Throughout the earlier years of my children’s education in the Jewish day school system, I was thrilled to have the school and the teachers take over for me. To begin with, I was uneducated myself, and more than that I was also disinterested. I sent my kids to parochial school because it was what Jews did in Toronto. There was a certain status that went along with a private Jewish day school education.
And there was no way I was putting my kids through the hell that was the Sunday school of my childhood! I used to call it Jew jail. I couldn’t get out of it fast enough. All I could remember experiencing in Sunday school was the rote repetition of phrases I didn’t understand, prayers I couldn’t read, and Hebrew letters that swam in front of my eyes like tadpoles. I remember the elderly teacher, a man whose exasperation with us made him hunch in sadness and who was always a little bit angry. Plus, there was no context within my own family for any of this. This was forced down my throat every single Sunday morning until I was 11! When I think of the morning cartoons sacrificed for stories that made no sense and had no relevance (or so I thought),I still shudder to this day!
Fast forward 25 years and my children were truly embedded in the Jewish education system. It was not long before I realized that I was not even equipped to help my day school kids with grade one Hebrew homework. They would share stories about the weekly Torah portion that I knew nothing about. My pride was stung. There was no way I was paying for a tutor as well as school fees. So, I decided to go and take classes myself.
Together with my very small children, I chose a Jewish education for myself, and it bore no relation to the Sunday school I remembered. I felt as though a part of me was unfolding along with them. I felt that Judaism speaks to our day-to-day lives and is an operating system for creating the highest possible standard of human capacity.
You see, I always knew that I wanted to raise mensches. I wanted to model it and live by example. But raising a mensch – and being one yourself – requires a deep understanding of what Judaism teaches us about becoming a mensch. This requires us to commit ourselves to Jewish learning from the earliest possible age until our very last breath.
I cared about my children’s ability to read and write in Hebrew. I cared about them knowing about Israel, and about our history, but what I was most interested in having them learn, and learn myself, was about Judaism, as it pertains to ethics, morals, and ideals. I wanted Jewish values because that’s what makes menschy behavior. I just wasn’t sure what part of Jewish life most reinforced these concepts.
As my kids and I studied, I learned that it is more important to praise their efforts in those areas than their marks in academics. If your child’s honesty, inclusion of an annoying sibling, or kindness to a grandparent garnered the same praise as an A on their report card, the child will feel like their self-esteem is not tied to their intellectual learning style. If a child is rewarded with attention and praise for good character as directed by Jewish principles and values, they can feel successful. Even if they struggle academically like so many of our children do, they can focus on the pleasure and approval that comes with Judaism’s mandate: to spend your life working on improving your character traits and on healing this sometimes-broken world.
There are ways to help your children become mensches through your own focus points. Since a mensch is outwardly focused rather than self-absorbed, teach your children to catch their siblings doing something right and good, rather than calling each other out when they are naughty. Have them compete to see who notices the good and helpful things about each other. Let the rewards and prizes on the sticker chart be not for their own good behavior, but for every time they catch a sibling or a friend doing something good. There are ways to redirect sibling rivalry and competitiveness by “catching” each other in acts of kindness, generosity, and love.
Use the stories from the Torah, which are indeed our family history, to invite your kids to share their experiences and impressions through a Jewish lens.
When my eldest was only seven years old, we were still driving to synagogue on Shabbat. I used to search for a parking space several blocks from the synagogue so as to appear to have walked. (I know, I know. Not cool, but I did not yet understand that it is not all or nothing). One day, as we drove to our “secret spot,” my son said to me,”Mama, there was a parking meter right in front of the shul! Why don’t we just park there?”
I stumbled and hemmed and hawed. I did not have the “all or nothing” words yet so I simply said, “Because this is an Orthodox shul and people don’t drive here on Shabbat.”
He turned to me and said,”Mama, you are just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden!”
“What?” I said, puzzled and confused.
“Yeah,” he said, “Morah (teacher) said that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit of the tree, and then they hid in the bushes of the garden. God asked them where they were but they said they were hiding. But that was stupid because God could see where they had parked. God can see where we parked, too. You are just afraid of the ladies with big stupid hats on!”
Can you imagine?! Grade one or two, and he had learned the story of Genesis (Breishit) and understood hypocrisy and honesty through it – enough to call out his mother. I was proud. Mortified, but proud. This Is how Talmud Torah, Jewish learning, can make a mensch out of you and your kid. When we internalize the lessons of our foremothers and forefathers, we do better. And as Oprah says, “When you know better you do better!”