There is no place like home. Being at home is a special feeling – like the easy comfort of a well worn sneaker, the waggy-tailed welcome of your family cocker-spaniel, or the stomach-coating warmth of home-made macaroni and cheese. Similarly, when folks ask me how I became so connected to my Jewish identity, the answer is always simply “home,” and when they ask me how to make Judaism an important part of their children’s lives, my answer remains the same: “home.”
There are, I am sure, a great many of you reading this who question the simplicity of my assertion. Surely there are other factors that might influence the religious development of a child. For instance, is it not true that children who attend Jewish day schools are more likely to remain committed to Judaism than children who attend public schools? Is it not true that children who attend Jewish summer camps like Ramah are more likely to identify positively with Judaism than children who do not? Moreover, many of us can muster numerous examples of children who grew up in traditonally observant Jewish homes that grew to reject Judaism, and others of us can name friends or relatives who grew up in unobservant or even non-Jewish homes and eventually came to a deep commitment to Jewish life. My family history has provided me ample evidence to the contrary: my Bubbe and Zayde kept a traditionally observant Jewish home, and only one of their three children (my mother) married within the faith and remained committed to Judaism; my Grandma and Grandpa, both of whom were deeply committed Jews (even if they were not mitzvah observant), had a similar track-record, as two of their three children married out of the faith, and the third is only nominally connected to his Jewish identity. Batting .333 might be a good average for a baseball slugger, but it is not a good measure of success if one wants all of his or her children to grow up loving and living Judaism.
My grandfather, Dr. Irwin Jay Knopf (of blessed memory), who was the longtime chair of the Emory University psychology department, talks at length in his book Childhood Psychopathology: A Developmental Approach (Prentice Hall, 1979) about the extent to which one’s environment influences his or her personality development. He frames his analysis in the context of the great “nature-nurture” debate that has raged since the early days of psychology as a science. Dr. Knopf acknowledges that no child is merely a passive recipient of environmental shaping; every child experiences his or her environment through the prism of his or her own temperament and hereditary makeup. This partially accounts for why, as an example, two children with the same parents and upbringing can grow into such profoundly different adults, sometimes where one child suffers from serious psychological disorders while the other is perfectly emotionally healthy. The Torah, for its part, expresses this reality in the story of the first children, Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). Both children were born and raised under what were (presumably) the same conditions, yet one was mild-mannered and generous, while the other was temperamental and, eventually, homicidal. If nurture were the factor that determined one’s personality, then why would Cain and Abel, raised in the same environment, be such strikingly different personalities? On a personal level, I can say that, despite having been raised in the same environment as my brother and sister, I have retained my sense of Jewish commitment in ways that neither of them has.
While it is true that each individual child is different in how s/he interacts with his/her environment and that a child is never a blank slate on which the environment writes, Dr. Knopf affirms that one’s family environment is of critical importance in a child’s development. More importantly, environment is, in many ways, the only factor affecting a child’s development that parents can control. We have no control over our children’s genetic makeup, brain chemistry, or temperament. We do not, ultimately, have control over what our children experience in school, what kind of media they will be exposed to, who our children form relationships with, or even what they breath and ingest. What we do have control over, however, is the kind of home we bring them up in. What we do have control over is whether we raise our children in Jewish homes. Put simply, when a Jewish child is enveloped in a loving, positive, and consistent way by Jewish values and rituals in his or her home, the chances that that child will grow up to love and live Judaism dramatically increase. When a Jewish child is not raised in such an environment, the chances that s/he will grow up a committed Jewish adult significantly decrease, and I propose that this remains true even if a child attends Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps, and Jewish youth groups.
The danger of my argument is that it will be taken as an over-simplification. Senator Hillary Clinton said a truism when she asserted that it “takes a village to raise a child.” Indeed, it takes a village (and then some!) to raise a Jewish child. Jewish parents are most likely to successfully raise their children to be committed Jewish adults if, in addition to providing a model Jewish home, they also provide their children with an extensive and immersive Jewish education, send their children to Jewish summer camps and on Jewish summer programs like USY on Wheels, supply their children with spiritually poignant experiences in Israel, and raise their children in an involved Jewish community. Yet a phenomenon I encounter repeatedly is that parents will provide their children with a Hebrew school education in the years leading up to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, push their children to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or grant their children permission to go on Birthright or some other summer Israel experience, only to find that those strategies only moderately succeeded (or did not succeed at all) in instilling a passion for Judaism in their children. Why, they ask, were these programs unsuccessful? I always answer their question with another question: “What is Jewish life in your home like?” My question confounds a lot of folks, because many of us think that we can treat the creation of Jewish identity like any other service we outsource to “professionals” to do for us. We don’t know how to fix our computers, so we hire a computer technician to fix the problem for us and return us the computer, good as new. Similarly, we are unsure know how to raise our children to be committed Jewish adults, so we hire “Jewish technicians” to provide the service of giving our kids Jewish identities. This, I think, is because the Jewish identity of our children, unlike the functioning of our computers, is something that only parents have the power and ability to do, even if they don’t think they have the expertise. The incredible thing about a committed Jewish household is that, while it can never be a complete substitute for all of the above experiences, none of the above experiences, on their own or collectively, will have any significant lasting impact unless the child comes home to a household that reinforces Jewish commitment. Put differently, in an ideal situation a Jewish child would be raised with all – and more – of the experiences listed above, but if any of the above are unavailable or unattainable, a Jewish home environment can succeed on its own in ways that none of the above experiences, whether individually or collectively, can.