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Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention

The first social group children encounter is the family unit. When parents, siblings, if they exist, and extended family members value Jewish activities and are connected to other Jews, babies and very young children are educated that Jewishness is worthwhile. Of course families vary greatly on the centrality of Jewishness to their quotidian lives: some families incorporate daily Jewish activities–others encounter Jewishness only a few times a year. Another factor is what we might call the “religious narrative(s)” of the home, a reflection of the religious identification of parents. Virtually all children of two Jews are “raised as Jews,” and the home has only one ethno-religious narrative; any activities reflecting ethnicity and/or religion informally educate children to care about Jewishness. However, children of one Jew and one non-Jew, in contrast, have what sociologist Mary Waters calls “ethnic options.”9 Fewer than half of intermarried Jewish parents say they are raising their children with some Jewish connections.10 Percentages “raising children as Jews” vary by location, greater or smaller in particular cities. The Jewishness of the home also varies dramatically by the gender of the parent: intermarried Jewish mothers are substantially more likely than intermarried Jewish fathers to say Jewishness is important to them, that they are raising children as Jews, that they insist on the ritual circumcision of their sons, and that they provide sons and daughters with Jewish education.11 However, even with “raised Jewish” children, in intermarried families there is often a competing religious narrative in the home (the famous “December dilemma” is typical) and families often create new combinations of merged or syncretic traditions. Social life further reinforces the difference between inmarried and intermarried families: inmarried Jews tend to have mostly Jewish friendship circles, while intermarried Jews tend to have predominantly mixed married and non-Jewish friendship circles.

Throughout their growing up years, children’s Jewish education is linked to the Jewish activities–or lack of them–within the family. The influence goes in both directions. Many people are aware that families profoundly affect children’s Jewish connections–but fewer realize that from preschool through the teenage years children’s Jewish connections profoundly affect families. When parents from even Jewishly under-connected or inactive families enroll their children in formal or informal Jewish educational programs, the Jewish connections and activities of the whole family increase. When children or teens leave Jewish educational settings, the Jewish behaviors of the whole family decline. Clearly, Jewish education creates an ecology, or mutually revitalizing synergy, that reinforces Jewish identity. Moreover–again from pre-school through the teen years–the greater the number of Jewish educational activities and experiences, the more impact each of them have on the given child and on the family. When Jewish education succeeds, it is most often a story of the more, the more.

Jewish education is part of the ongoing building of Jewish social capital. No one educational strategy provides a permanent Jewish inoculation for all Jews, but all educational strategies work best when they include the reinforcement of a social network. As we have discussed, the social circles like the family also have a huge influence in defining an individual’s values and influencing behaviors. Other social circles have important influence on values and behaviors as well, in school, extracurricular activities, and later in the workplace. American Jewish lives are mobile and fluid. As we document in the next section, Jewish social capital is built by early childhood education, elementary school formal and informal educational experiences, teen classes and activities with peers, college Jewish studies and Israel trips, community-building, cultural, and social-justice activities for emerging adults (twenties and thirties), family education, and adult education. The combination of formal and informal Jewish education and strong Jewishly connected social circles produces the most strongly connected Jewish adults, especially in day school that lasts from elementary through teen years, supplementary school when combined with Jewish summer camps and teen programs, and colleges with many Jews and Jewish educational opportunities. Jewish social circles plus multifaceted Jewish education effectively nourishes Jewishness: the more the more.

But for some Jewish populations who miss these serendipities, the story is more like, the less the less. Some Jews are geographically isolated in childhood, and have few Jewish friendship circles, and do not get sent to Jewish camps that might enrich their Jewishness on many levels. Some are the children of weakly identified Jewish parents; some of these Jewishly “impoverished” families, in terms of Jewish social capital, are intermarried families, especially where the mother does not identify as a Jew. Weak Jewish identification often gets worse with each generation that is remote from Jewish social networks and Jewish education, creating a cycle of poor Jewish social capital.

Early childhood informal educational efforts such as the “P.J. Library Project,”12 youth groups that make few demands on the family and are available to geographically isolated youth like BBYO, for college students Birthright Israel and popular Jewish studies courses, and some outreach programs can capture the interest of less connected Jews. “One size fits all” doesn’t reflect diverse individual realities. But one thing is true of the interaction between social circles and formal and informal Jewish education–educational serendipities create added value that far surpasses the sum of the parts.

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