I’ve had many roles in my career at the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. But none of them compare to the most significant calling placed on my life: the calling of motherhood.
As a mother, particularly as a Jewish mother, my first priority is passing along lessons of grace, courage and character that build the faith of my four children. It’s a responsibility that was impressed upon me when I was younger, and I’ve found the immeasurable value and fulfillment it brings on a daily basis.
Parents simply can’t underestimate the ripple effects of the truths we instill in our children at a young age. And we can’t underestimate the depth of our impact on them and their impressionable minds.
There is a stirring story told about Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, a 20th-century Israeli rabbi who was tasked with finding the many Jewish orphans left in Europe in the wake of the Holocaust during World War II. In 1946, he traveled to a large monastery that had taken in dozens of Jewish children in order to save them from the Nazis. Jewish parents had sent them in order to protect them, intending to reclaim their children after the war. Only, almost none of the parents survived.
“Parents simply can’t underestimate the ripple effects of the truths we instill in our children at a young age.” — Yael Eckstein
When Rabbi Herzog arrived at the monastery, he thanked the Reverend Mother for saving the children and requested their return now that the war was over. The nun replied that she was happy to return the children to their rightful place, but explained that there was no way to tell which of the hundreds of children in the orphanage were Jewish. The children were too young when they came and separated from their parents for too long since their arrival to remember anything about being Jewish. Rabbi Herzog replied that he would find a way.
Rabbi Herzog asked the Reverend Mother to gather all the children in the large hall at the orphanage. Once she did, he ascended the stage and cried in a loud voice, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokainu, Hashem echad!” “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!” Immediately, dozens of children rushed toward the rabbi yelling, “Mama,” “Papa,” with tears in their eyes. Many of them sobbed uncontrollably. Their true identity was revealed by the words that their parents had, indeed, impressed upon them from the time that they were born.
This commitment to educating the next generation and passing on our faith has been key to the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, once wrote, “Having children is more than a gift. It’s a responsibility. For us as Jews, it’s the most sacred responsibility there is. On it depends the future of the Jewish people. For four thousand years our people survived because in every generation, Jews made it their highest priority to hand their faith on to their children.”
Ultimately, passing on the faith has remained and is still primarily accomplished through the home and family life. The main way that Jewish mothers, and fathers, transmit Jewish values and ideas is through the biblically mandated holy days God commanded the Israelites to observe. These observances and rituals have bonded Jewish families and communities and kept their faith alive through exiles, dispersions, inquisitions, pogroms, persecution and, yes, even the Holocaust.
Rabbi Ken Spiro writes, “Family life is regarded as a training ground for the Jewish way of life. Children receive their earliest education in the home. Parents show them how to live as Jews. Jewish parents are expected to make the home a place where Judaism is alive. They can do this through acts of Jewish worship, such as the weekly Shabbat celebration or marking the Jewish festivals.”
The wondrous thing about God’s holy days and observances is that they have a way of communicating faith with children of every age and adults at every stage of life. They provide experiences rich with meaning and spirit that transcend the limits of language and traditional instruction. It is these gatherings and memories that plant the seeds of values such as faith, wisdom, hope, courage, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity and setting priorities; it is repeating these traditions and rituals year after year that makes them flourish and grow.
Ultimately, we are all called, Christians and Jews, to be living examples of faith for our children. In the Christian Bible, the apostle Paul taught, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). And in his instructions to his young protégé in faith, Timothy, Paul wrote, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
This is a unique Mother’s Day, where I and many others around the world are spending more time at home with our children than we ever have. And this season has been hard. Yet the opportunity to spend extra time ensuring my sons and daughters are secure in their identity, and that their faith becomes shatterproof, has been the sweetest.
The more we shine with the light of our own faith, the more we will spread the light of God — to our children, their children and beyond.
This is an adaptation of Yael Eckstein’s latest book, “Generation to Generation.”
Yael Eckstein is the president of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews. She also holds the rare distinction of being a woman leading one of the world’s largest, religious not-for-profit organizations, having raised $1.8 billion — mostly from Christians — to assist Israel and the Jewish people. She is the author of the newly released “Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children.”