SALT LAKE CITY — For thousands of years, adherents of the Jewish faith have been victors over oppression and threats, perhaps most notably the Holocaust, when an estimated 40 percent of Jews were killed.
But now Jews face another threat: the loss of their heritage and tradition. How do members of the world's oldest monotheistic religion sustain the faith with children in an increasingly secular world?
Approaches vary, but local leaders agree both education and family are key.
The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, known as the Rebbe, taught that each Jew is loved and "indispensable for the totality of the Jewish people," said Rabbi Benny Zippel of the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah.
Part of Rabbi Zippel's work is to help educate each Jew about his or her unique importance.
"Every individual is obligated to look at oneself and say to him or herself, 'The entire universe was created for my sake,'" Zippel said, paraphrasing the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. "Not in terms of arrogance, God forbid, but on the contrary, in terms of both liability and responsibility. … The world was created for my sake. It is up to me to get the job done."
As a way to underscore this point, Rabbi Zippel talked about a central prayer in Jewish liturgy: the Shema. Ritual requires Jews to cover their eyes while reciting the prayer.
“At that very moment, in the service, when reaching the climax of the service, the Jew is cognizant of the fact that there is nothing and nobody in this entire universe other than him or her, other than them and God.”
One main challenge young Jews in Utah face is that of being a minority religion. School tests may be scheduled during major Jewish holidays such as Passover, Rosh Hashannah or Yom Kippur, or youths may feel disconnected from their non-Jewish friends.
Rabbi Jim Simon of the Temple Har Shalom in Park City will tell his students that while a belief in Jesus is "a wonderfully affirming belief for Christians … it's just not a Jewish belief."
Learning in the family
Jewish celebrations can help affirm one's faith, particularly for children. The recently celebrated Hanukkah is a celebration of lights. But the Jewish holiday also commemorates a victory.
"A triumph against assimilation, and a triumph for identity, for the idea of Jews being able to practice their religion and to be able to have a sense of what is important to them, Jewishly,” Rabbi Simon said.
It is difficult to get an exact count of the number of Jews in Utah, in part because measurement methods have changed over time. Zippel estimates there are 1,500 Jewish households in Utah. While branches of Judaism are often designated as "reform," "conservative," "orthodox" or "reconstructionist," Zippel prefers to avoid labels.
"Labels are for shirts, not for people," Zippel said, adding that Jews may change their affiliation, which would make the label irrelevant.
Jews have daily opportunities to learn to "just love people because they're fellow Jews," he said.
The Torah teaches that a menorah needs to be carved out of a single block of gold, and Jews cannot use a menorah where pieces are welded or nailed together. Similarly, Jews are "not made up of fragmented pieces put together, but we're all carved out of one original niche," Rabbi Zippel said, echoing the teachings of the Rebbe.
Similarly, while some Jews may approach their faith differently, they share a common heritage.
Scott Maizlish, who has two teenage children, sees his family as "culturally Jewish more than we are observant." A reform Jew, he grew up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah.
"It's just extra holidays thrown in there," he said.
Even with his more relaxed approach to Judaism, he said, he feels a need to pass the tradition on to his children.
"We are a small religion in the world. My job is not to make my kids the most observant Jews in the world but to have a Jewish home, and hopefully they’ll have Jewish children as my parents did," Maizlish said.
Judaism is one of many religions concerned with the continuation of their traditions, according to Michael Greenfield, director of education and programming at Temple Har Shalom. What makes the faith unique is its definition of "wisdom as an endless pursuit of knowledge," he said. In keeping with this idea, he teaches classes to adults as well as children.
"Lifelong learning is simply part of our culture," he said.
The synagogue takes what he calls a "jungle gym" approach to the faith, allowing students to explore, "challenge and engage" with faith.
“(Judaism has) been around for thousands of years already,” he said. "It has survived a tremendous amount of assaults upon it, both from within and without.”
Through this model, Greenfield has "to give my students all the tools they need to make their own decisions about what is most meaningful to them in the Jewish tradition."
While there is some risk that some may choose to leave the faith, Greenfield sees choice as a necessary part of maturity.
Miriam Eatchel appreciates that the Temple Har Shalom allows children to engage with the religion in a more relaxed way. Children will show up to services in their baseball or ski clothes at times, which she sees as being "critical" to their participation. Once a month, a different age group will lead a religious service.
“It’s just kind of a way that they feel super-included and a part of it without feeling heavy-handed,” she said.
Eatchel attends with her two teen children and appreciates that there is "a lot of discussion" to help youths understand the spiritual and symbolic contexts behind different holidays.
"I think that just makes it compelling for kids," she said.
To help Jews understand their unique roles and learn about Judaism, Rabbi Zippel regularly teaches courses from the Jewish Learning Institute. During the final class of a course called "How happiness thinks," Zippel encouraged those in attendance to find meaning in following the commandments, or mitzvahs, of Judaism.
His son, Rabbi Avremi Zippel, will be founding and developing a Chabad Hebrew school and preschool, as well as a Jewish summer and winter camp, as ways to help Jews feel like "proud, staunch members of Judaism" while they are young.
One story in Jewish history illustrates the importance of educating young Jews. When God was about to give his people the Torah on Mount Sinai, he asked the people of Israel to provide a guarantor, who would ensure the laws would be passed on.
"God was giving us a very precious, holy, special gift, and God wanted us to put up somebody who would guarantee that we would treat his gifts with the proper respect and reverence," Rabbi Avremi Zippel said.
God rejected the Jews' suggestions of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their rabbis, but was satisfied when the Jews suggested their children would be the guarantors.
Rabbi Avremi Zippel sees his role as giving "our kids (the) tools to be able to move forward properly," and to "provide that kind of positive setting for our kids to realize that the world is a good place … to provide them the tools that they need to kind of send off all the crazy influences that are around in this world.”
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