A number of years ago we polled a group of modern Orthodox day school parents about the kinds of parent education evenings they would be interested in attending on topics having to do with raising children. The response was pretty good as these kinds of surveys go. Parents were given choices of (1) spirituality/religious growth (2) sexuality (3) the internet (4) cheating and (5) substance abuse. Which one do you think won? The answer: preferences came back in the exact reverse order that they were listed here. Substance abuse came first (by a long shot) and spirituality/religious growth came last. What’s the reason for these results?
Do parents not care about their children’s religious growth? Of course they do! But in the competing issues at play for our parental attention, the religious one often seems less of a crisis. Most of us think that our kids are doing ok (and that is often true) and some of us think that while religious growth is important, the other issues to worry about can be downright harmful and therefore very scary. And isn’t that why we send our kids to a good day school, after all? Surely, the school and its environment will keep kids on the path to religious passion or maturity! Alternatively, many of us think we have it under control — our kids will be ok, they’ll ultimately become like us, even though we know that there are times when we nevertheless allow ourselves to worry about their “Jewishness.” But at those moments we brush it under the rug, pray literally or figuratively that it will be ok, and move on to wondering about their schoolwork or what really happened at that party they attended last Saturday night or what they are doing on their computers.
But I would argue that precisely because there are all of these other challenges and influences which confront our kids on a daily basis, religious growth should not be shunted to the side so easily. Consider what is happening in society all around us. After decades of bucking the trend in developing countries, religion in the United States is on the decline. From 1989 to 2000, the number of young adults who said they believed in God changed little. By 2016, according to one researcher, the number who believed “fell off a cliff.” In 2004, 84% of young adults prayed at least sometimes, but by 2016, more than 25% said they “never” prayed. Only a few years ago, there was much discussion about people being “spiritual” even if they were not “religious;” that distinction seems no longer be true, especially for young people (Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us)
In our own community, there seems to be at least some emerging consensus that the number of teens and young adults who are “off the derekh,” or who have gone astray religiously, is in the double digits. In some educational circles there is more and more discussion about the possibility that in our emphasis on texts and proper behavior, we have ignored the inner world of religious life. Students may daven but they have a hard time finding connection. They do mitzvot but more out of lifestyle than of conviction.
There are numerous reasons given for these changes, both external and internal. To cite but one example which is worthy of treatment in its own right, technology has clearly had an impact. In its culture of choice and tolerance, lack of nuance, and raising individualism and individual expression to new heights, it is inevitable that a religion that dictates authority and absolutes will take a hit.
And lest you think that sending your child to a day school is the answer, know that the overwhelming consensus in the research is that while schools can be important, the most influential factor in the religious development of children and adolescents is by far and away the home.
On a more positive note, research shows that religious life, even at a young age, can give children a greater sense of rootedness in their own values with which they can cope with the world around them. Indeed, more and more research is emerging that indicates that being religious has a positive impact on positive physical health (including exercise, diet and nutrition), reduction of risk behaviors, increase in resiliency, coping with stress, and the list goes on.
And so it behooves us to pay much greater attention to the religious development of our children. The fifth Lubavitch rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn (1860–1920), once said that “just as it is a commandment from the Torah for every Jewish male to put on tefillin every day, whether he be a great scholar or a simple person, so too it is an obligation for every Jew to think about one’s children for at least a half hour every day, to do everything in his power and beyond to ensure that the children follow the correct path (לוח היום יום כב טבת)”. If there was ever a time in our community when that advice needed to be heeded, the time is now.
And so I would like to open the conversation, to parents and grandparents, educators and leaders to begin to talk about how one can raise a religious child in this generation. At the same time, conversations like these are not always about coming up with THE answers. Rather, just asking the questions or talking about them together can enhance our efforts to create a more spiritual community, one from which our children can hopefully continue to grow and flourish as people and as Jews. For training children is not about crisis management any more than we should be managing our health in crisis mode. Rather, we should be worrying about nurturing our children’s physical health with daily incremental habits so that we and they do not wake up one day and come to regret the long-term effects of not taking care of their bodies. We should be doing no less for their souls.
I hope you will join the conversation.
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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.