Experts offer tips on raising kids so theyll stay Jewish

In recent years, dire predictions have abounded about America's withering Jewish community. With an interfaith marriage rate above 50 percent, sociologists and community leaders ask the recurring question: Are your grandchildren likely to be Jewish?

For three out of four American Jews, the answer is no.

This troubling statistic has led many young parents to wonder: What can I do to instill a love of things Jewish in my child?

Certainly, many would agree that the best antidote to assimilation is strict ritual observance. But for those who cannot or choose not to follow that way of life, there are still many ways to transmit Jewish identity to one's children.

Here are some suggestions, culled from the best of contemporary Jewish thinking.

Informal Jewish education should start in infancy, with exposure to Jewish books, songs and holiday observances and the introduction of Jewish values and mitzvot, or commandments.

For many children, Jewish preschool will be their first, and possibly their only, exposure to Jewish education. It can be a wonderful experience for the child, not only because it presents Judaism in a stimulating and positive way, but also because it encourages parental involvement.

Consider this common scenario in Jewish preschools:

As Benjamin's second birthday approached, his parents began shopping for preschools. Many of their friends recommended one at a large synagogue close to their townhouse development. They had never thought about joining a synagogue before, but it seemed like a good time to take the plunge.

Benjamin really loved going to school, and especially looked forward to the weekly Shabbat celebrations. As he got a little older, he began to ask his parents why they didn't light candles and eat challah on Friday nights.

Benjamin's parents decided to try it one week. His mother was a little uncertain about what to do, so she asked his teacher for some help with the blessings, and everything went fine. After a few weeks, the family began to look forward to Shabbat.

One Friday, Benjamin's mom even made her own challah from scratch. Benjamin helped braid the dough and proudly showed the finished product to his dad that evening.

Once a month, the family attends "Tot Shabbat" at their shul. Benjamin's favorite part is kissing the Torah.

For many families like Benjamin's, a Jewish preschool can make Judaism safe and comfortable, and can gently reinforce their commitment to living a Jewish life.

Less than half the Jewish children in the United States receive any type of formal Jewish education, and those who don't usually have parents who didn't either.

Formal Jewish education usually begins at school age, and for those committed to giving their children a complete Jewish education, day school is clearly the way to go.

Day-school enrollment has tripled in the past 35 years. Almost one-fifth of all Jewish children in the United States attend full-time day schools, three-quarters of which are Orthodox. Compared to supplemental schooling, a day-school education has a greater bearing on synagogue attendance, friendship patterns, Shabbat and kashrut observance and the likelihood of intermarriage.

But there's more to this than meets the eye. David Ackerman, associate dean of the Fingerhut School of Education at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, compared the religious commitment of families whose children attend day school with those who go to religious school. He found both kinds of families likely to be observant, with day-school families generally a little more strict about kashrut and Shabbat. He also found many non-observant families in each kind of school.

When it comes to predicting a child's adult Jewish involvement, he concluded, the parents' commitment to leading a Jewish life is far more influential than the choice of school.

If you decide against Jewish day school and opt for afterschool religious studies, keep in mind that at least six years of attendance will be required to really make an impression, experts say. Your child's Jewish learning will be stronger if he or she is enrolled in a program that meets two or three times a week, for a total of six hours.

Once-a-week Hebrew school has been found to contribute little to a child's Jewish learning, and some researchers, including Jack Wertheimer of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, have found it can actually turn youngsters away from Judaism. His findings confirm the results of a 1975 study by Harold Himmelfarb, who observed that fewer than 1,000 hours of Jewish schooling "might even decrease Jewish involvement," because the child would be exposed to the burden of Hebrew school without spending enough time to reap the rewards of mastery, knowledge and belonging.

Nonetheless, If Hebrew school is the choice you make for your child, you can make the experience a positive one if you also do these things:

*Be involved at the school. Know what's going on and offer help where it's needed.

*Don't allow your child to skip Hebrew school for sports practice or social events. If being Jewish is important to you, show this to your child by making education a top priority.

*Reinforce and encourage your child's Jewish learning at home. Learn some Hebrew blessings, if you don't already know them. Even if you don't fully observe Shabbat, at least make Friday-night dinners a special family occasion.

It's important for parents to realize that sending a child to school for religious education is never a substitute for providing a Jewish home environment.

Once your child has already celebrated his or her b'nai mitzvah, it's very important to continue the Jewish education. Says Joel Lurie Grishaver, author of "40 Things You Can Do To Save the Jewish People": "Every year of Jewish education which takes place after bat or bar mitzvah is worth three or more years of anything which takes place earlier."

When Jewish adults are asked what childhood experiences stand out in their minds, they often describe memorable Passover seders, Chanukah celebrations and Purim festivities. The positive associations of family, food and ritual help kids feel good about being Jewish.

Even a simple act like lighting Shabbat candles weekly makes a strong statement that Judaism is important in the family.

If the idea of celebrating Jewish holidays seems burdensome, don't feel it's necessary to do so in an elaborate fashion. While a greater level of observance will generally strengthen Jewish identity in children, for some families it's not practical.

For those families, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, author of "Raising Jewish Children in a Contemporary World," offers a compromise called "The Ten-Minute Holiday."

Chanukah, for example, can be celebrated simply by lighting the candles in the menorah and reciting together the appropriate blessings.

If you can't imagine conducting your own Passover seder, but still want to celebrate the occasion in your home, then place a seder plate in the middle of your dinner table, hold up each item on the plate and talk about what it represents.

Even if you aren't willing to observe all the rules of the Sabbath, you can still light candles, bless the wine and challah and say, "Shabbat Shalom."

Grishaver encourages parents to make the house smell like a Jewish home by cooking certain foods, making kiddush on Thanksgiving and celebrating Purim and Simchat Torah. Take every opportunity to deepen your children's feelings of Jewishness and their ties to the Jewish community.