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Losing her — and her kids’ — religion

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Every Monday faithfully, for years, I have brought my children to Hebrew school.

Friends have asked why. The question makes me angry.

“Why? Because we’re Jewish!” I say. True, we aren’t religious (my husband tolerates the High Holidays, despite his atheism) but I wanted to give our kids some sense of a higher power, of something bigger than themselves.

“We don’t take the time to talk about spirituality at home,” I told one friend, though I remain unsure why I am introducing my kids to a belief system in which I am not sure I actually believe.

Lately, my weak reasoning has resonated less and less with my boys, who have begun to ask the constant and pervasive question, “Why?” about things they don’t want to do. Telling them, “Just because…” is just not going to cut it.

But in a sense, “Just because” is as true an answer as any when Judaism is concerned. The seed of doubt, the questioning of religion, was planted in my mind from my early days. I was always doubtful that any group of people, especially one that I was considered part of, might be better than everyone else, might be the “Chosen” ones. Fundamentally, I think that such a belief is the great divider of peoples, the root cause of hatred and war and almost every uprising for all of recorded history. Yet I send my children to a religious program.

Perhaps for the same reason, I joined a sorority when I was in college. The goal, I guess, was to be part of something or grouped together with others against the cold realities of the real world, practicing rituals that might maybe mean something, if only (as the great show, “The Book of Mormon,” points out) in metaphor.

What if those rites and rituals stop meaning anything? What if the words on the Hebrew homework that come back are foreign not only because they are literally, but also because they are conceptually? What if you couldn’t care less about kashrut and karpas and kippahs? And what if that begins shining through, clearly, to your kids?

“I don’t want to go to Hebrew school…” Eli began whining this year more vociferously than ever, sensing a chink in the armor. Previously, I had not even been willing to entertain the idea.

“This isn’t like rugby, or piano, or other things you can opt out of just because you don’t feel like it,” I remember saying to him one day. “You are going for the next (fill-in-the-blank) years, until your Bar Mitzvah, and that’s that.”

Something changed this past year, though. It began to seem more than slightly hypocritical for me to push and prod my kids to parrot concepts that I wasn’t sure I could stand behind. I began caring less and less that they finish their Hebrew homework, that they attend any except the most mandatory of events at the Temple. I began complaining about Hebrew school myself and that, of course, as a parent, is the kiss of death.

“Maybe,” I floated, “you won’t go back to Hebrew school next year…”

I chastised myself mercilessly for the comment, which was immediately etched in stone in Eli’s agnostic-leaning little brain. “We’re not going next year, remember Mommy?” he’d say all year as an excuse not to be as vigilant with his efforts, to skip Hebrew in favor of baseball.

Here I was, in a place where I’d always feared to be, one of Those people I always shook my head at sadly, one of those non-believers who didn’t try to “give” their kids religion. But something in me had snapped. I realized one day that a belief system based on story after story of prevailing over persecution was not necessarily something I wanted to give, and that, even if I so desired to, it was not necessarily going to take. In my household, no matter what words pass through my lips, my kids always know how I really feel. And they knew I had stopped caring.

On the last day of Hebrew school I passed along the sign-up form for next year without signing up. I tried (hard as it is for me) to stay quiet about my decision, challenging as it is for others not to feel judged by the decisions we make for ourselves when they differ from their own.

I couldn’t lie, though. When asked explicitly my plans, in that moment or many others that have come up in recent weeks, I have had to offer up that I’m just not sure, that I just can’t reconcile it so much anymore.

Not surprisingly, given the questioning nature of the temple I’d chosen, one filled with inter-faith couples and converts and people whose lifestyle choices might be judged harshly in more stringent religious settings, my struggle with hypocrisy was shared. I was not alone.

And the dilemma remained: How can you provide your kids a bit of spirituality if you are not spiritual?

Like parenting itself, each of us makes her own choices about faith, picking and choosing the ways that work for us. People stick it out often for the sense of perpetuating a rich history and culture, often out of sheer family guilt and, if we’re honest, out of fear: without a temple membership, without a weekly commitment to a single system, we might not belong. We are flapping, like the wind, free to make our own choices out of the many millions of choices out there to make. As it turns out, for better or worse, that is the place we’ve been anyway, my family. Now, we just don’t have to pretend.

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Reader Feedback

Kevin Zimmerman from atheistdad.wordpress.com says:
I'm glad that you feel you can be more authentic with your kids and with others. (I have an Eli too!) I'm an atheist dad who wants to raise moral, ethical kids, but I haven't attempted to give my kids spirituality as you have, and I'm not sure that can be done. Although Carl Sagan's Cosmos comes close, as do the Symphony of Science videos.

All the best!

Kevin Zimmerman
Iowa
June 21, 2011, 7:25 am
Aaron from Heights says:
Yet another lame Brooklyn parent. No kid wants to eat their vegetables, but a parent needs to provide them with the building blocks to think for themselves. Pulling them out of something before it's complete sends a terrible message, and this woman seems like a wishy-washy non-commital person who is reacting rather than leading her children's development.
June 21, 2011, 7:58 am
Cheryl from Fort Greene says:
Did you ever ask your kids WHY they didn't want to go to Hebrew school? I was like them when I was younger, and my reasoning was that it was too easy and most of the kids (and parents) didn't care whether they learned or not. They goofed off, tortured the teacher, and forced us to review the same things year after year. It was terrible!

Regardless, I didn't find my spiritual identity in Hebrew school (and I don't know anyone who did). It wasn't until college when I began getting involved at our Hillel--planning programs, leading services, and studying one-on-one with our rabbi and rebbetzin--that I started along my path to finding what Hashem (God) really is and means to me (I still haven't fully figured it out, but find me someone who has). Hebrew school wasn't the place for that, and I never expected it to be. It was to be a basic introduction (with supplemental learning from my family) to all of the religious, historical, and cultural aspects of Judaism. Perhaps your kids won't miss it when they're older, but I know plenty of atheist Jews who still enjoy being involved in their synagogue or minyan.
June 21, 2011, 7:58 am
daniel from downtown says:
Right. I've always been baffled by Jewish parents who complain and moan when a son or daughter, who go off to college somewhere, come home to introduce their non-Jewish fiance. What did they expect ? If non-intermarriage and a Jewish life was important to them, a yeshiva education should have imbued in them as children along with a consistant home life. Especially important to parents, in this age of instant gratification and get-whatever-you want internet, Judaism has so much to offer in promoting and sustaining ethics and family values. Sad that your parents, Stephnie, were not able to pass that onto you. Give it thought.
June 21, 2011, 8:07 am
Chicken Underwear from Park Slope says:
...until your Bar Mitzvah, and that’s that.”

My parents pulled the same —— on me. My Bar Mitzvah was the last time I wore a yamaka.
June 21, 2011, 8:07 am
Not Goish from Prospect Heights says:
This column is a shondah!
June 21, 2011, 8:13 am
Aaron from Heights says:
This columnist is yet another lackwit who thinks that by ceding control to their children, giving them more choices/activities/outlets then they can even manage, is doing them a service. Who lets their children dictate what they do or don't do in terms of personal development? If that were the case, I would have never finished a season playing Jr. High sports or have gone to sleepaway camp (because I was scared). She deserves exactly what it sounds like she'll get. Kids who fail to launch, and end up with no direction.
June 21, 2011, 8:32 am
shloymela from Greenpoint says:
the comments have been more of a "hisorerus" (awakening) to me than the rather "bland" article. Its awesome to see folk in town that are still "lit up" for the Almighty. a gut zimmer !! (summer)
June 21, 2011, 9:36 am
O2 says:
sounds like sports was the reason. my girls are both student-athletes w the oldest on full-ride to play D1 VBall & the youngest persuing same. sports provides kids w discipline, vision, sense of acomplishment, healthy strong bodies, & a way diff crowd to run with. good luck!
June 21, 2011, 10:22 am
Aaron from Heights says:
O2, do your kids have any other interests besides sports? What happened to having well rounded children that had lots of vairous experiences to pull from when they were growing into young adults. What way different crowd of kids are you referring to? Are your children in a exclusive clique of athele only children? Sounds like they're not getting very broad horizons in terms of experience and diversity.
June 21, 2011, 10:31 am
cowalker says:
I get why people want children to be familiar with the family culture. I sent my kids to CCD classes (Catholic Sunday School) until they made their First Communions, even though I'm an atheist and my spouse is an agnostic. We told them exactly why we were sending them--I wanted them to know what their grandparents believed and how my spouse and I were instructed as children. When we then gave them the choice of continuing or not, surprise, surprise, they decided not to continue. We told them that as long as they were tolerant of all beliefs and don't try to impose their beliefs on others, we didn't care what religion they wanted to follow. They have grown up to be casual atheists, who simply don't think about religion as a rational option, and have chosen similarly non-religious partners.

Since we are not "spiritual" we didn't have any desire to somehow give our kids spirituality. I don't understand why we would want to.
June 21, 2011, 11:49 am
O2 from Wburg says:
aaron (the speaker!) - yes my girls have many other interests besides sports which i encourage & support including choir & theater provided they maintain a B or better GPA. the groups they run with, mostly athletes, have healthy, strong bodies & these girls DONT have the body-image issues many teen girls suffer. also they usually wear athletic clothing so slutty dressing isnt an issue unless u consider mizuno warm-ups to be slutty. lastly nothing wrong w college coaches offering mucho dinero instead of running-up student-loan debt. THERE IS NO REASON AN ATHLETIC GIRL W DECENT GRADES HAS TO PAY A DIME FOR COLLEGE.
June 21, 2011, 12:32 pm
Ahab from Bay Rij says:
"I was always doubtful that any group of people, especially one that I was considered part of, might be better than everyone else, might be the “Chosen” ones. Fundamentally, I think that such a belief is the great divider of peoples[.]" Amen!
June 21, 2011, 12:57 pm
fatimah from Cobble Hill says:
Look at Anthony Wiener (Jewish) and Huma Abedin (Muslim). God's not happy with that one. We continue to disregard and try to change the rules sent to us from God. (See: same-sex marriage). American society is swirling rapidly down the drain and into a cesspool. God sees every think you do, know and think. Every minute of the day and the night. There's a lesson for your children.
June 21, 2011, 1:17 pm
Yehuda from Flatbush says:
After reading this article and the comments therein I could not help but shed a small tear. To think another two jewish children (yiddeshe kinder) will now go on in life with no sense of pride in their religion and possibly join the thousands that have "assimilated" truly saddens me.

The author writes "Not surprisingly, given the questioning nature of the temple I’d chosen, one filled with inter-faith couples and converts and people whose lifestyle choices might be judged harshly in more stringent religious settings, my struggle with hypocrisy was shared. I was not alone."

Certainly you were not alone. You are part of a temple of people that, they too obviously had little or any guidance as children. They obviously have similar questions on the religion possibly due to the lack of proper Jewish education.

Look I'm not saying everyone in life needs to become a Rabbi or Hasid, but it's nice to know that kids want to grow up and be proud to wear a yarmulka ("kippah) on their head & the boys should look forward to putting on tefillin everday not just the day of their Bar Mitzvah.

There are many Jewish outreach organizations out there that would gladly provide you the support and proper direction that you need should you choose to look for them.

I wish you only the best of luck in future and perhaps you should re-consider the jewish education factor. You can't put in words the peaceful joy of a shabbos, but they should be given a chance to experience it.
June 21, 2011, 1:27 pm
J from BK says:
Fatimah, God punished Weiner because he threatened to crush bike lanes. Please stop projecting your hangups on others...
June 21, 2011, 1:28 pm
William says:
Your article appears to say that you don't talk with your kids and/because you don't talk with yourself.

"Just because" is the answer given by tyrants and no-nothings. Usually one in the same.

You haven't thought it out. You wouldn't go yourself. You barely have the vaguest inkling of the results, positive or negative.

Unless and until you can say to yourself, "This is a good thing because X." then you are doing your children and the school no favors.
June 21, 2011, 2:46 pm
Aaron from Heights says:
O2, your precious sports scholarships are a waste of money and keeping education from more needy individuals. I'm sure all the time your daughters spend on collegiate athletics as opposed to studying or pursuing incremental activities will really hold up and help them in the lives post college. Who cares about college athletics, what's important is acting like a role model and parent and providing your child with experiences some of which they wouldn't actively select since they are children. The only reason I ate spinach until I was an adult was because I was told to, and in turn, I had a healthy diet. By letting your child dictate terms, they're usually going to chose the easiest or most fun option, which for a majority of kids means the least challenging.
June 21, 2011, 2:48 pm
Aaron from Heights says:
I also agree that it's a shame that the writer's children are throwing away their potential spiritual knowledge and understanding of the traditions of their ancestors. They have no concept of what they're really missing out on, and are probably only thinking of more time playing video games, hanging out with their friends or watching tv.
Additionally, this was not a very religious sunday school experience, assume it was more cultural than actual dogma being discussed, leading up to a Bar Mitzvah. If things like Charity, Volunteership, Compassion for the Elderly, Jewish History, Family Life/Customs and Tikkun Olam aren't important enough for 3-4 hours a week, then we're not dealing with a very thoughtful parental style.
June 21, 2011, 2:51 pm
ROSALIE from EX-NEWYORKER says:
I struggled with that problem for a very long time being brought up in a very mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn.
It is very healthy to examine all Religions! You don't have to get into deep studies of each but since all religions are supposed to have come from the one and only true book of where all these started, even if you are not sure there is a God the satisfaction you get to know how and where they came to be is the greatest education for anyone! The first thing that is the most important as a parent is you can never convince your children to believe in something that you are not sure of or not practicing yourself, Example is the main part of parenting. Study the Bible with an open mind not to convert but to be convinced first that this is the word of God and there are books in the Library that will help along with the Bible to help you to go on the road to what Truth is. If nothing else do it for yourself and ask questions to any one of other faiths why they believe what they do. It is well worth the effort. R.
June 21, 2011, 3:57 pm
Jonathan from Park Slope says:
I don't know what it was about this article but it made me depressed. Maybe it was the tone or the nonchalant way you talk about not being spiritual, as if it's something to strive for.
June 21, 2011, 5:35 pm
Kevin Zimmerman from www.atheistdad.wordpress.com says:
To gain entrance into and acceptance within the Mormon community, I was expected to accept certain beliefs. As I've come to learn in the past couple years, choosing to be honest and authentic and to voice my disbelief makes those who do believe feel incredibly uneasy.

The comments here reflect this discomfort. By some powerful cultural inertia, parents seem compelled to require their children to attend religious education classes, even though both parents and children find little value in it. Many commenters here are fellow Jews who are disappointed in — and critical of — the author for deciding not to perpetuate the legends and traditions of her ancestors by imposing them on her children.

But I say good for her! Religious education is an oxymoron. From my perspective, in throwing off the shackles of religion, she's enabling her family to join a venerable secular Jewish tradition that values critical thinking and reality-based education.
June 21, 2011, 10:11 pm
David from PLG says:
Your opinions in this article reflect much of my own thinking. My children were raised with a light religious structure, and they have grown to be mature atheists that care about their world, their neighbors, and are very spiritual. Organized religion does not corner a good life. It is true that a basic premise of any religion is to include ones own and to exclude others. Such "chosen people" dogma is shameful in the context of the world. Anyone who criticizes your parentinig in this column on the basis of one topic is a fool- and probably very religious.
June 21, 2011, 10:14 pm
O2 from Wburg says:
aaron wrote - "By letting your child dictate terms, they're usually going to chose the easiest or most fun option, which for a majority of kids means the least challenging."
_
you obviously are unfamilar w the dedication & discipline student-athletes must develop to be successful. these traits are also valued in the business world post-college. also, these scholarships are earned & maintained thru performance both athletically & in the classroom. lastly, scholarships are NOT a zero-sum so no one is deprived if they qualify. one would hope that the success of FEMALE student-athletes is also success for our society in equal opportunity.
June 22, 2011, 10:40 am
Aaron from Heights says:
O2, you've clearly taught your children sound physical values, and we're all excited that they're going to be spending 40 hours a week in college playing some sport instead of spending that time in class, learning and playing their sport leisurely for fun. The fact is scholarships ARE zero sum since they cost the school resources to provide. All the money the school spends to operate are divided between the students and your child will be going at a reduced cost which the school will have to make up somewhere or cut a scholarship to someone who NEEDS it. Congrats
June 22, 2011, 3:37 pm
Aaron from Heights says:
Good for you. Sometimes breaking a tradition that doesn't feel right shows more strength and set a more positive example then just following the sheep.
June 22, 2011, 3:46 pm
Fatweina from Cobble hill says:
Fatima you're an idiot. God doesn't work like that. His arrogance brought him down.
June 22, 2011, 5:14 pm
O2 from Wburg says:
no aaron, the NCAA mandates 20hrs/wk in season conditioning AND practice & 8hrs/wk off-season. the NCAA also mandates a min GPA to maintain the scholarship so the athlete must attend all classes or lose it. the NCAA also stipulates that athletic scholarship monies MUST be maintained & accounted for independent of academic monies by all member institutions. these funds CANNOT be transferred to any other institutional purpose. if ur argument is athletics are bad & should be eliminated, then u are in a small minority. remember, the author herself wrote that her sons mentioned sports in seeking to transfer. so ur objections are w her & her sons not me, my daughters, nor other student-athletes. good luck
June 24, 2011, 9:46 am
David from Carroll Gardens says:
I sympathize with Stephanie's decision to do what she believes in. That said, I can't believe that the point of her kids' Hebrew school is to tell them that Jews are "better than everyone else" and that this is the meaning of Chosenness. Jewish Chosenness means that you take on the extra burden of acting morally and trying to make the world a better place. It is not an assertion of superiority. The Hebrew schools that I know in the area--Kane Street or Park Slope Jewish Center--teach interpretation, the use of imagination, wrestling with the text of Torah and deciding for yourself what you think about God and Jewishness. That sounds great to me--at least for my child.
June 24, 2011, 5:20 pm

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