Jews and the Faith of Their Children
May 23, 2022
Judaism has long viewed parents as the primary educators of their children. The Bible repeatedly makes it clear how central parents are to helping their children develop their key values and views through faith[i] and so many Jewish holidays, traditions, and life-cycle events explicitly focus on parents and elders in the community imparting Jewish values, ideas, and history to children and younger members of the community.
Unsurprisingly, centuries of Jewish thought and literature have emphasized the centrality of education in the lives of children, with the home serving as the educational foundation for the religious and moral development of the child. Rabbinic scholar Rashi famously stated in Sukkah 53 “what the child speaks in the marketplace, he has heard at home from his mother or father.” Religious ideas taught at home have anchored Jewish identity and outlook for generations. As Jews face habitual pressure to abandon traditional practices and face high levels of anti-Semitism, instilling religious principles in the next generation has been instrumental in promoting Jewish continuity in America.
Thus, many in the Jewish community may be troubled, but perhaps not surprised, by new findings from the Survey Center on American Life’s new National Family Life study. The results reveal that just half of Jews in America today believe it is important for children to be brought up in a religion so they can learn good values, making the Jewish community an outlier compared to other religious traditions.
Placing the Jewish community’s outlook into the appropriate context, Americans today generally believe that it is important for children to be brought up in a religion so they can learn good values. Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) Americans support children being raised in a faith of some sort. This figure has declined in the past decade. In 2013, the Public Religion Research Institute asked the same item. At that time, 67 percent of Americans believed in the centrality of religion to instill good values. It was asked again in 2016 and 70 percent agreed with the sentiment.
American Jews are unique to the extent they believe it is not that important for children to grow up in a faith. Only 51 percent of Jews support the notion that children should grow up with a religious faith so they can learn good values. Roughly as many disagree. And 17 percent of Jews today completely reject the notion that faith provides some moral background for children and their development.
In contrast to Jews, members of other faiths express far greater support for raising children in religion. For instance, 87 percent of evangelical Protestants agree that it is valuable for children to have a religious upbringing. And 87 percent of members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints feel the same way. Catholics – who have been rocked by numerous scandals among church leadership in recent years – are less supportive at 70 percent; lower but still a healthy majority.
Jewish Americans’ distinctive outlook toward raising children without religion is unusual and breaks from generations of traditional thinking about the importance of teaching faith in the home. While there are undoubtedly significant differences between Orthodox and secular Jews today, religious education was historically valued among most Jews, leading to the establishment of large networks of Jewish day schools, Sunday schools, and other institutions which promote religious education. Research has even found that many Jews have made major decisions in their lives in terms of where to live centered around the education of their children. Jewish day schools, afternoon programs, and weekend schools have been in steep decline in recent years and the findings here reinforce why many Jewish schools are no longer thriving or have the support they had decades ago: smaller numbers in the Jewish community believe in the importance of teaching faith to children.
Clearly, educational priorities have changed among Jews in America today. The Jewish community now stands apart from other religious groups, raising questions of how a community in demographic decline is thinking about its continued existence. Judaism is a very old religion and one that prizes debate and learning, community and family, and traditions and customs that celebrate and memorialize the passage of time. As a faith, there is little formal hierarchy and centralization, and there is a real value placed on pluralism in practice. The puzzle that must be solved going forward is understanding why Jews are different here, and what happened that has turned so many off from seeing the importance of faith for family.
[i] In the Book of Deuteronomy (6:6-7), parents are commanded to teach their children: “And be it that these laws which I command unto you today, you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them, as you sit in your home and as you walk on your way outside, when you lie down and when you awaken.”