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“Oxygen Mask Judaism”

January 26, 2017

By Meredith Lewis, Director of Content and Engagement, PJ Library

Last spring, my five-year-old turned to me, unprompted, and asked, “Mom, what’s the story of Passover again?”

Easy, I thought. I have a master’s degree in Judaic Studies and have worked in Jewish education for years. Plus, I’ve seen The Prince of Egypt multiple times.

“Once upon a time, the Israelites lived in Egypt. There was a guy named Pharaoh.

Wait, before that, there was a guy named Joseph.

Scratch that. Let’s focus on Pharaoh. He was a bad guy. He made the Jews do all of his work, like building the Pyramids.

You remember those triangle brick buildings we saw in that book?

Want to go get the book?

No?

Okay then.

Where were we? Yes, Egypt.

Then there was this baby. His name was Moses…”

I droned on. When I finally finished, my son had clearly lost interest, his mind wandering in its own desert.

I asked, “Ari, did you get that?”

“Can I go watch Octonauts now?” he replied.

Failure. What I needed at that moment wasn’t the details of the story. I needed a translation—one that was fit for a five-year-old but still felt authentic to me as an adult.

Many bemoan the lack of knowledge about basic Jewish history, ritual, and traditions among younger generations. Knowledge is vital for parents to become their children’s Jewish teacher, but it also takes support to make that knowledge useful.

I’ve realized what I was missing was something I’ll call “Oxygen Mask Judaism.” Most of us have been on an airplane and know that in case of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop down from above your seat. “If you are traveling with a child, first place the mask on yourself, and then assist the child.”

There’s turbulence in the air of Jewish life, and for those that care about a continued, vibrant, and progressive Jewish community, knowledge alone won’t suffice. We need more oxygen masks—vehicles by which parents can use Judaism to help raise their kids. This applies to parents that are educated or not, Jewishly engaged or not, intermarried or not. Parents need language to help explain Jewish concepts that is developmentally appropriate for children but doesn’t belittle them as adults. Parents crave ideas for activities that will help them engage with their children, creating their own customs and defining their own family values.

And my guess is most parents will find comfort in traditions that descend from our parents and their parents. Projects like Kveller.com and PJ Library have begun to scratch the surface. While they have tremendous reach, hundreds of thousands of Jewish families are still untouched by them.

What else can be done? First, start by asking young parents what they need. Listen, don’t assume. Though parents of young children are often lacking in confidence, the solution isn’t to tell us what to do or what’s important to us. It’s empowerment. Help us help ourselves—and then we’ll help our children.