Continuity Starts at Home

“My spirit, which is upon you, and the words which I have placed in your mouth, shall not be absent from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your children, nor from the mouth of your children’s children—said the Lord—from now on, for all time.” Isaiah 59:21

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We always wonder if the values we treasure and live by will endure from one generation to the next. Isaiah pondered it as well and understood that the way we communicate what we believe in will ultimately determine if our words and deeds have staying power. For Jews, continuity is the most real litmus test of our survival. What does it take to endure?

Maybe it’s living in a way that models goodness. Perhaps it is living a life of integrity and meaning. If we do what we believe in with passion, we stand a chance. If we have a good time while we're at it, our kids may pick up that you can live a life of meaning with joy.

I had a recent correspondence that brought the issue of continuity front and center in my mind. The writer Abigail Pogrebin shared with me a song that she wrote for her children about continuity and what inspired it, which you can read for yourself here:http://www.tabletmag.com/life-and-religion/80601/coming-of-age-2/# 

She writes, “I never used to worry about that lifeless, amorphous concept of ‘continuity’; it seemed to me Jews were overly worried about other Jews’ Judaism. Then my own children came into the picture.” She began to realize that passing down values is not so simple. She wrote a beautiful song to her children called “Taking Your Place,” and the song was performed at her synagogue this past Yom Kippur. Here is the touching refrain:

“Taking your place in a resilient line. This is the day that you stood up to say, ‘Our tradition is mine.’”  

I can only imagine what it felt like to hear the end sitting with one’s own family and community: “You’re the promise of a people, a blessing and a prayer.” I was deeply moved. But I was also a little troubled, and I shared that with Abigail. I told her that the real test of Jewish continuity is not what we sing to our children but what they sing back to us. That is the ultimate measure of a tradition’s resiliency. She agreed that it would, indeed, be a way that they showed ownership of their Jewish lives.

Another thought—a sadder one—came over me. Where do we most hear the words “Jewish continuity” today? We hear them used in Jewish organizations, where we talk about “dor l’dor” (from generation to generation) service and the importance of passing down our rituals and values. Many of the leaders who give these speeches have children who are totally alienated from tradition. Just look at donor lists and then the generation after. You can't pass down values in an organizational vacuum, by writing a check or by giving some pep talk to someone else.

You create Jewish continuity yourself—with your mouth, as Isaiah reminds us. You create continuity in the home and at your table. Schools, synagogues and social service agencies help support continuity, but they can’t do our work for us. And the problem is that for decades we've asked them to do just that. It’s time to put aside the sentimentality and realize that continuity requires effort and energy and sincerity. 

What’s the song of continuity that you will sing to your children? What’s the song they’ll sing back?

Dr. Erica Brown (pictured, click to download) is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on November 1, 2011 and filed under Opinion.