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.