26 January 2009

Does Pediatric Judaism Make Us An Orphan People?

"Pharaoh said to them, 'Go, worship the Lord your G-d! Who are the ones to go?' Moses replied, 'We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord's festival.'" Exodus 10: 8-9. (Bo)

Why does Moses emphasize young and old? The Etz Hayim Torah and commentary (without providing a specific citation) reads, "One commentator states, 'because no celebration is complete without children.' A second adds, 'a child without a parent is an orphan, but a nation without children is an orphan people.'"

[I will note here: whatever the import to Moses, Pharaoh does not allow the women or the children to go, only the men - although apparently all of them. He interprets "young and old" as an indication that Moses and Aaron are bent on mischief and have no intention to return after three days.]

I want to focus on the words of the commentator - even though I don't know who it is or whether these words are exact because I have heard such things before in our community. I question what it is about the presence of children that completes celebrations for us.

Please do not misunderstand, I agree with the assertion. I love children (of all ages although for some reason I find 8 year old girls rather challenging) and have worked with and celebrated with Jewish children from birth through college age. When I graduated from law school, I did not go to my graduation ceremony (which was on Shabbat morning) and instead on Sunday afternoon rented a park so that my students and their families (all from a supplemental religious school program) could celebrate with me and my friends. My favorite law school graduation gift was framed artwork with the quotation from Sanhedrin that "one who teaches another's child Torah is as one who gave birth to the child." (My second favorite was a guitar, which I sadly still cannot play.)

My question this week is: should our celebrations begin with children - or be completed with children? In other words, should our celebrations of Jewish holidays and of Judaism be focused entirely on children as are so many of the Sukkot, Chanukah, Tu B'Shevat, Purim, Shavuot and other communal celebrations and observances I have experienced, or should they be focused on adults and then intentfully designed to include children? While Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are primarily mindful of adults, with congregations creating children's programming appropriate for children and teens, it seems to me that most other holidays in the our community are celebrated by and for kids at the indulgence of their parents. If I were a child, with the perspective I think most children have, I think Judaism must look horrible for adults. As an adult, you get to pray and fast . . . unless you are celebrating with kids.

I suspect that observation is less true in the Orthodox community, and within the Conservative movement I'm certain it depends on the congregation. However, in the world in which I am living and working, havdallah is usually made only at camp and on Shabbatonim, few if any people have Tu B'Shevat seders at home and the one at our congregation is focused very much on the attention span of the children, our Shavuot celebration centers entirely around our 10th graders to the point that few people in our community even realize Shavuot is a holiday and Confirmation is not. Purim is not an adult party, it is a carnival. Sukkot if acknowledged at all is about children making decorations.

I believe I feel this focus on children even more strongly because I don't have any children of my own. Although I am the age of many of the parents, and although I am part of the team creating the celebrations and observances for the children, I am not bringing children with me. Therefore, when I am at a Tu B'Shevat seder planned and run by someone else I am very aware that all of the things I hunger for in an observance of Tu B'Shevat are missing. I want an adult-level intellectual discussion of Jewish text and Jane Goodall's Harvest of Hope. I want to be able to pause in the seder where questions of Jewish mysticism naturally arise and question whether it is possible to find the mystical in Judaism without it feeling too 'new-agey' to those of us who usually find ourselves connected through more cerebral paths. I want to drink wine from an organic, bio-diverse vinyard at the seder, and learn about Rashi's vinyards in France. I want to do all of this with special 'nut-free' tables for the children with allergies, and coloring pages, and cups with seeds to plant, and music and a room designated for kids to play in while the adults who love and adore them (including those of us who didn't bring them) celebrate as adults.

So which comes first?

Moses says, "young and old" - placing children first. The commentator says a people without children is an orphan people - seemingly also placing the children first.

And yet . . .

What happens to children who only ever experience Jewish celebrations as children? What happens when children watch the adults in their community dress us for the Purim carnival, but never hear them discussing the details of the story with any interest, never hear Esther confronting the king compared to women in the United States fighting for the right to petition the government (literally for the right to write or sign petitions) or the right to vote? The women of the American Anti-Slavery Society quoted text from Megillat Esther when they fought for the right to fight against slavery. What happens when children see adult secular life as a time to read newspapers, go out for dinner, stay up late, but don't see an adult Jewish life that exists without children.

I think a few things happen.

I think as these Jewish children grow up and become teenagers, they decide many of the Jewish things they did as children are irrelevant to them as teens and they quit participating.

I think as these Jewish children become Jewish adults who are in college, grad school, or their first job they see no reason to seek our Jewish life or Jewish celebration. After all, until you have children, you are irrelevant at many (some days I'd go as far as to say most) Jewish communal events. Not only are you constantly asked why you don't and when you will have children, you always get a place on the sidelines. Sometimes you are asked to help entertain or educate young children, but most of the time you are nearly invisible. The event is designed with a focus on the children and on the needs of the people who brought them.

I think as those Jewish adults spend more and more years of our lives coming to Jewish celebrations that have nothing to do with us . . .

Well, maybe I'm alone in this one, so I'll be specific:

I have become resentful. I was never a child in the Jewish community. I grew up an only Jewish kid on a farm in Missouri where my community looked more like Charlotte's (as in Charlotte's Web) than like the lives of the children I work with who live in an urban area and belong to a synagogue (and probably also the JCC). I got involved with a synagogue when I was 17, by my own choice, and went to a college with a small Jewish population where I spent significant time figuring out how to create Jewish life on campus. Once I graduated, well, I've moved around a lot, but I've found a niche for myself in every community in which I've lived - usually as a teacher. And yet, in each one, it is clear to me that until I am at least 20 years older than I am now, the focus will be on my peers who have children and on their children.

I know I am not the only person my age who is Jewish, single, and who does not (hopefully- yet) have children.

However at Jewish community celebrations, I am often the only person in her 30s who is Jewish, single, and doesn't have children in the room.

I have been frustrated by that reality, and yet also understood that we serve the demographic that is there.

On the other hand, are we becoming an orphan people? With so many more Jewish adults unaffiliated than affiliated, with so many teens off doing other things more interesting and relevant to them than Jewish observance, with so many Jewish adults in our 20s and 30s seeking things outside the Jewish community to find belonging and meaning in our lives . . .

Perhaps one of the best guarantors for the future of the Jewish people is providing inspiration, education, meaning, community, and more for our adults and then bringing our children along with us so that our children can see the future that is their inheritance. After all, we do not raise our Jewish children to be Jewish children . . . we raise our children to, G-d Willing, become Jewish adults.

Either way, Moses doesn't get to bring the women and children out of Egypt in these verses, and later (10:24) when Pharaoh offers to let him take the women and the children leaving only the flocks behind Moses won't leave without the flocks. We arrive at the 10th plague, and at the instruction that Moses is to speak to the whole community of Israel to explain how to prepare their homes and themselves for the night they are to leave Egypt and how to observe and celebrate this sacred occasion for all time (12:21-27).

I think it's worth noting that the instruction is for everyone - young, old, parents, children, adults who do not have children, and the adult children who have elderly parents to care for . . . the whole community.

When Moses goes to the elders and tells them what they must do, he also says, "And when your children ask, 'what do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because G-d passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when G-d smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.'" (12:27)

Moses is speaking with the elders, not with every Jewish parent. Certainly, some would have had grown children. Some may have not had children. When Moses said, "your children" did he mean 'your own children' or did he mean 'the children of the Israelites'.

I think it was the latter.

Even though we are supposed to (according the the Haggadah's description of the 4 children - or traditionally the 4 sons) teach each child according to his or her ability and developmental level, we will be able to do that effectively only if as adults we are engaged and have an understanding of Judaism at our own level as well.

Torah cannot live in the words in the scroll, just as Torahs cannot dance without our legs.

Here is what I am asking for:

While I create opportunities for our Jewish children, youth, and teens, I would love for someone else to be creating dynamic, age-appropriate Jewish learning and celebrating opportunities for me.


  1. This is a very powerful post and deserving of a better answer than I could possibly give you. I think you are on target when you said that your observation is possibly less true in the orthodox community, though there it is certainly painful to be a single adult without children. But in the orthodox community the involvement in Torah and holidays is an integral part of adult life. While there are some who choose a different path, the majority of those who grow up in an orthodox home can invision themselves as functioning adult members of the community. You mentioned the Hagadda. There is a requirement to tell yourself the Hagadda - to your inner child if you may. Certainly not fun, but you have the obligation to yourself. If there are any orthodox venues available to you I would urge you to seek them out. In the orthodox community lectures and events for adults are common and there is no requirment that you yourself be othodox.

  2. i struggle with this all the time. i do think you're right - the pediatric nature of what we do DOES turn off our young people because they only think it's about kid-stuff...i wish i had an answer but i don't.

    and yet...i also know that those of us who work and teach in the community have a uniquely difficult time finding our own programming/opportunities because we're often BUSY working while other people are enjoying the adult programming running somewhere else concurrently.

    some days i think i want to go get a job as something else so i can just be a "jew in the pew" but it's not likely to happen, is it?

  3. Remember that in Megilat Ester, Haman says he will destroy all Jews, from the youngest to the oldest.

  4. Wow. That was a fantastic post, and I agree completely. Thank you! I'm a mom now (have been for about a year) and only now am I finding myself "welcome" in the adult Jewish community, and that doesn't thrill me.

    I was "lost" from the end of high school, until now. After so long, I'm not even sure how to return, ya know?

  5. Are you talking Conservative Movement? If so, I fully understand. In my truncated and semi-informed (not to mention intimidated) Jewish community here in America's Bible Belt, Chabad and the MO shuls do a good job of making Jews out of Jewish adults.

  6. Here from HH. What a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I very much wish to explore my faith and become more observant, but am hesitant (not the right word, but it will suffice) for two reasons. First, I am unsure where to start (never really felt welcome at my family's synagogue). Second, my husband and I are struggling with infertility. Being around kids and being marginalized by adults for not having children is definitely not high on my list of priorities.

  7. I appreciate all of the comments, and I'm not really sure what the minchag is in blog-world for responding to people's responses.

    However, I have many thoughts about Jendeis's infertility struggles. I have had so many friends in a similar situation - the very community that should be the place to go and not have to worry about emotionally protecting oneself is so often a place people experiencing infertility find emotionally charged. I don't know what to do about it, but I really wish we'd talk about it more!

    Also, Phyllis mentioned the challenge of concurrent programming . . . I have come up with one potential solution - over Pesach we don't have religious school so I am taking a Passover Adventure Trip with a group out of Colorado. I'll happily share how it goes!

    I am also seriously considering looking for work outside the Jewish community so that I may be observant as myself within the Jewish community . . . not sure where those thoughts will take me, but they are under consideration.

    Finally (for now) in the book Seven Blessings, when the main character is engaged and finds herself accepted in a way she never was as a single woman and is very uncomfortable with her new found place in the Jewish world because she knows how she 'earned' it.