Spirituality, Inclusion, Connectivity: Engaging Young Jewish Families in the 21st Century

Sight Line asked two prominent voices in Jewish social media – Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and Jordana Horn – to think about those issues most pressing to young Jewish families today and share their thoughts with us. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg: We’re going through a difficult chapter of American history right now. Whether we’re talking about gun violence or immigration or the treatment of Muslim Americans or something else, there are a lot of things that our kids are picking up on and we need to develop better language for talking to them about these things in ways that are truthful, age-appropriate, and leave them not feeling terrified or despairing. To me, this is one of the most urgent and timely issues facing young Jewish families today.

I recently wrote about Mr. Rogers, and was struck by his unflinching willingness to engage with kids around things they might be overhearing on the TV or radio, or from their parents. For example, after Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968, he did a segment explaining what the word “assassination” meant, for very young children. He told them the truth – that it was hard and sad, and that it was OK to feel scared and mad about it.

I think this is where Jewish values, traditions, and principles might be able to help – particularly around our own obligations to work for a more just and whole world and to preserve lives and human dignity above all else.

Jordana Horn: Agreed, 100%. From day one of nursery school, we should be driving home the essential Jewish message that all human beings are created in the image of God – that we are all imbued with a spark of the divine, the ineffable, the magnificent. Because once we know and appreciate that, everything else is commentary.

And I believe that’s just as important as learning our classmate’s names (maybe even more so?)learning that there is something holy in every human being, and that is at the root of WHY, as Jews, we have the imperative to repair the world.

I think there are also important discussions to be had about WHEN to talk to children about world events. I’m not convinced, for example, that kids of every age who go to shul on Shabbat need to know about what happened in Pittsburgh. And yet, my nursery-school-age child who goes to a Jewish nursery school has active shooter drills because it’s a Jewish school. I deeply resent the uglier parts of this world’s intrusion into my kids’ childhood – but I think there is a nuanced discussion to be had about not only what you say and how, but when you say it and why. I’ve not yet talked to my little girls ages 8 and under about the Holocaust, for example, but I have had very involved, no-holds-barred discussions about everything with my teens since they were 10 and up.

DR: Right. And different parents are going to have different attitudes about how to handle the difficult, painful things, and of course approaches need to be tailored also to the kid, and their personality, but it’s impossible to ignore this issue now.

Another pressing issue is inclusion, or celebration – making a Jewish community that is truly both welcoming to everyone, and also honors and celebrates what a range of perspectives and experiences can offer our tradition and community. It’s not enough to create a Jewish community that welcomes Jews of Color, disabled Jews, Jews from interfaith families, Jews of every gender, sexuality, and family configuration. Rather, we should also be open to growing and evolving based on the insights and leadership of folks from all walks of life and ways of being. It might take some work for us to get there, but I think it’s important work.

JH: Yes. We should make an active effort to open up these ideas and discussions, even when the room in which we sit doesn’t immediately present as diverse. We have to make an active effort to read books to kids about people who aren’t neurotypical, or families that present differently, or Jewish people who aren’t Jewish from birth or don’t trace their genes back to the shtetl. We also have to remind ourselves that some differences aren’t immediately visible, and it’s imperative to always communicate the idea from the outset that we are understanding and our arms are open. I think that ties back to this idea of why we are all doing what we are doing in the first place.

I would love to encourage Jewish communities to create programming that addresses differences – or at least doesn’t assume that everyone is coming from the same place.

DR: I’d love to see the Jewish community offering frazzled, busy parents more tools to help be more present with their kids more of the time. There are a lot of ways that our tradition can help – to find the holy sparks waiting to be raised from mundane (dare I say – boring) tasks like folding laundry or sweeping up Cheerios, find the blessings that can be recited after an unpleasant encounter with poop, or find the I-Thou encounter, as philosopher Martin Buber would put it, the true communion with the other, during the moments when empathy might seem elusive.

I have a lot of thoughts and opinions on helping parents see how parenting – in the hard, tricky, agonizing moments as well as the sweet ones – can be a legitimate spiritual practice in its own right. Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting is predicated on the assumption that parenting can be not only a spiritual practice when you’re blowing bubbles at the park or feeling mystically connected in a sleepy snuggle – the warm, feel-good moments – but that it can also be a spiritual practice when you find the sparks of light in the hardest, most crazymaking moments. Pulling up just the tiniest droplets of compassion from underneath the frustration. Tapping into that well of love at 3 A.M. when really all you want to do is Go. Back. To. Sleep. It’s about finding gratitude for the body that works well enough to poop, even if it means extra laundry. It’s about allowing yourself to get present, fully present, in whatever’s happening: present in the mundane moments of cleaning up, present in the hard moments when your frustration levels are high, present in the uncomfortable moments when you realize how little of their lives and fates you really control.

When we find compassion for our kids, we become kinder and softer. When we learn how to trust our instincts as parents, we become more in tune with ourselves. And, when we allow ourselves to enter fully into the breathtaking love we have for our kids, it can bring us to the doorway of the sacred.

I’d love to see the Jewish world talking more about these questions, offering frazzled, busy parents more tools to help be more present with their kids more of the time. There are enough ways that our tradition can help them with this project.

JH: I’d like the Jewish community to make more active efforts to enfranchise the disenfranchised. So many of our life problems are dealt with behind closed doors – and yet, we know intellectually that we can all be a source of comfort and solace to one another. I belong to many Jewish communities, and in one, there was a wonderful program where the rabbi ‘interviewed’ a friend of mine, Rebecca Soffer. Rebecca is one of the creators of the website ModernLoss.com, a clearinghouse of feelings about grief and loss of all shapes and permutations. On a busy weeknight, over 100 people showed up for this talk – people who had lost spouses, parents, friends, and children. They came to sit and listen and learn – and the conversations afterwards were just as valuable as the conversation on the bima had been, and maybe even more so, because they fostered a sense of connection and community.

So many of the problems that keep us up at night – whether depression and anxiety, eating disorders, fertility struggles, or what have you – are ones that we deal with alone, out of a misbegotten sense of shame or fear. I would like the Jewish community to take more aggressive strides to meet people where they are and to extend a hand of love and compassion to all those who are struggling. In today’s world, we have the mechanisms for connectivity in our literal pockets with smart phones and social media, and yet each of us finds ourselves more alone. I believe our Judaism can help us out of the lonely darkness and into the warmth of physical connection and community.

This post originally appeared in Sight Line, the digital journal of The Covenant Foundation. Reprinted with permission.