Recently, we enjoyed a wonderful Shabbat evening and meal with Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, his lovely wife, Miriam, and many UCI undergrad and grad students at their home, which is the heart and soul of the UCI Chabad. They are reaching out to faculty members and community leaders to become involved in their congregation, which gives students a Jewish place to connect, weekly Shabbats, holiday celebrations, an opportunity for mitzvot and much more. I first learned of this two-year-old congregation when I saw a notice about the UCI menorah lighting at Chanukah. We also attended a Holocaust speaker evening UCI Chabad sponsored in February.
I cannot tell you how impressed we were with the great things Rabbi Zevi and Miriam are doing with and for the students. Our children also had a wonderful time, and we were so glad to show them how positive and nice it is to be at a university that has a strong Jewish presence where they can connect, learn and celebrate away from home with other Jews. I think they are already starting to understand that the existence of a Jewish life on campus is as much of an important “factor” on their list of priorities in a university as the academics, the sports and the location.
In order for kids to have the desire to seek a college with a Jewish presence and to make becoming involved and connecting a priority, it is crucial that the connections to Jewish life outside of their own homes start at a young age. Those who regularly attend Jewish events, and especially those who become involved in the student leadership of such groups, are most likely the ones who will seek that involvement at the college level and beyond. There are already so many things that demand a portion of our children’s time that it is often hard to juggle everything and make time for the Jewish activities. But it will be like that in college, so the more they learn how to juggle a busy schedule to fit in Jewish activities, the more it will become second nature and will be easier to manage as they get older.
Jewish involvement outside the home can begin as early as toddlerhood with “mommy and me” groups! Formal religious schooling such as pre-school, religious school and Jewish day school, as well as Jewish summer camp and Shabbaton experiences, play an important role in fostering an emphasis on Judaism and being involved. Of course, celebrating Shabbat and holidays and talking about Jewish values and ethics in our homes and with our families and friends are largely determinant too. I believe that it’s the whole package, the whole wealth of experiences in which we make it possible for our children to become involved, that shape their Jewish formative years and make connecting with others Jewishly a basic and important part of their lives.
Most of us would love for it to be a “given” that our kids would seek to connect with and participate in Hillel, Chabad or any other formal Jewish group when they are in college. If we, as parents, make it a priority, our kids will prioritize it as well. So many of our kids’ friends stop being involved with the synagogue and other groups as they get busy with secular activities in high school. Parents say “sorry, he isn’t going anymore because he is too busy with…” or “no, she doesn’t go anymore because she doesn’t enjoy it, and I don’t want to force her.” Even the high school age kids sometimes still need a push in the right direction. We can still have a say in what they do, so we can and should encourage them to stay involved. It will have a huge impact in their future lives as involved and observant Jewish adults.
Passover is one of the best holidays to involve your children and make it special for them, no matter how old they are. Kids can certainly help in the preparation in meaningful ways, which makes celebrating the holiday more fun. Kids of all ages can help rid the home of chametz and go to the grocery store to stock up on Passover foods. Let them help choose what you buy and give them cookbooks (or search on-line) to find some good recipe ideas, not only for the seder dinners, but also for meals for the week. (Not having bread for a week will be less onerous if they’ve helped select the menus and come up with ideas for what to make!)
If you’re having friends or family for a big Passover seder, have the younger kids make table place cards and placemats by using plain white paper ones and having them draw pictures of seder plates and other Passover symbols. Older children will enjoy helping to get out the Passover dishes and tablecloths and napkins and setting the tables. Tweens and teens enjoy helping out in the kitchen to prepare some of the foods. Let them get out the Hagaddahs and help select the readings and songs that will be incorporated into your seder. Older children can help “assign” the sections of who is going to read what parts and make sure that everyone at your seder, from the very youngest children to the oldest grandparents, have an opportunity to participate. For those super creative folks, try utilizing props and costumes to act out the plagues as part of your seder.
Whatever you choose to do with your children in both celebrating Passover and in having them become involved in formalized Jewish youth organizations with a view toward making life-long participation in such activities a priority is a matter of personal family preference and only you know what is right for your family… However much you choose to do will go a long way towards helping your kids be involved and connect in a Jewish with others in their community, not only now, but once they go off to college and become adults!