeate our childhood experience at shul.

Was the deck stacked against the kids growing up and embracing a highly observant Jewish life? I wouldn’t say that; as adults, we have the ability to make choices and accept responsibility for the choices we make,

On the other hand, there’s no question that our parents’ decision to raise us in a fully assimilated environment and choosing a synagogue away from our schoolmates, had influence in how each of us did or didn’t incorporate Judaism into our adult life. And the perceived lack of warmth at the synagogue didn’t help foster later life connections.

Yet in my case, the way it’s played out is to educate our boys in the Reform movement, and they both are bar mitzvah and continued their Jewish education through confirmation. At that point, at age 16, it was incumbent upon them to decide what Judaism means in their lives. Their level of interest and observance is something they will have to wrestle with and resolve on their own.

This is not a view that everyone is comfortable with, of course. But it’s consonant with what our parents gave us first and foremost — the education and encouragement to be self-thinkers, to cast our lives in ways that make sense to each of us according to our own morals and ethics — which, by the way, are firmly rooted in Judaism.

There are a lot of families like ours out there. Some are affiliated, some are observant, some are neither. We live in an era of almost unlimited choices in the way we live our lives, who we associate with, how we form our communities, both physical and virtual. It can be hard to forge lasting connections in the maelstrom of seemingly limitless information. But this doesn’t excuse either the Jewish individual or the institution from rigorously examining how and why to form connections.

As synagogues and other institutions evolve, they will have to find ways to find touch points at which their members and prospective members intersect. As individual Jews evolve, they will have to make conscious and heartfelt decisions about how to connect themselves and their children to places of Jewish worship and community.

Being forced to undergo such exercises may to some feel like a losing battle. But to me, the ability to choose is a beautiful thing. It’s up to us to make the case why choosing a life rich with Judaism is the right one.

Larry Levin is Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light.