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What to do When Your Kids “Don’t Want to be Jewish”

My son, Evan, came home from religious school and said, “I don’t want to be Jewish.” This is something many of us hear from our kids when they don’t want to get dressed, don’t want to study Hebrew or desperately want a Christmas tree in the first grade. But this is my sensitive, accommodating child and he was perplexed and serious. “Ok,” I responded, “tell me more.” He recounted the bible story of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt for looking back and disobeying the angels. Evan had his points organized like a litigator. “First, do they really expect us to believe that?” He asked. “Do you believe that, Mommy? And second, why would G-d punish her like that, just for looking back? That doesn’t make any sense. Couldn’t G-d talk to her about it?” He continued to explain how this religion didn’t feel right to him and he didn’t feel good about being a Jew. I would like to say that my kid is special, but I don’t believe his insight is far off from most of our young thinkers.

As a Jewish communal professional, I was heartbroken to hear my son’s rejection of Judaism but immediately connected his sentiment to the findings of a demographic study recently completed where we live: Only 15% of the 36,000 Jewish people in Pinellas County are members of a temple or synagogue. Yet, 98% said they are proud to be Jewish. The most interesting number, though, was that 81% reported doing some type of “Jewish activity” in the past year. This included: lighting Shabbat candles, going to a Jewish film festival movie, attending a Bar Mitzvah or giving to a Jewish charity. The data made me wonder, What type of Jewish living counts? Did Evan not want to be Jewish, or does he just not want to engage in the established institutional Judaism? Can I support Evan being a confident and proud Jew in spaces outside of the religious framework?

I thought about the times when my children acted through their Jewish identity…When Fiona insisted on drawing Israeli dancers for a folk festival poster contest at school even though Israel wasn’t on the list of countries. She proactively arranged for Israel to be included in the festival and she won the poster contest. Or the times when they both acted as up-standers against inequality and injustice by walking in the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade…But what about the rest of the year, and the other days of the week?

I decided I needed to find more ways to incorporate opportunities for Evan and other kids like him to discover their Jewish identity through everyday life. I went back to my son and said, “I understand how you feel about Judaism at religious school, but being Jewish means much more than that. Part of being Jewish is helping others and taking action when we think something can be better.”

As I brainstormed with friends and colleagues about ways to incorporate Jewish identity into everyday life, the idea for Jewish toys came out of a conversation I had with “art toy” designer, Simon Boses. Toys capture children’s imagination and play provides those opportunities for discovery. I searched for progressive Jewish values-based toys that he might think are cool. Values like compassion, courage, seeking knowledge, helping others and having integrity. When I didn’t find any, I wrote a social entrepreneurship business plan for a toy company that addressed the issue of Jewish identity-building outside of traditional religious frameworks. We called it Yom Tov Toys.

What We Learned About Creating a Product

  • Strategic design. We started with a very simple design. We specifically designed the first “Gani” toy to have the same physical shape so there would be one consistent production mold but we could design different characters by changing the exterior paint. This would allow us to make production cheaper to start because having a steel mold made is an investment. We also made sure that we owned the mold. The simple design also made it easier to pass safety testing for choking hazards.
  • Idealism vs. realism. Sometimes our idealistic expectations can’t be met. You have to be willing to look at the big picture and accept that things may not be exactly as you want them to be right now….but that shouldn’t be an obstacle to moving the project forward. You can continue to work toward your ideal in the future. This was my hardest lesson so far. I wanted to have these toys produced in the US. But 90% of toys are manufactured in Asia. What I learned is, toy manufacturers in China are the experts and you just have to find someone you trust to help you work with an ethical and reputable factory. I didn’t find the cheapest manufacturer, but the toys are high quality, durable and when I opened them the first time I was so delighted that they didn’t have that toxic smell that so many toys have.
  • Company Structure. It was really hard to determine if this project should be a non-profit or a for-profit organization. After listening to author and reformer, Dan Palotta speak, I consumed his message: “There is no greater injustice than the double standard that exists between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. One gets to feast on marketing, risk-taking, capital and financial incentive, the other is sentenced to begging.” Since we have a very clear mission statement for the toys we determined that we would adopt a “low profit” model. There is a relatively new corporate classification from a tax perspective that has been adopted by about half of the states called Low Profit Limited Liability Corporation. It’s a hybrid structure that combines the legal and tax flexibility of a traditional LLC, the social benefits of a nonprofit organization, and the branding and market positioning advantages of a social enterprise.
  • Hire professionals. Our strengths are in toy design, knowledge about Judaism and Israel, marketing and strategic planning. What we don’t know how to do is build websites. Because there are templates and DIY website builders, it is tempting to create your own website. But this is one place we decided to invest our money. Using a professional web designer and video editor who understands the mission and finds value in the project made a significant difference.
  • Raise money. We had a successful first production run of our Gani toys, but as with all new businesses, we needed more money to continue making future toys and products. So we decided to create a campaign on Jewcer. We also hired Jewcer to help with the building and copywriting of our campaign.
  • Engage the experts you know. It always surprises me when people want to create something for children or teens or seniors and they don’t ask the group they want to appeal to for their input. Not only did we include kids in the design and messaging, we also consulted with the Jewish educators we knew from around the country.

How to Encourage Kids to Embrace their Jewish Identity

Whether you have a Jewish business that involves working with kids or you are a parent who wants your child to connect more with their Jewish identity (or both, like me!), here’s a list of helpful tips you can use to encourage kids to embrace their Jewish identity in everyday life.

Some Helpful Tips

    • Embrace nature. Participate in activities outside in nature and tie them to Jewish teachings about the importance of protecting the environment as well as the physical and psychological health that comes from being present and connected to nature. Yom Tov Toy’s Gani characters Binah and Lev have nature themes and symbolism that can facilitate discussions about the relationship between humans and the earth.
    • Take action. Be proactive, make a plan and take action toward social change. It doesn’t matter what cause, pick something that you can commit to with goals that are attainable. That could be walking in the Dr. Martin Luther King Day parade once a year or making lunches for food insecure children every week.
    • Own it. Find meaning in Jewish traditions that resonate with your family. I want my kids to know that their ancestors have done some of these same rituals for hundreds of years before them, but I also want them to believe that the tradition has meaning that they can relate to. For example, when we spend time in a Sukkah, we focus on how we can’t control everything and we have to accept what nature sends through the open roof made of vegetation.
    • Eat Jewish! Food is a huge part of Jewish culture. Bake and cook Jewish recipes any time of the year! Make heirloom recipes or create new modern twists. Most use wholesome, natural ingredients and take time…time you can spend together.
    • Visit Jewish museums, watch Jewish movies, plays and seek out Jewish culture. There is a great cartoon series for young kids called Shaboom!
    • Sign up for PJ Library at www.pjlibrary.org
    • Explore Israel. Technology gives us access to so much information and to so many people around the world! Watch YouTube videos of kids in Israel or Israeli cartoons. Take a google maps tour of Israel using the satellite images and street view feature, you can take a virtual walk through the streets of Jerusalem together.
    • Celebrate Shabbat. Force yourself to put away ALL of the electronics for 24 hours. Then during that time, do any or all of the above.

Encouraging kids to have a Jewish identity outside of the religious framework requires some deliberate education around Jewish history and values we already are teaching them. Belonging to something bigger than ourselves, being part of a community and understanding our ancestor’s past is important. If we can find fun and interesting ways to engage our kids in this incredible culture and in values-based living, then I think we’re doing something right!

 

 

Elana was born in Jerusalem, Israel and was raised in the Tampa Bay area. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Eckerd College in Sociology with an emphasis in consumer trends. Her career started in London and New York City as a consumer trend forecaster in the youth market, forecasting trends for companies like Adidas, Levi’s and Coty Cosmetics. After experiencing the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers firsthand on 9/11/01, Elana left her fun, yet unfulfilling career for a life and career with meaning and purpose. She holds director level position in a Jewish non-profit organization and is a fellow at Gratz College pursuing a graduate degree in Non-Profit Management.

How a historic Brooklyn synagogue raised over $80,000 in 13 days

A 100 year old Brooklyn synagogue has raised over $80,000 in just thirteen days on Jewcer. They have seventeen more days to reach their goal of $110,000. This synagogue is home to the Park Slope Jewish Center, a community that focuses on Tikkun Olam and inclusion. We checked in with Jeremy, a member of PSJC Capital Campaign Committee, who is running this campaign. We asked him some questions about his experience crowdfunding through Jewcer.

Why did your community choose crowdfunding to raise money for the synagogue?

We’re a dynamic and active shul, and our members work hard to build community within the walls of our building and throughout NYC. We wanted to offer them a new kind of campaign that they could really get invested in, rally around and build that community with. Crowdfunding seemed the perfect answer.

As you built your campaign, what piece of advice from the Jewcer team stuck with you the most?

Crowdfunding is a great tool but it won’t work by itself. Jewcer offered us a lot of advice and guidance along the way. One of the items they stressed was that you need to get out there, work your community and organize them to work their contacts. You need to be the driver of your own campaign.  I wish we could have done even more.

What preparations did you take before the campaign started?

We started to organize our community around the campaign a few days before it started through emails, a phone bank and announcements at Shabbat services. Jewcer also provided us with tutorials and check lists that would steer us in the right direction towards success.

How have you been promoting your campaign? What is the most challenging aspect of doing so?

We’ve been reaching out to members regularly at services and synagogue events. We send out a dedicated email every few days and have run two phone banks so far, with more to come. The most challenging piece has been getting people to give at a high level. We have a high goal, every donation counts, but we also need some big numbers to meet our mark.

Did you use any digital tools to manage your campaign?

We’ve run our campaign completely old school. Believe me, an online professional crowdfunding campaign was already very advanced for us compared to past campaigns but the members have really taken to it. When we run more of these campaigns in the future, and we definitely will, I anticipate them becoming even more sophisticated.

What proved to be the best way to get people to donate? What about the worst way?

Jewcer encouraged us to be honest. For us, this campaign is critical to the future of our synagogue as it involves structural repairs to the building to ensure we can continue to use it safely. Letting the members know what is happening and why this is so timely has been the most effective approach. Generic appeal language is not compelling.

What do you feel was your biggest mistake?

We’re trying to hit a big number and to do that we need constant attention and work on this campaign. We didn’t build a big enough network of volunteers at the onset to pull it off. But we are a close community and several members have stepped forward at a high level to help us reach our goal.

What would be your “one piece of advice” you would recommend other synagogues to know?

Crowdfunding still requires that you do the real work necessary to raise awareness and support, like you would for any campaign, but it’s a fantastic tool to build with.

Would you recommend that other synagogues use Jewcer for crowdfunding?

Absolutely, crowdfunding offers a real home for your campaign to live and helps build community around a common goal. Jewcer provided us with valuable feedback and expert advice that can really help, especially if you are new to crowdfunding. I’d recommend it to any synagogue looking to take its fundraising to the next level.

 

 

Shani
Shani is a photographer and content creator from Los Angeles. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a Communication degree, which she puts to good use by connecting with all the incredible Jewish organizations and the people who support them. With a deep pride in her Jewish roots and an Israeli background, Shani hopes to share the power and potential of Jewish innovation and connection with the world.