During this past summer's tumultuous news of hate rallies, terrorism, and hurricanes, I was lucky enough to get lost in a world of letters -- love letters, that is, written from Jewish adults to children.
You see, for my culminating project toward my Executive Masters in Jewish Professional Studies at Spertus Institute for Jewish for Learning and Leadership, I longed to get to the heart of how we as Jews transmit values and model ourselves to children -- and ultimately, generations to come.
With Jewish wisdom as our guide, what lessons and values do we want to impart to our children? How do we ignite the spark of Jewish identity in our children? Those questions were something worth grappling with so I set out to collect some wisdom, lessons, and humor to impart to children.
I researched the transmission of Jewish values from generation to generation. I read books on child-rearing, and interviewed rabbis, Jewish educators, and child psychologists on the subject of value transmission.
Now I just needed a vehicle to impart the lessons. At a time when letter-writing is a lost art, where many messages come in the form of 140 characters or less on the phone, good ole fashioned letters seemed an apt way to deliver lasting messages of hopes, dreams, and wisdom.
So I reached out to my extended Jewish network of women and men around Chicago, the U.S., and Israel, who represent diverse points on the religious and cultural Jewish spectrum. Most of them wrote letters to their own children, but some writers intended their messages for other children. I compiled the letters into an anthology titled Thank You for Being You: Letters to Our Children.
In my research and throughout the letters, I discovered six core themes:
1. Sparking Jewish identity: Most of the writers in the anthology conveyed their hope to inspire strong Jewish identity in their children. When it comes to expressing identity, it's not enough to talk the talk; you got to walk the walk. "Being able to create experiences and ritualistic approaches for kids -- not just talking to them about it -- is a valuable opportunity," said Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D. and executive director of JUF's Community Foundation for Jewish Education. "The more Shabbat dinners you do, for instance, or building a sukkah, become ingrained experience(s) for a child."
2. Teaching your child to swim: The Talmud (Kidddushin 29a) says, "A father is obligated to teach his son how to swim." The directive means that parents must teach their children how to survive the tumultuous waters of life, both literally and figuratively. Jewish wisdom directs parents to guide their children through life -- but not to shelter them from it.
3. Encountering unexpected blessings: Our struggles can sometimes transform into blessings, for it's the hard stuff that helps shape us into more empathetic and resilient human beings. In psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel's guide to raising self-reliant children, titled The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she references the Hebrew concept of tzar gidul banim -- the pain of raising kids. That phrase, she says, doubles in meaning as both the emotional pain that parents go through raising children, as well as the pain that kids themselves experience growing up.
We know it's impossible to eliminate all pain from childhood. But rather, says Mogel, we must "make our best efforts on behalf of our children, use our best judgment, and leave the rest in God's hands."
4. Raising a mensch: There's no more important job in Jewish parenting than modeling compassion and loving kindness. Throughout Biblical and Talmudic literature, parents are implored to endow their children with moral compasses. The Book of Proverbs (22:6) says, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it."
5. Guiding them down a unique path: Children are not mini versions of their parents. Rather, children possess their own traits, preferences, and talents different from their parents. We can't "mold them like clay," according to child psychologist and author Dr. Ross W. Greene. While we can't dictate who our children will be, he says, we can influence them with values, wisdom, and experience down the path that our children choose to set upon.
6. Kindling the light: Each generation is responsible for transmitting Jewish cultural, religious wisdom and Jewish memory onto the next generation to ensure continuity of our small, but mighty people. As the Talmud says (Ta'anith, 23a), "As my parents planted for me, so do I plant for my children."
Let's close with a passage from one of the letters in the anthology, this one written by Michael Prywes -- a Northwestern alum and New York-based Jewish father, who writes his letter to his two young sons:
"Life is not a to-do list. It is not a bucket list or a checklist. If it is a list at all (and I don't believe it is), it is a to-be list. If you're living just to move on to the next item on a list, you're letting time pass you by too quickly. People often say, 'I don't have time to…' What they really mean is, 'I choose not to make time.' Make... your time -- your life -- about living with intention, with joy, and attention."
I'm hoping to publish the anthology Thank You for Being You: Letters to Our Children in the future.