By Winnie Sandler Grinspoon
The organized Jewish world is still reeling from the Pew Research Center’s recent study on the state of American Jews. According to the study, one-in-five Jews now describe themselves as having no religion, a decline of about half since the late 1950s. Jews of no religion are much less likely to marry a Jewish spouse; 79% of married Jews of no religion have a spouse who is not Jewish. The rate of intermarriage has increased from 17% in the pre-1970s to 58% in each of the past dozen years, and intermarried Jews are much less likely to raise their children in the Jewish faith. These are dramatic trends indeed.
Personally, I am not surprised by these numbers. I have seen them play out in my extended family and among my friends. I recently overheard my teenage son say that he probably won’t be Jewish as an adult. What can the Jewish community do about this? We can start by going back to basics.
If we want our kids to become musicians, we expose them to music. We play music in our living rooms and on our car radios. We enroll our children in piano lessons as soon as they are able. Our children may not grow up to be professional musicians, but we know that our efforts in those early years might create a love of music. We want this for them because we know that music will enrich their lives.
The same holds true for Judaism. If we want our kids to be Jews, we need to expose them to the joys of our tradition. What we do in our homes, from our children’s earliest days, might just influence what they value and hold on to as they grow into adulthood.
Simplistic? Perhaps. But we know that the children whom we taught to play instruments are now the teens performing in the high school band. And we know that young families – many thousands of young families — are looking to connect their children to Judaism from a very young age. We know this because of the popularity of a simple book program — PJ Library.
When the PJ Library program started offering free Jewish books to families with young children in December 2005, we did it on a hunch. Reading was a favorite activity that we shared with our own children, and the Jewish children’s books on our shelves were among their favorites. Today PJ Library sends books to over 140,000 young children across North America each month, starting at age six months, and continuing to age eight in many communities. Since its inception, the program has provided books to well over 200,000 children on a monthly basis. The demand exists.
Parents tell us that the PJ Library books reignited in them a desire to pass on what they cherished from their upbringing. They thank us for exposing them to a religious tradition they hardly knew. We hear from the families that now light Shabbat candles weekly, the parents who excitedly built their first sukkah, the spouses who decided to become Jews by choice, and those who were moved to give Jewish preschool a try.
PJ Library tells us that hundreds of thousands of families with young children are interested in Judaism. It is now up to us, the community, to create and fund programs and opportunities for Jewish engagement and learning that speak to today’s families. It is our job to show them what they seem to realize already – that Judaism is worth keeping.
Will my teenage son care about being Jewish when he is an adult? I cannot answer either question. But I feel good knowing that we gave him not only music lessons but also a Jewish childhood, and, that, through PJ Library, the Jewish community is giving thousands of other children the first step toward Jewish childhoods of their own.
Winnie Sandler Grinspoon is a member of the Board of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which supports Jewish causes, including PJ Library.