I have a confession…I peeked when my eyes were supposed to be closed during the recitation of the Shema. My eyes were covered by my hand, but I created a small crack between my middle finger and my ring finger, and I squinted just so in order to see my son’s lips.
I know I should have kept them closed and focused inward and outward on the unity of the Divine, but my mommy instincts got the better of me.
You see, my young adult son was home visiting, and he chose to attend a Shabbat morning service his mom, the rabbi was leading. His theology has evolved over time, beginning with absolute faith and belief as a young child, to more questions as a teen, and now as a self-professed agnostic who identifies culturally as a Jew but not so much religiously. And so, you can imagine my conflict and curiosity when it came time to cover our eyes during this prayer. I wanted to know and see (with my own eyes!) if my son was saying the words of the Shema. Where was he now in his belief?
And then I saw it, barely, ever so slightly, the movement of his lips, reciting the most well-known mantra of the Jewish people: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Hear O’ Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. I closed the gap between my fingers and sunk back into my own prayer, but not before adding my own additional prayer of thanksgiving for what I had just witnessed.
Our prayers continued with the words of the V’ahavata, “and you shall love Adonai, your G!d, with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might…and you shall teach them to your children…” In that moment, I was struck by those words, “and you shall teach them to your children.” As the parent of adult children, did I teach them well? I know I did my best, but even when we do our best, our children grow up and become their own people with their own beliefs. Did I do enough? Did I teach them to listen and love G!d, the Jewish community, and their fellow human beings?
Looking around the congregation, not wanting to just focus on my son, I heard these words echoing throughout the chapel and wondered, collectively—did we teach our children to listen (shema) and to love (v’ahavta) Adonai, their fellow Jews, and all of humanity, deeply and with compassion?
My eyes met my son’s, and he was praying the words of the V’ahavta. I breathed another big sigh of relief.
It was not until after the service, and I was on my way home, that I had time to truly think about what it means to be the parent of a young adult. For sure, my role has changed from extensive physical involvement (changing diapers, feeding, carpooling) to intensive mental and emotional support. As parents, many of us often question ourselves, “Did I say the “right” thing and even if I think I did, how was my response received?” “Should I have pushed them to learn a musical instrument?” “Could I have done more?” And the list goes on. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs. We’re on 24/7, 365 days a year. Regardless of the age of our children, we are always parents who want to protect them.
In recent months, this has become even harder for Jewish parents. With the astronomical increase in anti-semitism in America and around the world, we are on heightened alert to keep our children safe, all the while doing our best to ensure that we continue to teach our children to take pride in their Judaism. I have spoken with many young adults who wonder whether they should wear their Jewish star necklace, keep their mezuzah up, or display their Hanukkah menorah.
Having conversations with young adults nowadays consists of more questions than answers, and using Jewish values as a guide can help them discover what their thoughts and opinions are. A crucial part of parenting my own children and teaching thousands of others has been the importance and centrality of communication, even when it’s hard and even when we vehemently disagree. It is not easy to engage civilly when we are feeling so much fear, but listening deeply and coming from a place of compassion and curiosity can help us during these especially dark days. Yes, we will each come to our own conclusions, and we will each decide our own level of comfort in displaying our Judaism publicly, and it is incumbent upon all of us to acknowledge and validate the other’s decision, even when we don’t agree.
While these past few months have been the most challenging that we have experienced in our lifetimes, sadly, this is not new throughout Jewish history. We have a three thousand year old past full of struggles and suffering…AND we have a history full of perseverance and promise, doggedness, and determination. After all, the Bible does refer to us as am k’shei oref, a stiff-necked people. Our tenacity and teachings, our faith and fervor, have kept us alive and sustained us. Throughout all of those ages, Jewish parents continued to teach their children to listen and love G!d, the Jewish community, and humanity.
None of us knows what the future will hold, and yet, day after day, month after month, year after year, we show up for our children and our families. We teach our children the values that we hold dear: deep listening, compassion, love, kindness, and ever-abiding presence. May our resolve be strengthened to continue passing Jewish values and traditions onto the next generation, enabling and encouraging our children to shema—listen and v’ahavata—to love.
Amy Grossblatt Pessah is a rabbi, author, spiritual director and mom. She received her MAJE from HUC-JIR and her semicha from Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Amy has recently published her first book, Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Jewish Secrets for Raising Modern Children. Her work has been featured in The Forward, Kveller, and Ritualwell. Amy lives in Florida with her husband; they are the proud parents of three young adults. Find her at A Soulful Journey.