How do we see to it that our next generation is Jewish?

March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

My dad once quipped: every Sunday we’d take our kids to church and then afterwards to Kaplan’s Deli. Little did we know that for our daughter it would be the deli tradition that stuck!

What can I say? It was a good deli.

So, how do we know what will stick? And is it really possible to know? Recently, an important work of scholarship by Vern L. Bengtson provides insight into which traditions will and won’t stick. In his work, Families and Faith, Bengtson details the results of his multi-generational study of the transmission of faith-traditions from one generation to the next.

So let’s look at what he had to say to families who are interested in handing down their religious traditions from one generation to the next:

  1. Parents have more religious influence than they think. It’s easy to get the message that youth today are unresponsive to their parents’ religious training. But the results of this study show that, even years later, parental religious socialization has been effective.”[1]

    If that is true, how then did I become a rabbi? In my own case, I had been socialized to join a liberal congregation and participate in its religious life. I didn’t remain in my parents’ religious tradition, but my adult spiritual life certainly finds echoes in theirs.

  1. Fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad…our study indicates that relationships with parents that are felt to be close, warm, and affirming are associated with higher religious transmission than are relationships perceived as cold, distant, or authoritarian – regardless of the level of parental piety. Moreover, this is particularly true for relations with fathers.”

    If you’ve met my parents, you know that they are anything but cold, distant, and authoritarian: obviously not the issue here.

  1. Allowing children religious choice can encourage religious continuity. This might be difficult for devoutly religious parents to accept: Encouraging freedom of choice in religion and being open to a child’s religious experimentation can be effective in promoting religious continuity. Holding a tight rein on one’s children might work for some parents, at least in tight-knit religious communities where church and family activities are closely intertwined and the community is religiously homogenous. But in more open or diverse contexts with competing moral and cultural perspectives, parents who encouraged some degree of exploration while still providing a firm religious foundation have higher success rates, at least in our sample. This may seem puzzling, but we found that, in many of our high-continuity families, children who experienced freedom of choice were likely to follow their parents’ religious example.”

    What does he mean by that? He means that if your daughter really gets into the religious and spiritual practices of yoga as a 20-year-old, and you don’t express any sense of alarm with regard to her practice then it’s still pretty likely that she’ll follow your religious practices and affiliate with a Jewish congregation when she becomes a mom. That’s especially true if you both have a warm and close relationship with her and you have woven regular religious practice into your home life.

    So, what about my experience? My parents were very open to my exploration of religious identity and did not object when I started learning about Judaism. So, how did it happen then that I chose a different one than their own?

    It wasn’t them. The difficulty arose with regard to the church that we attended. The denomination was a religiously-liberal denomination, in keeping with my parents’ views. But the pastor was not. Specifically, in his case, he was very much opposed to homosexuality, viewing it as a grave sin. 

    So when one of my friends was outed as a lesbian against her will by her brother, my pastor was not able to provide me with any comfort as I tried to comfort my friend. He only offered condemnation of my friend’s orientation. He thought that the social isolation and persistent ridicule that she experienced in response to this event was fully deserved. Never mind the fact that she was 11 years old.

    The dissonance I perceived between what he preached and what he practiced, at least with regard to compassion for the pain of others, pushed me away from the church. I was offended by his stance, deeply offended. And so I left my church and didn’t look back.

    Now to look at Bengtson’s fourth point: 

  1. Don’t forget the grandparents. Increasingly, family influences are extending beyond the nuclear family of mothers and fathers to involve grandparents and great-grandparents…For many children, grandparents are the de facto moral and religious models and teachers in lieu of parents who are too exhausted or too busy on weekends to go to church or temple. As longevity continues to expand, even great-grandparents are continuing to exert religious influence, as seen in several families in our study.”

    My grandmother, of blessed memory, was a devout woman. And she absolutely loved that I chose the rabbinate. She’d tell me, ‘we all worship the same God,’ and she also said, ‘had it been an option when I was young, I think that I would have been a pastor.’ She drove up from Texas to see me off with a blessing before I left for rabbinical school; she sent me spending money throughout my school years. One of the very last things she did before she died was attend my ordination. She modeled a deep commitment to religious life.

    If you are a grandparent and you are hoping that your kids will raise Jewish grandchildren, what should you do? Don’t lecture, nag, or guilt them into doing anything. It won’t help, and it very well may cause genuine harm.

    The absolute best thing you can do is offer to take the kids for a weekend whenever you can do so and then engage in the observance of Shabbat and holidays. Go to services, light candles, and say the prayers. Model engagement in Jewish life as a natural part of your own experience. Your grandkids will be paying attention: they are watching you carefully with the intent of copying everything that you do. So don’t worry; just do. The grandkids are watching.

  2. Don’t give up on Prodigals, because many do return. Devout parents are often devastated to find that their children have become Religious Rebels, young adults who have rejected their parents’ religious tradition and converted to another religion or dropped out altogether. But one implication of our study is this: Many Prodigals do return.”

    In my case, it’s pretty clear that I won’t ever be returning to my original religious tradition. But that’s because I’ve invested so much of myself into this path. I’ve been Jewish nearly my entire adult life: I reached adulthood a bit more than 20 years ago; I became Jewish just shy of 20 years ago. Most folks aren’t as clearly invested in religious observance as I am, and most folks don’t have as strong a need as I did for my religious tradition to make rational sense.

So, given what we know about religious continuity, what can rabbis and congregations do? Here’s what Bengtson had to say: 

  1. “Focus on the family as a unit—much more than most congregations do today. If churches [and synagogues] want to retain the next generation, they must not ignore families and strengthening connections across generations in their programming…They may have programs they call ‘intergenerational,’ but these involve bringing together individuals of different ages – children, youth, adults, older adults – not parents and their children, grandparents and their grandchildren…The findings of our study suggest there is a need to focus on whole families and on strengthening intergenerational bonds…”

    Fascinating. According to this research, the most successful programs (at least in terms of Jewish continuity) that we offer here at Temple Beth Israel are the holiday parties: our Rosh Hashanah family dinner, our Hanukah party, our Purim service and carnival (this weekend!), our Passover Seder, and our Rabin Religious School end-of-year bar-be-que.

    In practical terms, this is what it means: if you want to encourage Jewish continuity, come to our Purim service on Sunday and bring the kids and grandkids.

    Even if you don’t have kids, it’s helpful if you attend, because the kids will appreciate a full house. It tells them: this is important.

  2. “Take a long-range view. A second message to religious communities concerned about youth is this: Don’t panic…Clergy should be reminded that historically religious intensity has ebbed and flowed and that this has been particularly evident among youth. The present era of a lower rate of church affiliation and participation may represent a temporary dip over time.”

    Over the past 150 years, our congregation has ebbed and flowed as well. What has made a real difference for us has been the commitment on the part of previous generations to building a legacy. Their efforts – specifically, the efforts toward consolidating two congregations into one, building a beautiful and well-crafted building, and creating an endowment – have given us staying power, even when times are tough. We’ll be here for the long haul.

  3. “The younger generation does grow up…The seemingly diverse religious expressions seen among teens and twenty- to-thirty-somethings may change in the course of their lives as they grow up and grow older. For some young adults, a return to their religious tradition occurs when they marry; for others, this happens with the birth of children or later on, with the onset of the empty nest, grandparenthood, or retirement, or even later, with aging-related challenges concerning health or the death of a spouse. If church [or synagogue] seems irrelevant to a nineteen-year-old, that might change for her as she becomes a mother of school-age children or a seventy-three-year-old widow when the social support of a congregation may become increasingly important…”

    Our congregation has grown in the past two years; and nearly all of the growth has come from young families. Right now (with God’s help) we’re on track for doing a half-dozen or more bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies in 2027. And, consistent with the findings of this research, our other demographic group that has grown in the past two years is our retirees. Those are the two groups most likely to join a synagogue.

  4. “Religious renewal has often been sparked by generational innovation. There is another way to view the story of ‘discontinuity’ in religious transmission: the possibilities for religious revival or reform because of young adults’ critiques and departures.

    Each generation has its own preferences, and will want to put its stamp on the organization. So we will need to adapt to their tastes and interests as time goes forward, to make sure that families and individuals across the spectrum of ages feel welcome and valued in our congregation. Some of those changes will seem strange to older generations, but they are a necessary part of congregational life.

With all of that said, I’d like to close on his most hopeful note: “Finally, the results of this study are also relevant to sociologists and social scientists studying the family. They suggest that most families are doing pretty well in their primary functions, which are… to foster companionship and to raise children, providing them with the moral wherewithal to make the right decisions as adults.”

Of course, he says, “Intact families tend to have an easier time of this than parents who have divorced; religiously homogenous parents are more successful than parents in interfaith marriages; parents who are warm and affirming do better than those who are cold and distant; and families where grandparents reinforce the parents’ religious socialization efforts succeed more than where they do not. But where any of these supports is lacking, other family mechanisms can compensate; families are wonderfully resilient.” That’s wonderful news indeed.

Happily, so is our congregation; it is also wonderfully resilient, largely because we are, in a sense, an extended family. We reinforce the messages in the home and provide a community for sharing the joys and sorrows of living. I hope that you make yourself right at home.



[1] All of the quotations here come from Chapter 10, “Conclusion: What We Have Learned and How It Might Be Useful,” in Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations by Vern L. Bengtson with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 184-206.

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