10 ways to help your child develop a Jewish identity

At a recent event in Seattle, an audience member asked "Generation J" author Lisa Schiffman how she would ensure her child identifies as a Jew instead of just being labeled Jewish.

The pregnant Oakland writer, whose book is about her journey toward Jewish affiliation, gave one of her charming but flip answers. She said she didn't know the answer and wondered if the questioner had a list she could use. The question and the answer are, of course, at the heart of the Jewish continuity debate.

And while no one action will ensure her child grows up as an identifying and affiliated Jew, there are a lot of choices that make sense to me. I'll share my ideas here and if enough readers send me their own ideas I'll publish them in a follow-up story. So here's my list, Lisa.

My Top Ten ways to raise Jewish children

1. Join a synagogue and not just for the High Holy Day tickets. Find a congregation that fits your lifestyle, that isn't too far away from your home and that seems warm and welcoming. Shop around; keep trying until you find one that fits. Try to find a congregation that has a playground and special services for young children, or at minimum a rabbi who doesn't mind having kids explore his office when they get bored during services.

If you find a congregation you like that doesn't offer a playground and children's services, form a committee to make them happen.

2. Take your children to services and don't drop them off with the synagogue baby sitter. Yes, I know, kids are noisy and they can disrupt services at the very worst time. And some synagogues even have rules about noise in the sanctuary. But I think allowing them to learn to love Judaism with their ears and their eyes and their hearts is very important.

My 5-year-old daughter sits enthralled every time the cantor opens his mouth to sing. She cries if the rabbi forgets to call the kids up to the bimah at the end of services to sing the Kiddush or the closing hymn. When you go to synagogue, don't forget to bring along a bag full of activities to keep children happy when they are not entranced by the services.

3. Make Shabbat special in your home. What is special? You decide. Maybe you always eat a special dish. Light candles. Drink grape juice. Say the blessings. Say Shabbat Shalom, even if you are planning to go out to dinner right after you light candles and eat challah. Remember Shabbat even when you're not at home. Light candles in your room at Disneyland.

Get your hands on "40 Things You Can Do to Save the Jewish People" by Joel Lurie Grishaver. It's full of great ideas. Bake challah from scratch at least once a year. Cover your entire kitchen with flour. Make a big mess. Then eat the special Shabbat bread with gusto and pride.

4. Make a huge deal out of the fun Jewish holidays, like Purim and Passover, Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Build a sukkah. Eat in it and even sleep in it, but most importantly have fun. Dress up for Purim, visit friends, go to a party or even host one. Make the Passover seder the most fun, creative event of the year. Write a play, create finger puppets, make plague bags.

Dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah. And is there anyone who doesn't know how to have fun during Hanukkah?

5. Buy lots of Jewish children's books. There are so many wonderful new books published each year. Get kids ready for every Jewish holiday by reading. My daughter and I even prepared to go see a performance of "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" by pulling out our book of Torah stories. It helped her follow along and she remembered all evening that this entertainment was based on stories in the Torah.

6. Give your children a formal Jewish education. Send them to Sunday school or enroll them at a Jewish day school. Or home school them for their Jewish education, but don't do nothing. Encourage them to get involved in a youth group. Send your kid to Jewish summer camp. I'm still amazed at the way my friends' eyes light up when they talk about their summer camp experiences, 20-plus years ago.

7. Make sure they go to Israel at least once during their youth. Go as a family if you can, but your children may get even more out of a youth group experience on their own.

8. Sing Jewish songs in the car, at the dinner table, on a hike and of course, at your synagogue.

9. Be a lifelong learner and practicer of Jewish values. Set a good example whenever you can and your children will surely follow in your footsteps. Recognize learning opportunities. Study Judaism enough so you learn the values our people cherish. Then, when a Jewish value helps you make a decision or assists you in understanding something about the world, make it a teachable moment. My husband and I teach our daughter about math in the grocery store, but we also teach her about tzedakah when we buy extra food for the food bank.

10. Subscribe to your Jewish newspaper: It's a window into the local, national and Jewish world. In it, you can read about Jewish sports heroes who follow our values and those who do not. You can find out about Jewish events that may be fun. Maybe you'll pick up a new recipe for chopped liver. And when the Jewish community is debating an issue people feel strongly about, you can get involved in the conversation.

E-mail your ideas to me at [email protected], or mail them to Editor, The Jewish Transcript, 2041 Third Ave., Seattle, WA 98121.