I’ve been concerned with Jewish continuity all my adult life.
As a single in my early 20s, I was a speaker for UJA-Federation’s Young Leadership Division. As a young couple in our 20s, my husband and I chose a home in a Jewish community and immediately joined a synagogue with a nursery school for our 10-month-old. We didn’t have living or dining-room furniture, but we agreed that synagogue dues came first.
Later, we sent our three sons to a Jewish day school, where I became chair of the board of education and helped plan family education programs to help build community. Young and passionate, we made friends in the synagogue and in the school. We were all committed to keeping Judaism alive.
Now, my friends and I are frightened for our Gen X and Millennial children, as well as our grandchildren. Even if they are doing many of the things we did, it hardly seems enough for our perilous world, in which hatred and prejudice dominate the news.
But even as we collectively bemoan a seemingly never-ending spate of antisemitic hate crimes and concerns about Jewish continuity, I’m pleased to say I’ve detected a ray of hope. Kudos to Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and UJA-Federation for engaging teenagers and teaching them to be proud and knowledgeable Jews.
On Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the parents—mostly, moms—who encourage their kids to enroll in these programs, driving them there and back and making sure they have everything they need to excel. My daughter-in-law is one of those moms. Despite the demands of her daily life, which include being a mom, author and teacher, working, volunteering and having a social life when she can, she also fits in Jewish activities for her kids. This next generation of moms deserves enormous credit for inculcating Jewish values in their children.
I recently attended two programs in which high school students demonstrated their commitment to Judaism, the Jewish people and learning about their heritage. At the Sid Jacobson JCC in East Hills, N.Y., my grandson was one of 31 teenagers who graduated from the American Jewish Committee’s Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT), an education and advocacy program for teens. He said he is proud to be Jewish and is looking forward to returning to Camp Ramah, where he will be a C.I.T. (counselor in training) this summer. He can’t wait to go to Israel in two years as part of Camp Ramah’s Seminar.
During the program, it was inspiring to chat with students and parents in small groups about Jewish identity, Israel, advocacy and the future of the Jewish people. The parents recounted their efforts to create homes where Judaism is “joyful.” The kids appeared comfortable with and proud of their Jewish identity. Many wore Jewish stars and chais, and they spoke about the lessons of the Holocaust. From my vantage point, with these impressive young people and their parents who are supporting and encouraging them, the future looks hopeful.
Another impressive local program, sponsored by UJA-Federation, featured a showing of “Names Not Numbers,” a film in which 15 students from nine Suffolk County, Long Island high schools interviewed three Holocaust survivors. Although the program was not designed to cultivate relationships, it appeared that many of the students and survivors had connected in a meaningful way. At the screening, the teenagers told the audience that the experience was far more moving than learning about the Holocaust from a classroom teacher or textbook.
With more programs like these, along with interested kids, supportive communities and engaged parents, perhaps the future is brighter than conventional wisdom suggests.
Jewish moms are the backbone of it all. It is up to them to set the spiritual and religious tone in their homes, and they are responsible for their children’s Jewish education. In today’s world, that is no simple feat.
On Mother’s Day, we should salute all the mothers who contribute to Jewish continuity through their commitment to modeling and passing on Jewish values.
Meryl Ain is the author of two post-Holocaust novels, “Shadows We Carry” and “The Takeaway Men.” She is a member of the International Advisory Board for Holocaust Survivor Day. A host of the podcast “People of the Book” on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network, she is the founder of the Facebook book club Jews Love to Read!