Cindy Schwartz is Jewish, but she wasn’t raised that way.
“I call myself Jewish by chance or fluke,” she said. “I had two Jewish parents, I grew up in New York and we did nothing Jewish. I never walked into a synagogue; we never did anything in our home.”
In fact, she described as “pure chance” her marriage to another Jew, saying he was the only person she ever dated of the same faith.
So when Schwartz and her husband, Matt, moved to Louisville – his hometown – and began attending services at The Temple, she felt uncomfortable.
“I looked around and I thought, ‘I don’t know anything that’s going on here,’” she said.
The bad news behind Schwartz’s story is that it’s nothing new. Thousands of young Jews grow up with little to no understanding of their own faith. As such, they are not prepared to pass Judaism to their children, even if they want to.
The good news is, it need not be that way.
Uncomfortable as those first nights at The Temple were for Schwartz, they weren’t her last. She volunteered to assist a friend teaching third grade in the religious school. That began her 12-year stint as an instructor.
“My husband has said to me before that one of the biggest surprises in our marriage is how much Judaism I have brought to our family. And I think once I started to learn and once I realized how much it helped me parent in a way that was positive, I created traditions, created moments. I just kind of built on it.”
Today, Schwartz, along with Jessica Springer, are preparing to teach a six-week course, Raising Jewish Children, which will run from October 15 to November 19 at The Temple. Its three rabbis will also teach.
While the class is being billed as an opportunity to “explore the basics of Jewish parenting,” it is not a critique on the state of Jewish parenting in America.
“I do not think that Jewish parents need to learn how to raise their children Jewish,” said Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, a senior rabbi at The Temple. “This class is teaching basic Jewish concepts, ideas, holidays and tradition to parents who feel they did not get that growing up, either because they were not raised Jewish, or because they did not get a Jewish education,”
Is Jewish parenting a thing? Do Jews raise their children in substantially different ways compared to mothers and fathers from other faiths?
“This is something I’ve thought a lot about,” said Deborah Kolben, the founder and editor of Kveller, a seven-year-old news blog devoted to Jewish parenting issues.
When she started Kveller, “I hadn’t thought a lot about my Jewish identity since my bat mizvah. But suddenly, when you have a kid, you realize that it’s all on you to figure out what if anything you’re going to impart to them in terms of a Jewish identity and/or the religion piece of things.”
Kolben said there lots of stereotypes related to Jewish parenting. “You, know that we’re overbearing, and pushy, and always trying to get you to take a sweater,” she quipped. “Thankfully, I think those stereotypes are starting to fade.”
What’s left, she continued, are real life issues parents of all faiths must face. She said resources, such as her blog and The Temple’s class, help parents deal with those issues minus the stereotypes.
“I can’t tell you how Jewish parenting has changed,” Kolben said. “I think parenting trends in general have changed and we’re living in a particular moment where, for a certain social class of parents, there is an intense focus on our kids. There’s the whole helicopter parenting trend of parents being very, very involved in their kids’ lives. Thanks to social media, moms now have a false glimpse into other people’s lives.
“It’s easy to believe that other people have it all together, that their life is prettier, more perfect, and that their kids are totally well behaved,” Kolben added. “We’ve written a lot about that on Kveller and we’ve encouraged people to share the ‘real’ parenting photos of the tough moments that don’t make it on to Facebook.”
Schwartz believes Jewish parenting is changing, even if Jewish values are not.
“I think it’s flexible and I think it can change over time,” she said. “I guess the idea of the class is to provide options for people to try out, try on, modify. I think it’s a pretty wide range.”
If Jewish parenting is changing, Springer, the daughter of an interfaith marriage, said it’s partly because the Jewish community is changing.
For instance, her father was Jewish but he didn’t take an active interest in religion, so her mother, the non-Jewish parent, took on that responsibility.
“She made sure we got to religious school,” Springer recalled. “She made it possible for us to observe the religious holidays at home, and she made Friday dinner. We always did Friday dinner with candles and challah.”
The extended Jewish family, which served as a conduit for transmitting Jewish traditions and rituals, is disappearing, she said. Children frequently live far from their grandparents, aunts and uncles who understand and practice Judaism.
“The communities aren’t as tight,” Springer said. “There is less Jewish community in terms of right where you live, so you don’t see a lot of traditions being passed on.
“If your parents didn’t do it for you, then you don’t necessarily have a neighbor to pass it on to you,” she continued. “You have to go look for it. This class will be kind of like looking for those things, but all in the one place.”
The six weeks of the class are divided into six topics:
• Different Ages and Stages Throughout the Years (co-sponsored by PJ Library).
• What’s Going on During Services and How do I Participate?
• What Makes My Home Look, Feel, and Smell “Jewish”?
• What Traditions Can I Realistically Incorporate into My Family’s Busy Lives?
• Creating Your Own Extended Family.
Part six will address a topic of the class’ choice.
Springer envisions the sessions bringing a Jewish slant to everyday parenting issues.
“When you potty train, we all know what to do based on the books we read,” she said, “but none of them have like a Jewish twist, so what can we do to make that a Jewish experience? How can we incorporate Judaism into making that special?”
Schwartz compared the class to a “toolbox” where parents can find help as they instill Judaism in their own kids
“I really didn’t have anything to pass on,” she said, referring to her own experience. “I didn’t have a toolbox to reach into.”
Eventually, though, through her teaching, reading and what she learned on her own, “a light switch went on.”
Has it paid off for her?
“When my son left for college he turned to me and he said, ‘you know, I really would like to hang a mezzuza on the door, on my college door,’” Schwartz said. “I thought, ‘Oh my!’ I ran up to The Temple and I bought the mezzuza, and I thought, ‘It’s like, a lot of what I did resonated.’
“College is the moment where they step out the door,” she added. “We looked for colleges that had Jewish populations, but let’s be honest, it was going to be about whether he was going to seek it out on campus. When he left with his little mezzuza in hand, I did think to myself, Yeah, he was listening, he got it.”
The classes will run from 9:45-11:30 a.m. Call 502-423-1818 for details.