Our children are exhausted and confused. How can they know what is truly important when they spend six mandated hours in school studying up to seven subjects followed by play rehearsal on Monday, soccer on Tuesday, OT sessions on Wednesday, Hebrew school on Thursday, piano on Friday, and soccer practice on both Saturday and Sunday mornings followed by a Sunday afternoon game? It tires me just to list this packed schedule, one that dictates the lives of many 8- to 13-year-olds.
A 1967 classic romantic comedy called “If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium” relates an unrelenting 18-day Euro-trip where tourists visit a new city every other day. The itinerary doesn’t allow time for the unique nature of each city to make a lasting impression, nor to spark one’s interest to learn more about its peoples and cultures. Rather, the tired traveler drifts from city to city with waning enthusiasm as they board the bus each morning. Why are we crafting similar itineraries for our children?
No one would be shocked to hear 9-year-old Sara say, “If it’s Wednesday, it must be gymnastics.” I don’t want to suggest that our children don’t get any enjoyment from their after-school activities. Of course they do. These activities allow them to make friends, use their physical energies in expansive ways, and be and think in new environments. I’m all for that.
But how much is too much? And how do we prioritize?
For the sake of transparency, I must confess that I am the director of an innovative Jewish educational project called The Jewish Journey Project, an initiative of the JCC in Manhattan. In a radical departure from traditional Hebrew school settings, one pillar of this project is flexibility. Realizing that parents and students lead complex and busy lives, we offer classes during weekday afternoon hours, on Saturday afternoons, Sunday mornings, afternoons and early evenings. We offer monthly Sunday Intensives and school vacation “camps.” Our curriculum is not top down: We do not set requirements for what or how many classes students must take, because we believe that a wide variety of classes and experiences can lead to an engaged Jewish life. The journey does not have to look the same for each child. We encourage our students to choose classes that blend activities that they love and want to explore — such as drama, animation or cooking — with Jewish content and experience.
Despite this intentional and radical redesign of religious education, I hear parents say over and over that their children are so scheduled they just don’t have time. Often it is expressed in the twice-annual advising sessions we have with our families, a time to reflect on courses and a family’s goals for their child’s Jewish education. Despite a diverse catalog of 40-plus courses, parents often open with the sentence, “Sammy has Tuesdays from 3:30-5:00 p.m. available. What are you offering then?” And Sammy will chime in, “Mommy, I want a day off.” As a rabbi and an educator, I yearn for our students to have meaningful Jewish experiences throughout the week. As a parent, my heart just aches.
There is nothing new in pointing out that we live in a world saturated with choices, and that part of our jobs as parents is to think hard about how to craft meaningful and productive schedules for our families. Just as children understand monetary value by watching how adults spend money, how to eat healthily by noticing their parents’ food choices, so too do they learn what’s important by seeing how their parents schedule their time.
Yes, sports are important because they develop collaborative skills, resilience, and stamina; music cultivates an ethic of practice, experimentation and new brain connections; learning a new language ripens concentration and memory, while fostering connections to other cultures.
But to what extent does the pursuit of each of these qualities in isolation help our children make meaning of the world around them? How are these skills contributing to a bigger picture of who our children are, and will become?
Across the country Jewish educators are shaking up their programs and experimenting with new forms and content. For sure, this project was in part designed to accommodate the busy schedules of contemporary Jewish families. Yet the flexibility and innovation of our program are not an effort to adjust to the status quo, but to challenge it. The Jewish Journey Project seeks to build a moral architecture for our children by sculpting a community that helps them make meaning of and from their everyday interactions. We endeavor to be the foundation for children to understand the world around them — the parts that are “obviously” Jewish, and the parts that are not. By combining Jewish teachings with fantastically diverse modalities, our kids learn that Judaism is with us wherever we go — not only in Hebrew school, or at services, or during the holidays.
Atonement and resolution are traditions with both Jewish and secular roots. As Jewish families of the 21st century, many of us regularly resolve to diet, exercise and save more. How many of us resolve to slow down? To lead more meaningful lives? To consider personal development not as a catchall of isolated skill sets, but in connection to our moral philosophy?
If we really want our children to understand the richness of Jewish life in terms of values, ethics, culture and history, we must create a paradigm that sees Jewish education and practice as a moral architecture — not as just another activity in our child’s schedule, on the same plane as basketball or violin. As parents, we must take a breath to rethink the value of our children’s hectic lives, and prioritize Jewish identity-building as the context for making meaning of our world.
Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi is the director of The Jewish Journey Project, an initiative of JCC in Manhattan in partnership with Ansche Chesed, B’nai Jeshurun, Congregation Habonim, Society for the Advancement of Judaism and West End Synagogue. For more information, go to jewishjourneyproject.org