Jonathan, our oldest, wanted to join a soccer league that traveled on Shabbat. Benjamin, a movie maven, wanted to watch movies with friends Saturday afternoon. And Liza, the youngest, had interests that included TV, CDs and being driven to friends’ houses.
The moment had come, and it was clear that after years of laying a solid foundation of tradition in our home, the trappings of modern technology and the allure of the teenage lifestyle were threatening to undo Shabbat.
Our family Shabbat observance had always included Friday night table rituals, shul on Shabbat morning and Havdallah, the ceremony for concluding the Sabbath. But when our kids were very young our weekly Shabbat ritual also included television cartoons before shul Saturday, long phone calls to relatives and friends, and computer games.
All that changed when our kids were 4, 6, and 8. I was teaching a course called Introduction to Judaism, focusing on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s view of Shabbat as a sanctuary in time. That’s when I finally got it. Heschel wrote in his book “The Sabbath” that we should “set apart one day a week for freedom, a day when we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization.”
The night after my lecture my husband and I asked ourselves: “What are we teaching our kids? Is our Shabbat different enough? Did it give us enough non-technological time as individuals and as a family?” Our answer was “no.” We had the potential on Shabbat to strengthen our family and we weren’t using it very well. And so my husband and I decided to reclaim the day. We had a family meeting the next day and decided to adopt a more rigorous routine — one more firmly imbedded in tradition.
Initially, in order to teach our children the sweetness of Shabbat, we stacked the deck in its favor. That is, we piled on many special Shabbat experiences: We invited guests to our home, allowed the sugar-sweetened cereals that were taboo during the week, stocked up on favorite foods and took family outings to the park. And at first, it all seemed to work very well. Our kids would comment on the little flourishes that made Shabbat special — the fragrant kitchen smells or the long walks at night.
It was as our children got older and their extracurricular and social lives expanded that the conflicts became manifest. Our kids wanted to bend Shabbat to meet their new schedules. Jonathan, a talented athlete, wanted to play in the Saturday traveling soccer league. One of the soccer fathers in our community commented on how good Jonathan was and that it was “a pity to keep him back.” By then Benjamin had fallen in love with movies, and Liza also had the Saturday technology itch. The fragile balance we had worked so hard to create was teetering. Shabbat was becoming the shy stepchild to modern technology.
And we were suddenly confronted with some tough questions. What kind of Jewish life did we want to model for our kids? After much soul searching, we knew that whatever we wanted for them, we had to feel comfortable with and committed to ourselves. We didn’t want to convey the message that Shabbat is great when you’re little (and have nothing else happening in your life), but that it is not worth celebrating when you have competing claims. In this fast-paced, stressful world, we wanted to institutionalize rest, quiet, reading, family time and a break from homework.
But deep down, we had our doubts. After all, we weren’t raised as religiously as we were raising our children — and yet we were able to develop a clear sense of Jewish values. Shouldn’t we assume the same would happen to our children? If soccer and movies and sleepovers really meant so much to them, we thought, maybe we should lighten up. For a second we wondered, as so many have, if we push this value system too hard, will we end up alienating our children from Judaism and Jewish life?
Though we intellectually knew we were right, it was helpful to share our concerns with other Jewish parents struggling with the same issues. That sharing gave us renewed confidence in our priorities. Yes, Shabbat is more important than soccer, movies and spontaneous invitations from friends who live five miles away.
Instead of abandoning Shabbat, we proposed ways to help them with their goals that also preserved the sanctity of the day. For Jonathan, we proposed that he find a different soccer league he could get to by foot or bike. (He found a league and biked all over Newton, Mass., coming to shul late or leaving early in order to make games.) For Benjamin, we had movies available for after Shabbat or, in the summer months, before Shabbat started. We let him walk to the library on Shabbat and check out movies for viewing that night. As for Liza, we encouraged her to have Shabbat sleepovers — especially with friends who didn’t live in the neighborhood (and whose homes she couldn’t walk to on Saturday).
Our kids were not always happy with our decisions, but they seemed to learn something about commitment. They knew that by enforcing these rules, we were expressing our love for them. There’s greater appreciation for a 25-hour moratorium on homework, for having a better menu and an abundance of junk food, for good conversations, card games and leisurely dinners. As the school workload expanded, simply hanging out and even napping have suddenly become enticing Shabbat options.
And our own Shabbat observance has evolved, too. Instead of forgoing our children’s games or recitals, we bike to them, or we plan ahead and stay overnight in a hotel or at a friends’ house.
As parents, we can only give our kids what we believe in and do ourselves. Someone once said, “If you’re not living what you’re teaching, you’re teaching something else.” Here’s to supporting each other as we search for greater clarity about how we want to live and how we want to parent.
Judy Israel Elkin is the founding director of Ramah Family Camp in Palmer, Mass., and an education consultant for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston.