Raising Non-Judgmental Orthodox Jewish Kids

When I was 17 years old, I spent the summer studying in Israel. I knew I wanted to be religious, but at that point, didn’t know in which Orthodox sub-group I belonged. There were so many of them! I spent shabbos with a variety of families, including a charedi Sephardic ba’al teshuva family in Jerusalem. I wore the longest skirt and sleeves I had, but I didn’t know, at the time, that my high-healed, strappy, silver sandals with no stockings were not considered modest in such a place.

The host family put me in their 4 year old daughter’s room. (She happily gave it up for a guest, which was very admirable.) As I was getting my shabbos shoes on she asked “Efo garbionim shalach?”( Where are your tights?) I told her “Ein li.” (I don’t have any.) With a smile on her face, in her little squeaky voice, she replied, “At c’mo goya!” (You are like a gentile.)

I was mad. Very mad. I couldn’t explain it to her, because a) my Hebrew stunk and b) she was 4!, but in my head I said, “Little girl, do you know how much I have sacrificed to become an observant Jew? I missed my senior prom a few months ago because it was on shabbos, I came to Israel this summer to study, even though my family and friends all think I have lost my mind. How dare you question my Jewishness!”

I swore to myself in that moment that MY children would be open-minded and know how to conduct themselves respectfully and non-judgmentally around all Jews and all people for that matter. And so from the time that my children were very little, my husband and I have always been careful to teach* our children how we love all Jews and that while we love mitzvos and we can talk about how wonderful they are, not every Jew has gotten to experience what we have, and even for some who have, they don’t feel the same way we do. And we can love our life without expecting everyone around us to make the same choices we do. Complicated? Yes. Nuanced? You bet! But my kids are smart!

But then I noticed something – Orthodox kids, including my own, have a tendency to equate “observance” with “Jewish” because the two seem to go hand in hand as far as their worlds are concerned. So keeping kosher is “Jewish” and praying is “Jewish,” and shabbos is….”Jewish!” And my kids know I didn’t grow up with those things. So one year, when my daughter was in first grade and learned about the famous convert, Ruth, in class she raised her hand and explained that her mother too, was a convert! I immediately corrected her when she proudly told me the story. But still she really wasn’t getting it!**

OK, so my kids got terms mixed up about Jewish vs. religious (despite correcting them again and again and again), but I was proud and confident that they would never be inappropriate to secular guests. That is until earlier this year, when a non-observant relative came for shabbos and both of my young sons had so much to say. SO MUCH. They turned into teachers – of a grown up! Informed our guest of all the things he should believe. All the things he should do. My husband and I were DYING hearing the things coming out of their mouths, trying to jump in and break up the exceedingly awkward conversation. I was about to scream “FIRE!” just to shut my sons up. We did our best to mitigate the damage, apologized to the relative, and had a talk with our sons afterwards.

And then the greatest irony hit me that night after I put them to bed: the day I swore that my children would be more open-minded than how those judgmental charedim raised their kid, I realized I, in fact, was the judgmental one.


*We have only lived in communities where people share the same values of open-mindedness and sent to schools with a similar philosophy. In my children’s school, they taught the six graders about Christianity in history class, and my daughter’s friend asked the teacher  “Why are we learning about another religion?” The teacher replied “Because we need to learn about other people if we’re going to be able to respect them.”

**My older kids, I am very happy to say, are wonderfully open-minded and nuanced human beings. With Hashem’s help, my little guys will one day be too!

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