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A year into COVID, we must send kids back to shul

On the first night of Hanukkah, I went to downtown D.C. to witness the menorah lighting on the National Mall with my four kids.

I’ve never been one for such Jewish spectacles. I’ve never even been much of a synagogue-goer. But I’ve long known that when it comes to building their Jewish identity, my kids need exposure to the Jewish world beyond our four walls. I’ve been trying to force us to get out the door and get to shul with them for the last few years, but as 2019 turned to 2020, I made a New Year’s Resolution that come in the spring of that year, we’d finally make good and get them to synagogue for at least a few Shabbats each month.

Then COVID happened.

And exactly a year after I made that resolution, we attended the outdoor, socially distanced Hanukkah event, our single foray into communal ritual in a year I’d planned to be full of them.

When the candles were lit, several of the Chabad rabbis responsible for putting together the event spoke. Now, if we’re being honest, I’m not a synagogue-goer in part because I am not a fan of sermons. When they start, my eyes have a way of glazing over. So I was surprised, during the car ride home, to hear my older two children — ages 5 and 7 — enthusiastically discuss what the rabbis spoke about as they snacked on a gift box of Hanukkah goodies.

My oldest lamented that she loved hearing rabbis talking about Judaism, and wished she could be part of those conversations more often.

The point was clear: Jewish kids need to experience Judaism outside the home. And it’s time for the Jewish community to discuss how we can safely give it to them, as the COVID pandemic continues to be dangerous, and the distribution of vaccines safe for children still looks to be comparatively far in the future.

Our community has had some major successes in ensuring our kids had access to Jewish life through the pandemic, primarily by stepping up and making sure that Jewish schools were open around the country starting in the fall. Schools implemented procedures to keep their staff and kids safe, and while that process hasn’t gone off seamlessly, it’s largely working from New York to California and everywhere in between.

We recognized, rightly, that kids need to get back to their regular education routines when it can be done safely, and that reinstating those routines should be a priority.

But what of the rest of Jewish life for our children? This is where we’ve dropped the ball, across the board.

Among the more liberal streams of Judaism, Zoom has taken the place of in-person worship for everyone, adults and children alike.

Among Modern Orthodox congregations, minyan for adult men and mourners saying kaddish have been prioritized, with every ritual outside of Shabbat and kids’ programming on major holidays shifting to Zoom.

On days that Orthodox Jews are prohibited from using digital options, there are few ways for children to interface with Judaism in a meaningful way. The days filled with Shabbat groups and communal meals are gone, and children instead have faced a year of endlessly long Shabbat days inside their homes, or, on nice days, at a park. There is nothing particularly Jewish about Shabbat and holidays for kids anymore, except saying kiddush before meals.

Our communities have always prioritized passing on the knowledge of how important days are marked in a communal setting; those practices are at the heart of our tradition. Almost every book on Jewish holidays and Shabbat written for children focuses at least in part on how we mark the day. We’ve taught kids their entire lives that Judaism is an in-person activity, but now, they can only read about these experiences in books from Before Times.

Zoom, or quietly empty holy days, are no replacement for Jewish communal life. While they were a sufficient backstop for a time, it’s time for them to be phased out.

As vaccinations become more widespread and we work towards herd immunity, as a community we must prioritize a return to communal life beyond school for our youngest members. We can take the lessons learned in schools to lay the foundation on how that can be accomplished safely.

Over the last decades, we have spent countless millions of dollars to ensure that young Jews are raised engaged in Jewish life, before and as they move past Bar and Bat Mitzvah age. If we keep our synagogue doors locked to children forming their Jewish identity for a second year, we might as well light that donor money on fire, for we will have no chance at raising engaged and enthusiastic Jews.

Focusing our attention on a return to in-person communal life for children isn’t just about keeping them occupied on Shabbat and holidays. It’s a necessary investment in our long-term Jewish future.

Last week, my family had another brush with Judaism practiced in public at an outdoor Purim carnival. My kids met a rabbi, who rode a child-sized bicycle to make the kids laugh, and heard the Megillah read aloud. It felt like a brush with the past, with what used to be available to them. And it felt like a reminder of what’s most essential in our future — the nearer, the better.

Bethany Mandel is a frequent contributor to the Forward and an editor at Ricochet.com. You can follow her on Twitter @BethanyShondark.

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