Monday, October 12, 2009

But What About the Children?

On my last post, Rambling Jew commented:

"what will you do when you have children of your own? How will you educate them?"

The question brings up a really complex set of issues which has weighed on me with growing intensity over the last few years.

Of course, I'm still not sure if I want to have children. I've rarely written about my personal (read: love) life here, just because I feel like said topic might reveal my identity to certain people. Suffice it to say that having children is a possibility for me over the next few years.

That road, of course, would open up a pretty messy can of worms. I live my life outside of the bounds of any real Jewish movement. I feel attached to many of the Orthodox rituals and yet find some of the values/philosophies that undergird these rituals problematic for my own worldview (not to mention that I find some of the rituals themselves to be misaligned with my values). At the same time, I am inspired by some of the non-Orthodox movements, but don't really feel comfortable aligning myself with them.

I've already watched this play out for some of my friends. Some have cast aside their own problems with Orthodoxy, embraced the culture as "Orthopraxers," and begun to raise their kids according to the Orthodox way without really bringing up the issue.

For others, the issue seems not as easily resolved. One of my friends, in particular, is currently struggling with whether she should continue to send her nursery-school aged children to day school. It doesn't make sense to her, she says, to spend all that money educating her kids about something she herself doesn't really believe. Still, she says, when she sees the kids that come out of the public schools, it seems (to her) that they don't have a strong value system. Or at least not one that she'd like her kids to have.

For me, the question brings up so many issues:

Of course, should I have kids, I also want them to have a strong system of values that resonate with my own. That's a really hard thing to accomplish, especially when you're bringing said children up in a world that doesn't necessarily agree with those values. Still, if it were only on this level, I don't think I'd have such a problem.

Sure, there are lots of people in the secular world who have values with which I strongly disagree; the same, however, could be said of the Orthodox world. In my nieces' and nephews' schools, for example, gender norms are steeped into every part of the curriculum -- and this is really not what I'd want my children to be taught. Of course, that's a more Ultra-Orthodox world, rather than a Modern Orthodox world. But even the MO world is full of people whose values I strongly disagree with. In my own MO education, some of my teachers espoused their racist, homophobic, and materialistic ideologies pretty consistently.

Mind you, that's not to say that racist/homophobic/materialistic people exist solely within a Modern Orthodox world. Of course not! They exist everywhere, in every corner of society. Nor are these ideologies intrinsic to Modern Orthodoxy. When you come down to the core of the values Judaism espouses, I agree almost all of the time. But at the same time, I see a lot of these values equally espoused in secular society. And, as I mentioned above, the same can be said of negative values.

In the end, I believe that if I choose a good community (i.e., town -- not necessarily Jewish community) with a good school district, and I practice the values that I preach, my children will grow up with a good and solid value system. The tens of thousands of dollars don't seem like a worthwhile investment if it's made for the sake of values alone.

Where the line does start to get murky for me is when I start to think about Jewish tradition. As my posts have reflected, I value my tradition strongly and I'd like to pass that along to any children I might have. But what happens when I don't agree with certain traditions? What happens when there's no school that mirrors what I believe? Do I shell out all those tuition dollars to send my kids to a school that doesn't really reflect my Jewish practices?

It gives me a headache to think about it.

This past Shabbat, I went to a Conservative shul (more on this later, of course!). That weekend, a girl was celebrating her bat mitzvah, was called up to the Torah, etc. There were a lot of positive things I took away from this experience, but one negative for me was seeing how uncomfortable the girl, her friends, and family (who were called up) seemed to be with the Hebrew.

That said, I'm very close friends with a Conservative family in the town to which I've recently moved, and while their kids may not be as comfortable with reading Hebrew as I was during my childhood, Judaism definitely pervades everything that goes on in their home. They do not have a strictly kosher kitchen, do not abide by Orthodox definitions of Shabbat, but they have Shabbat dinner & lunch every week, the holidays are intrinsic to their family life in the same way that they were to my family when I was a child.

Their daughter attended a Jewish school for a while, but is now in public school. That doesn't seem to make her any less excited about going to shul every week, saying brachot, making Sukkah decorations, shaking the lulav, etc..

It's nervewracking territory to venture out into bringing the Judaism you personally believe in into a house without a day school as a support network, but I think it's do-able. If I can bring to my house the enthusiasm that I feel for Jewish traditions and be honest about what I believe and don't believe, maybe that's enough? I'm not sure.

For 15 years (if you include nursery & kindergarten), I went to an MO day school that cost my parents tens of thousands of dollars. I did gain a valuable spectrum of knowledge about Judaism from this (though I'm not sure I can say the same for secular subjects; in high school, at least, the academics at my school were rather pathetic).

With all that education, though, the feelings and attachment I have toward Jewish traditions comes from my parents and my home. So many of the OTD/skeptic friends I have talk about the negativity they feel toward Orthodoxy because of what they experienced in their homes -- their parents screaming and panicking before Shabbos, their being forced to learn and go to/stay in shul in spite of their nature that would have them do otherwise, the emphasis their parents put on the "don't"s, the lack of any excitement in celebrations.

Maybe it was because they were Ba'al Teshuva, maybe it was because of their personalities, I don't know -- but in my house, the emphasis was always on the excitement -- the screaming and panics before Shabbos were minimal or non-existent. For me, growing up, my parents made Judaism feel like something beautiful, something fun, something I wanted to be a part of.

When I got older and became, for intellectual reasons, an agnostic, it was the memories of my parents' practices of Judaism that made me want to stay Jewish in any way at all. When you're dealing with religion and tradition, I really think it's what's in the home that counts more than anything.

I'm still not sure that means I won't send my kids to a Jewish day school. It's something I'll think about when I'm there. But I don't think it's the end-all-and-be-all.

Furthermore, I don't think that Orthodoxy in the home is the only way to raise kids who will feel something for (and continue) their tradition. In fact, if you're Orthodox and don't want to be, your home is more likely to look like the negative OJ home. A positive, inspired, finding-your-own-path Judaism seems like a better, more productive, and more sound way to go.