Symposium // Is There a “Jewish” Way to Parent?

By | Jan 07, 2016
Six images shown in circles on top of a purple background. The images depict old paintings of parents and children.

Symposium editor: Marilyn Cooper
Interviews by Marilyn Cooper,  Dina Gold, Diane Heiman, Anna Isaacs, George E. Johnson, Sala Levin & Amy E. Schwartz

Bradley Artson // Shalom Auslander // Alex Barnett // Sara Diament  // Sarah Feinberg
Stephen Krausz  // Ron Lieber // Susan Katz Miller // Naomi Schaefer Riley // Gary Rudoren
Debbie Wasserman Schultz // Lenore Skenazy // Susan Silverman // Abraham Twerski
Ayelet Waldman // Ruth K. Westheimer // Elianna Yolkut

Jewish parenting has never been simple: The original dysfunctional families are found in the Hebrew Bible. But today parenting is more nuanced and complicated than ever. Moment speaks with a range of Jewish parents and experts to explore what role, if any, Judaism plays in 21st-century parenting.

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Bradley Artson

There’s a human way to parent, and then what’s distinctively or additionally Jewish on top of that. Human parenting is a combination of two core Jewish values: chesed [compassion] and din [justice]. The first opens up new horizons, teaching children that they can be self-surpassing, showing them that they can break through and do things they never thought possible, thereby giving them the courage to risk doing things they’ve never tried before. The second is to provide appropriate boundaries: those areas we never transgress, lines we never cross. Those have to be few and far between, but they have to be absolutely inflexible: issues of human dignity and inclusion. The Jewish manifestation of parenting is that the Jews are the heirs of an ancient tradition of wisdom and holiness. We must give children the vocabulary and the cultural structure to be able to know that each of them is a child of God. That’s really what the Jewish life cycle, what the holidays, the mitzvot, and the myriad Jewish practices are all about: teaching and reminding us that we were brought out of slavery to be able to shine in the world.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. He and his wife live in Los Angeles, CA, with their twin sons and daughter.

Ayelet Waldman

I really don’t believe there is a special Jewish way to parent. But there are elements of Judaism that I try to bring into my parenting. The most important one is the concept of tikkun olam. We have tried to raise our children with a sense of the importance of tikkun olam, to teach them that to be a mensch in the world is very important. There are actually aspects of what we think of as traditional Judaism that are in conflict with how I want to parent. A perfect example of this are the communities where Orthodox Jews take over school boards and vote to strip local schools of finances and resources in favor of shuttling those resources off to yeshivas. To many of those people, a secular Jew like me isn’t even really Jewish. To me, they shouldn’t be allowed within a mile of a child. But here we are, both saying we possess a deep knowledge of what it is to be Jewish, and what it means to be a Jewish parent. For her bat mitzvah drash, my younger daughter researched domestic violence, specifically the concept of shalom bayit [peace in the house]. She learned that this idea has sometimes been used in haredi communities to stifle and ostracize women and children who come forward with allegations of abuse. But the concept of tikkun olam that we had been teaching her all of her life gave her a rubric with which to understand this second level of abuse—to say that this is not what Judaism is. We feel one of our jobs is to encourage our children to discover the things that will inspire them. We teach them about the world, setting an example, but we encourage them to discover things for themselves and come up with their own interpretations. To me, that’s a very Jewish way to approach parenting.

Ayelet Waldman is the author of several books including Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. She lives with her husband and their four children in Berkeley, CA.

Ron Lieber

Our tradition comes with all sorts of advice about how best to behave in the world. I often hear from parents who have trouble explaining to their kids why tzedakah matters, why giving is a thing that we do. For children who are trying to figure out how the world works, telling them what God wants or expects from us isn’t a satisfying explanation. The abstract commandment to give tzedakah may not always give kids the push or inspiration that we’d like. I encourage parents to share with their children their family’s own history of having been helped. My wife is a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. When they got to the United States in the late 1940s, there were refugee organizations waiting to give them assistance. One of my wife’s grandparents is still alive today—so we’re able to hear that story directly from the source. That’s had a powerful impact on our daughter, who’s ten. She’s able to make that direct connection between what happened with our family and the families of millions of refugees today. On my side of the family, I got financial aid all through middle and high school in private schools and through college as well. She knows that I was able to afford school only because of others’ generosity.

Ron Lieber is the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife and daughter.

Shalom Auslander

I really loathe that question, I’m sorry to say. I feel like that is the worst question of all. There is good parenting and bad parenting. There isn’t a Jewish way. You’re a good parent or a shitty parent. You’re supportive or you’re critical. You love your kid or you resent your kid. It isn’t that complicated. All this tribal shit drives me crazy. It all seems to me medieval. So when I hear a question like “Is there a Jewish way of x, y or z?” I think, “Here we go again.” It always feels like a step backward from any progress we’ve made, and it hasn’t been much, being human beings. It is a divisive question. It draws lines. I don’t know whether anyone is being helped by that.

The question should have been “What is good parenting?” Not enough people ask that question. To me, whether you are a Jew or Muslim or Christian, the best way to know if you are doing a good job parenting is to make sure you’re not being anything at all like God. If you’re avoiding being Godlike, then you’re going in the right direction, regardless of religion. God seems to have some sort of substance abuse problem. I think that’s pretty clear from whichever book you read. He’s abusive. He threatens. Makes a lot of promises he doesn’t keep. He says you’re chosen but then acts like you’re evil. You can pretty much take just about anything from any holy book and make sure you are doing the opposite. That’s a pretty good start in my mind.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Hope: A Tragedy and Foreskin’s Lament. He lives in Woodstock, NY, with his wife and two sons.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Of course there is a Jewish way to parent. I am a Jewish mother before anything else; nothing is more important to me—it’s part of everything I do. Even though I didn’t have a very religious upbringing, my parents recognized the importance of Judaism. They educated me in my Jewish heritage, history and values, and that education helped prepare me to work to make the world a better place. My parents emphasized tikkun olam and focused on the need for us to give back to the community. Although I had a secular Jewish upbringing, my parents wanted me to marry a Jewish guy. I’ve tried to give my children those same traditions and values. I decided to bring my children up to be more traditionally religious than how I was raised because I feel this is important to Jewish continuity and will help strengthen the Jewish community.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz represents Florida’s 23rd Congressional District and is the chair of the Democratic National Committee. She lives in Weston, FL, with her husband and three children.

Susan Katz Miller

I don’t believe you can raise interfaith children “exclusively Jewish.” Interfaith children know they’re interfaith children no matter what formal label or education you give them. So I encourage parents and children to wrestle together with the “interfaithness” of the family by having as much education as possible in both family religions. To me, this feels like a deeply Jewish approach to parenting, because it’s about literacy, respect and honor for religious history, wanting our children to be familiar with religious texts and, above all, about questioning and midrashic interpretation. For me, any religion is a plastic entity—religions change through time. I definitely push back against the discourse that says, “In order to be really Jewish, you have to do this, this, this and this.” Rather than teach our kids what they should believe, we teach them that each individual develops their own beliefs and their own decisions about cultural practice and about what communities they want to affiliate with religiously. Interfaith children need the freedom to interpret and reinterpret and to gather many points of view. To me, the ability to reinterpret stories has a Jewish feel to it.

Susan Katz Miller is a former Newsweek reporter and the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. She and her husband live in Washington, DC, and have two children.

Abraham Twerski

Jewish parenting should be tied to what Judaism is all about. This is best expressed in the first chapter of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s The Path of the Just, which asks: What is a person’s obligation to the world? A child does not ask to be born, and he comes into a chaotic world. He needs to know that his father and mother are there for him in a stable family setting. In the traditional family, the man sits at the head of the table but that does not give him dictatorial powers. The woman’s role should be what my mother’s was—raising the children and teaching them traditional values, nurturing and loving her children but also demanding they live up to high standards. In this setting, harsh discipline is not necessary because children live up to the high standards of their parents.

Traditional Jewish values that have been handed down are immutable. Parents need to know that. You cannot change them because of convenience. If you take the view that religion is about obligations and duty, then everything else falls into place. If you don’t make that your basis, then you might as well just eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die. For instance, the Torah explicitly forbids homosexual relations. Jews have no central authority that can change that. Serious mistakes are being made in the modern Jewish community in allowing homosexuality because it’s politically correct. It’s convenient and it’s easier to just say that it’s okay for women to have children without being married or that homosexual parenting is fine and should be accepted by Jews. Political correctness foolishly allows us to change important core values. People are trying to adapt the world to their will. The traditional Jewish view was to ask, what is God’s will? I have to adapt to God’s will
whether I am comfortable with that or not.

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski is a psychiatrist and the author of more than 60 books on Judaism and self-help. He has four children and lives with his wife in Teaneck, NJ.

Sarah Feinberg

Having a strong Jewish community enabled my decision to become a single parent. I might have chosen to become a single mom without that, but it would have been a very different experience and a lot harder. I haven’t spent a single Shabbat dinner by myself since my daughter Gali was born. Our week is structured in a Jewish way. We go to shul every Shabbat. I don’t have anyone to hand her off to, so we go to shul partly to be with our community and to be with the people who support me. Judaism is a big part of the fabric of who I am raising Gali to be. When I decided to become a single mom, I talked to my fertility doctor about the need to mark this decision and transition. I created my own mikvah ceremony based on Mayyim Hayyim’s ceremony for fertility. I had never gone to the mikvah before but I wanted a Jewish way to cleanse my body and to ready me for having an embryo in my womb. My mom and I went to the mikvah together, and it marked the start of my journey to becoming a single Jewish parent. The whole world, including the Jewish world, has changed to become more accepting of different kinds of parents and families in different configurations. Gali and I like to talk about the special way our family came to be. She knows that she has an ima but not an abba, but that’s okay because I have more than enough love to parent her.

Sarah D. Feinberg has spent nearly 20 years as a nonprofit professional focusing on organizational change management. She lives in Boston, MA, with her daughter Gali.

Susan Silverman

We keep kosher, we keep Shabbat, all five of our kids have had their bar or bat mitzvahs—these are all important parts of our lives. But I look at these mitzvot as building blocks for creating a just and compassionate society. When a mitzvah is an end in and of itself, it becomes useless. There’s a great effort here in Israel, for example, among the ultra-Orthodox, to keep kosher perfectly. I feel like that’s actually dangerous. We pay too little attention by comparison to our obligation to take care of the orphan and the stranger. I look at adoption as a way of fulfilling that mitzvah within the family. In the process of living your life and growing your family, you can also fulfill a very important mitzvah. A Jewish way to parent is just having a Jewish household and a family that practices Jewish values.

Rabbi Susan Silverman is the author of Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World. She lives with her family—including two sons adopted from Ethiopia—in Jerusalem.

Sara Diament

Judaism has a strong tradition that emphasizes the need for active parenting to ensure, on a basic level, the physical safety of our children, the sustainability of their lives and their spiritual growth. For instance, from a traditional perspective, sex and intimacy have a holy quality, so they fall under the obligation to encourage our children’s spiritual growth. In our current society, a lot of the messages about sex and intimacy don’t jibe with how we’d want relationships to be. From a traditional perspective, the physical part of a relationship is something that exists within the context of exclusivity, and always with trust and consent. This is very important to convey to our children. Younger children and even teens are often exposed to information that is not developmentally appropriate. That can include messages about intimacy and sexuality that are not congruent with a traditional approach. It’s particularly important for parents to make sure they are setting the stage and showing their children what a healthy relationship is and how sexuality is a part of that healthy relationship. Children build narratives—that’s how they learn. They take pieces that they can grab, and often children are grabbing misinformation or information not corresponding with our belief system and building a whole narrative around it. If parents don’t get in there, children are not going to build the narrative we hope for.

Sara Diament is the author of Talking to Your Children About Intimacy: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents. She lives in Bergenfield, NJ, with her husband and four children.

Lenore Skenazy

Jews are intensely interested in parenting. As Jewish mothers, we’ve always been labeled overprotective zealots—every joke is about chicken soup, “Oy, wear a sweater,” and so forth. So we end up a little more attuned to examining whether we really are overprotective. And I don’t think we are. I think all parents want kids to wear a sweater and not get hurt crossing the street. I’m a Jewish mom who—like so many other Jewish moms—is worried about over-worrying. In trying to make our kids zero risk, we’ve done a lot of strange things to the culture. It’s not just kneepads anymore. It’s whether you should be using a GPS on your kids in case they deviate during their walk home. Should you be reading their texts to see if they’re bullying or being bullied? I’m not a parenting expert, but I am an expert on fear, and what drew me to this subject was in fact a Jewish connection, which was a concern about how fear and hysteria lead to blaming and scapegoating.

Lenore Skenazy is the host of the reality show “World’s Worst Mom” and author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry. She and her husband live in New York City with their two sons.

Ruth K. Westheimer

When I was 10 ½, I was put on a kindertransport from Frankfurt, Germany to Switzerland. For six years, as World War II raged, I was in a school that ultimately became an orphanage for German Jews. Later on, I studied those of us who had been in that school, and I learned that the early socialization given to us by our parents before they perished in the Holocaust stood us in good stead. None of us fell apart, and almost all of us wound up in the helping professions, trying to give back to the world despite the fact that the world had taken so much from us.

Many educators say it’s important for families to share meals together. But for Jews, breaking bread—challah—on Friday evening is more than important, it is vital for instilling Jewish traditions in our children. On Friday night, a husband chants the prayer before the evening meal, during which he says that while there are many wonderful women in the world, you, my wife, are the best of them all. There is a sexual aspect to this because it is on Friday night that it is a mitzvah, a blessing, for husband and wife to engage in sex. It is important for their children to know how much their parents love each other, because it is only in that way that they will learn how to truly love their spouse.

Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, a psychosexual therapist, is the author, most recently, of The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life and Joie de Vivre. She lives in New York City and has two children.

Naomi Schaefer Riley

There are timeless values, such as courage, compassion and certain intellectual virtues, that we need to teach our kids. We have to attempt to push kids and challenge them to understand what people before them thought. As much as we love our children, the Jewish community does no favors to its children by coddling them too much. There are still a great many challenges, from anti-Semitism to the survival of the State of Israel, that our children and grandchildren are going to have to face. Trying to protect them from every slight and challenge is not the way to go. We need to try to teach them a certain amount of toughness. I see that in the Jewish people who came before us. That toughness is as vital as, or even more vital than, it’s ever been.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and the author of Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America. She lives outside New York City with her husband and their three children.

Alex Barnett

As with any activity undertaken by Jewish people, being a “Jewish” parent means being overly prideful, yet beset by insecurity at the same time. Every day I marvel at my son. And every day, my wife and I are convinced that we are irreversibly screwing him up. I find myself crowing to people about how advanced he is for his age, only to turn around and watch him have a tantrum, pick boogers and yell “chicken butt” for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Being a Jewish parent also means wrestling with assimilation. Ghettos of yore are gone. The synagogue is no longer the center of Jewish life. Yiddish is spoken only in academic and Hasidic circles (and by those who are looking to curse in a creative way). And Ladino? I doubt you can find a New York City cab driver who speaks it, and those guys speak every language known to humankind. So, how do you parent Jewishly when traditional communal forces are attenuated or no longer present?

I find that resisting all toddler entreaties to have a Christmas tree is one way to toe the line. Sure, we can watch Rudolph, and we can go to Rockefeller Center and celebrate Christmas with friends at their houses. But we are not having a tree because we’re Jewish, and Jewish people don’t do that—as the people at synagogue would tell us if we were there more often to hear what they had to say. Finally, of course, the “Jewish” way to parent means being a Jedi Master in the use of guilt. Because, yes, Judaism is wonderful, but let’s face it: no kid ever studied for their bar or bat mitzvah because it was such an enriching and illuminating experience.

Alex Barnett is a comedian and host of the “Multiracial Family Man” podcast. He and his wife live in New York City with their son.

Stephen Krausz

It says in the Talmud, “Educate each child according to its way.” We have three biological kids and three adopted kids. Each kid is different in terms of how we parent them. We have to look at each child and their individual personality. Two of our children have Down syndrome; we adopted them as babies. These children have IQs in the 40-50 range. One of our biological daughters has an IQ of 160 at least. She does research on microcomputer-controlled prosthetic devices. She and one of her brothers are very dreamy, absent-minded professor types. Another of our other biological children is a very straightforward, thoughtful planner—she is always on a schedule and knows exactly what she’s doing and when she’s doing it. The two kids with Down syndrome have their own abilities and their own talents. One loves to read and write. The other is more of a daydreamer. He’s not as verbal as his sister is, but he’s got his own things he likes to do. He has a job working in a floral warehouse, where he talks to the plants and gets paid significantly below the minimum wage. Our daughter with Down syndrome is working as a preschool aide, and she gets more than the minimum wage. The bottom line is, every child is different in terms of what they need from their parents. The Tanakh tells us that you are supposed to teach your child to swim. As a parent, I think that means that you have to do whatever you can to make each child as independent as possible.

Stephen Krausz is the founder and director of The Jewish Children’s Adoption Network. He and his wife live in Denver, CO, with their six biological and adopted children.

Elianna Yolkut

Central to Jewish parenting is the idea that you can take an otherwise incredibly boring and unsacred experience and elevate it to something sacred. The work of parenting—and by all definitions it is work—can become mundane. You are mostly dealing with cleaning up messes, packing lunches, keeping schedules and managing logistics. The walk home from school can be a source of frustration as your child picks up every leaf and stick from the ground thinking that it’s amazing when you really just want to get home, or you can choose to elevate that experience by being present in the moment with your child in wonder. I don’t think being a GLBTQ parent is any different in this regard. I am a lesbian, I am a woman, I am a Jew, I am a rabbi and I am a parent—the term “parent” cuts across all my other identities. I am very conscious of being different and being outside what was historically normative. Our family certainly looks different from the majority of families. As a parent, I teach my children to pay attention to diversity and that difference itself is divine and comes from God. My kids are comfortable with difference, they love their ima and mommy the exact same way other kids love their mom and dad. Kids can teach their parents about acceptance in this way. They are not afraid of difference; it’s part of the sacredness of life. They celebrate it.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut writes a column for Haaretz on Judaism and gender. She and her partner live in Washington, DC, with their three-year-old twins.

Gary Rudoren

I personally think parenting is one of the most stressful sports that there is. I would describe myself as a secular Jew and that is how I parent. I am sure there are Jewish parents who use different guidelines, depending on how religious they are. I hardly even have guidelines; most of the time I am just trying to keep up and stay alive. For me, it’s hard to have one set of fixed rules, Jewish or not, that you live and die by. I’m an actor, and I’ve found that my improv skills have helped me more than anything else in coping with the major tragedies of children’s lives, such as not being able to press the elevator button before their brother.

I play many roles, but most importantly, I am the primary parent. I’ve been carrying the testosterone banner at my kids’ school here in Jerusalem.  I’ve been the co-chair of the PTA for the past two years, and I’ve noticed that I am one of only a very few dads picking kids up from school or the only male chaperone on field trips.  I’m very comfortable with these roles. A couple of months ago, my kids were doing their chores, and one of my son’s jobs was to sweep the floors. My wife, Jodi, who is a foreign correspondent, was in town at the time, and my son, Lev, told her that he didn’t know how to sweep the floors. When Jodi said she would teach him, Lev said, “Good, because I have to know how to sweep for when I get older because I know that dads do all the cleaning while the moms have all the big jobs.” That made me so proud. My wife’s job is very hard; I am here to support her. She is a great role model for my daughter and my son. My kids are growing up with a mom who travels around the Middle East reporting the news and a dad who stays home to take care of them. I’m not sure what part traditional Judaism plays in all that, but that’s my family.

Gary Rudoren is a comedian and writer. He and his wife, former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, have eight-year old twins.

Tom Fields-Meyer

My parenting has been informed by the blessing meshaneh habriyot, which praises God for making variety among God’s creations. Traditionally, the rabbis designated these as the words to say when we encounter a person who is physically different in some noticeable way. For me, they have provided a Jewish prism through which to see our son Ezra, who has autism.

When you have a child with challenges of any kind, it’s easy to focus on the deficits—all the things the child can’t do, the behavior and obstacles and quirks that make things more difficult. This blessing is a reminder to do the opposite, to wake up every day praising God for putting all kinds of people in the world. That has served my wife Shawn and me in raising Ezra, as well as his two neurotypical brothers. It has also helped Ezra. Since he’s spent much of his life in special education environments, he routinely encounters peers with all kinds of differences: some don’t speak, some have difficulty getting around, some have dramatic outbursts and meltdowns. “That’s okay,” he always tells me, “everybody’s different.” In those moments I feel that, thank God, we’ve done something right.

Tom Fields-Meyer is the author of Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love From His Extraordinary Son. His lives in Los Angeles, CA, with his wife and their three sons.

Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes

Jewish parenting looks at each child and sees that child as created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. That means every kid is valued as equal and unique and we have to parent each child, stepchild, biological child and adopted child as if he or she is special and worthy. The Talmud teaches us that the whole Torah is built upon chesed, or loving-kindness. God clothed the naked Adam and Eve and buried Moses. And so we parents, Jewish parents particularly, teach inclusion—by welcoming and embracing those who are like us and those who are unlike us—especially people who seem to be pushed to the margins. In our generation, this includes people with disabilities or special needs, interfaith families, LGBTQ individuals and families. The future of our country and our world will be based on our ability to embrace people whose experiences and looks may be different from our own but whose essence is B’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. We are all the same.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is the co-author of Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance. He and his wife life in Calabasas, CA, with their three children. 

Josh Levs

For me, one of the most important things that a Jewish parent should understand, and pass along, is that we should live with awareness of the importance of the past and the generations who sacrificed so much to get to where we are now. We live in a time in which we are able to be anything we want and practice our faith openly. It’s an incredible gift. So there’s a responsibility that comes along with that—to not just take, but to honor this legacy by living to the fullest, pushing forward, fighting for social justice, and fighting to make things even better. The importance of valuing family—both men and women valuing family—to me, that’s an integral part of Judaism. I believe there’s a lot of support in Judaism for this way of thinking. It’s absolutely essential that everyone understand two things: One, that dads are very involved at home, and two, that families are better off when dads are very involved at home. This is proven from very early on: When a dad can be home in the initial weeks of a kid’s life, you set all sorts of things in motion. You end up with a more balanced set of responsibilities and kids grow up knowing that both of their parents are equally capable of taking care of them. The kid is seeing equally capable role models. We still have policies, structures and stigmas that are making that a lot harder. The people who think that men don’t really want to be involved, or that men aren’t really involved, are often the ones in power. But both men and women value family and family time and have every reason to live lives in which they can actually have family time. For me, that’s something that’s very clear in Judaism.

Josh Levs is an investigative journalist and author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together. He lives with his wife in Atlanta, GA, with their three children. 

Jacqueline Jules

One of the things I remember most vividly from my own childhood is the sense of responsibility I was raised with. I grew up in a small town in southern Virginia. My parents taught me that I could be the only or first Jewish person most people in my mainly Christian community would ever meet. Therefore I had to make a good impression and show others that Jews were respectful, kind, and generous. This mentality “of other people will be predisposed to hate you and you must prove them wrong” was not uncommon for southern Jews in the 1960’s. When I became a Jewish parent myself, I don’t remember making a deliberate effort to impart this message but I suspect I did unconsciously at times. I often told my sons that it was important to be a “mensch” or a good human being.

However, I also asked my children to inform me if they were being harassed. As a young person, I experienced a number of anti-Semitic incidents. Hiding my religion in my small southern town was not an option. The first question people asked during introductions was, “What church do you go to?” Saying I attended a synagogue opened up a barrage of questions about why I didn’t believe in Jesus. I felt like I was always defending my faith. And the adults I met were worse than the children. I can’t count the number of times I endured interrogations from teachers and the parents of my friends.

In high school, a substitute teacher gave my entire class a long lecture on how the Jews killed Jesus and could not be forgiven, even by the Pope.

But when I became a parent myself, I thought those days were far behind me. I thought the world had changed. I was surprised when my son came home from elementary school in the early 1990’s to say that kids were teasing him about being Jewish. We lived in Nashville, Tennessee at the time. The music teacher was teaching all his classes a Christmas song with the lyrics: “Jesus Christ, he is our hope. If you don’t know that, then you are a dope.” As soon as I learned about this, I mobilized the two other Jewish parents at the school for a meeting with the principal. The song was removed from the holiday concert. I hope my children learned from this experience that you have to stand up for yourself when you are treated unfairly.

Jacqueline Jules is an award-winning poet and author of 30 books for young readers, three of which was the Sydney Taylor Honor Award. Her book The Hardest Word was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist.

Pamela Ehrenberg

I think there are probably any number of Jewish ways to parent, but the nugget that has come to mind more often than anything else was from Brené Brown, the author, and her notion is that parents ought to be the adult that they want their kids to grow up to be. That concept encapsulates what I see as Jewish parenting. As we go through our own individual life choices, we should try to project forward to be the adult we want our kids to be. That is a kind of Jewish approach. As we continue to make choices in our adult lives, we look through that lens—that now we are not making those choices only for ourselves. We have the question in mind: Is this the way I would want my child to act thirty years from now?

A Jewish way to parent involves not creating an artificial separation between ourselves and the world around us.  That’s an area where it’s really interesting to see how the Jewish community, and particularly the Conservative movement in which I grew up and where my daughter is affiliated now, has evolved. I have vivid memories of being in United Synagogue Youth (USY) when we sang the song Lo Yisa Goy. The Hebrew is “Lo Yisa Goy El Goy Cherev” and it has a beautiful Jewish meaning, but in USY, as USY-ers would do, there was an English parody for fun. And the English parody to this particular one was, “Don’t kiss a boy if he’s a goy, he won’t kiss you if you’re a Jew”. That didn’t strike me as strange in the 1980’s, but now that would be astonishing. And to have come that far in a generation, I think speaks very well. The rabbi at Adas Israel in Washington, DC spoke a couple years ago at the Rosh Hashanah service and said that the Conservative movement has been going about this wrong for the past fifty years and that now it’s time to change our course and rather than condemning people for interfaith marriages, let’s instead look at how we can welcome them as part of our welcoming for all families. How we can change our language and attitudes and approaches to really reflect who we say we Jews want to be as a people is also how we can parent.

Pamela Ehrenberg is the author of Ethan, Suspended and other children’s books.  She lives in Washington, DC, with her two children.

4 thoughts on “Symposium // Is There a “Jewish” Way to Parent?

  1. says:

    I am a Jewish man, 55 years old. Why did no one mention a glaring and uncomfortable truth: Jewish Parenting can be summed up in one word: GUILT

    I am living proof. I have seen it all around me and my family for five decades. The use of guilt as a primary parenting tool (almost exclusively by Jewish mothers) is waning as the generation pass, but I was the main way I was raised. And it angers me greatly when “Jewish parenting” is discussed, and this is not acknowledged by ANYONE.

    The damage has been done. And heck to pay for any one who points it out (and he should feel guilty forever!).

    1. pl says:

      Hello Poorsap,

      I am absolutely a kindred spirit. Close in age – I’m 57 – and a Jewish man. And what you wrote is EXACTLY what I think every time I read articles about judaism, jewish parenting, jewish mothers, etc. (No caps on the j in jewish on purpose – I’m furious at the “jewishness” of my upbringing.

      It is ALL ABOUT GUILT and it’s cousin OBLIGATION. It is a parenting tool and an evil and destructive one at that. Thank you so much for writing what you did. I can’t believe I had to read scores (if not hundreds) of articles where jewish parenting (and mothering) was defended and even praised, without a mention of the incredible damage the traditional jewish mother does with GUILT. It’s infuriating. Aside from physical abuse, I believe traditional jewish parenting (mothering) is one of the worst types of parenting that exists. I HATED it (and the anger and hate last to this day).

      Thank you for writing what you did. I hope you are finding peace and happiness and FREEDOM from the guilt – it’s not easy. Best of luck.

  2. Davida Brown says:

    Responding to the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac: This is what is says in the Living Torah: “Here is the fire and the wood. But where is the lamb for the offering?” ” ‘ God will see to a lamb for an offering, my son,’ replied Abraham.” God did provide a ram for that substitute sacrifice, but the “lamb” was in reference to a much later, greater sacrifice…”Behold, the Lamb of God !” (Living Torah, Gen. 22:7b,8/ RSV, John 1:36b) The latter scripture is in the New Covenant scriptures. This is a link that believers in Jesus refer to as one of the earlier references to Him.

  3. Davida Brown says:

    To Jacqueline, I am so sorry for yours’ and your children’s experiences with “Christians” who said such wrong and falsely informative words, not to mention the so-called Christmas song. My own son heard many “wrong things” pertaining to belief in Jesus and the Bible and today has no beliefs at all. Words can and do damage us. However, when the words are purely lies, (such as the Pope’s response) we can discard them and hopefully discuss these things with our children. There is much damage done with misinformation. I always recommend that individuals read the scriptures themselves to make their own evaluation of what is actually said. My experience that entirely shaped my life came from a one on One experience with the living God. He doesn’t lie; not in His Word or face to face.

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