The calls increase in frequency as Rosh Hashana gets closer. "Rabbi, I'm thinking of putting my kids in Hebrew school. Could you tell me a bit about it?" So I give the usual descriptions. We meet twice a week. Your child will learn Hebrew reading, history, holidays and traditions. On the holidays we have all kinds of interesting projects, on Rosh Hashana they will learn to make a shofar, Chanukah make a menorah and Passover bake matzah. By the way, I sometimes say, our Hebrew school is great, but day school, like the Hebrew Academy, is a much better choice for a more comprehensive Jewish education.
"Oh," they say, "that sounds interesting. But I've got one problem. The program conflicts with soccer on Tuesday." So I try to be a bit tough. "Look, the program is twice a week. If you don't send Timmy or maybe Tiffany both days, they really won't be getting that much of an education."
"Rabbi, we are really not so religious, and anyway the kids learn the traditions at home."
So I wonder if I should lay it on the line or not. Chances are the amount of "traditions in the home" was a dinner last Passover. The family gathered and read the Maxwell House edition of the haggadah. After about 20 minutes, Aunt Sadie started complaining that it was getting late and they should move on to dinner. The older sister's cell phone was ringing with some friend from school. And the 10-year-old kid is thinking to himself, "Ah, this must be Judaism." Mom can't read Hebrew, and dad can somehow figure out the four questions since he had a bar mitzvah some 20 years ago.
Instead, I try to be the nice guy. Usually I try to cajole, encourage and hopefully convince them that the kids will have a great time. Hebrew school does not have to be a drag, and if you can only do one day a week, we will try to accommodate you.
Hoping that by first getting in the front door, maybe I will have a chance to slowly interest the children -- and then maybe down the line the parents, whose Jewish attention span lasts no longer than the bar mitzvah anyway.
At times, I will try to enter into a philosophical discussion. Judaism gives us answers to the inner meaning of life. It leads us down a path of holiness, imbuing us with spiritual purpose and direction. But few are interested in engaging in a philosophical dialogue. They are more interested in the important issues: tuition, carpool, homework loads, etc.
What I don't tell them is the harshest truth. "Listen, your observance is not so strong, and unless your kids get an education chances are it will be less. And if you want your children to marry a fellow Jew, the only thing that really insures that is giving the children a Jewish education."
But rarely are they interested in hearing the statistics of the National Jewish Population Study that clearly prove the more Jewish education, the lower the rate of intermarriage and assimilation.
I feel like I am witnessing assimilation at work. Parents who make Judaism a priority to their kids will have children that carry it on. Most importantly, they will gain an appreciation of the richness of Jewish tradition that will impact their lives. Sadly, we live in a time where most Jews are three and even four generations removed from full observance.
Daily, I see parents making decisions that will effect their children's identity for decades to come. "Oh, Rabbi, we'll make a small bar mitzvah and invite over the family," they say. I wonder, what's the celebration if the kid knows as much about Judaism as I do about Zulu Indians?
Still there are the good stories. Parents who for years have invested much in their kids and are seeing the rewards of having the right priorities. Families who make a decision to seize the opportunity before it's too late, and give their children some Jewish education. The best news is that what we are teaching the kids has an impact. According to all the surveys, the more years they learn -- and in particular if they choose a day school over a Hebrew school -- they grow to love Judaism.
It's all very simple: the more hours they put in, the more they value the ideals and traditions that reach down to us from Mount Sinai.