How do you survive and thrive living far away from a Jewish cultural center, like my family does in Southern Indiana? In our town, there is a very small Jewish population, and we are the only Messianic Jews that I know of. But nurturing my own identity—and building up my kids’—is very important to me. Here are the eight ways we make it work.
Around the table for Shabbat dinner. Dad’s taking the picture!
1. CAMP, CAMP, CAMP!
I was an ardent camper at a Jewish summer camp all through my teens, which had a huge influence on my Jewish identity. I am so thrilled that Jews for Jews makes this kind of experience available to our kids through Camp Gilgal. My kids range from eight to nineteen years old, so they have participated in Junior Camp, Adventure Camp and Halutzim. It is the highlight of their year, and the minute they get home they are already talking about how much fun it will be next year. We had hesitations sending our kids away, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Kids love holidays and special foods, so there’s never a problem convincing them to participate in the Jewish holidays. Learning about the Jewish holidays deepens their cultural and religious understanding and helps them better relate to our extended Jewish family and friends. Most importantly, I think it is the best way for them to build their faith and understanding of Yeshua. The holidays are God’s design to illustrate His plan for all of us. Sin, atonement, provision and forgiveness: it’s all there.
Traditional Jewish foods keep us connected to our past and to our people. Some of my favorite foods include: matzah brei, matzah ball soup, blintzes, stuffed cabbage, lox and bagels (though good luck getting a decent bagel in Southern Indiana!) and rugelach. Fortunately, I have recipes from my grandmother, which my family loves to cook and eat while telling stories from the past. Even though some of my kids need to eat gluten-free, it is easy to find recipes on the internet. With every batch of hamantaschen and matzah ball we make, there’s a wonderful opportunity to tell a story.
When I was growing up, my family, like many American Jewish families, rarely practiced any sort of religious Judaism. My grandmother mysteriously disappeared twice a year on High Holy Days, but that was about it. I never inherited Shabbat candles or a menorah—eBay to the rescue! Some time ago, I found a beautiful solid-brass menorah on eBay for a very reasonable price. My mom said it looked just like the one the family used to light when she was a child (which was long gone).
There are many mail-order websites that sell Judaica—including the Jews for Jesus store! These items are great reminders for us, as well as conversation starters. I have left personal jewelry like a Star of David and items like kippot for the kids to choose among as they get older. All of my kids have picked something that speaks to their personal identity, and I love seeing them grow up in that way.
Music can be especially powerful. Our family loves klezmer, but the fact that’s there’s probably not a live klezmer band in the state doesn’t keep us from enjoying it. CDs and iTunes make a world of music available. My kids have found a niche of American a cappella groups that sing Hebrew songs, which we all enjoy. Movies are also an excellent way to “travel” to times and places we couldn’t otherwise. Netflix and Amazon Prime have many, many fictional and documentary movies (and even Israeli TV!) that broaden Jewish cultural understanding. Check ratings and reviews to make sure it’s appropriate for your audience.
6. Photos that tell a story
I have spent a lot of time organizing, preserving and digitizing my family’s old photos. My kids ask questions about what they see around them in our home. Putting up our old family photos gives me the opportunity to tell family stories over and over again. Who came from Russia and had to hide in a flour barrel during a pogrom? Who came from Germany and sailed for America just in the nick of time? Who spoke Yiddish, and why don’t we? Along those lines, we have a daily tear-off calendar of Jewish/Yiddish facts. We all love learning something new each day—about famous Jews, Yiddish sayings, traditional Jewish foods and more. Jonas Salk , inventor of the polio vaccine, was on today. We have gotten a ton of mileage out of that calendar!
7. Making new friends
If possible, take your kids on trips to places of Jewish interest and influence. The Holocaust Museum in D.C. is excellent. Israel is the ultimate goal. I went when I was seventeen, and I can’t wait to take my kids. It may be a long time coming, but someday.
My hope is to inspire a love of Jewish life and learning in my kids, and maybe in you, too, as you read about what works for us. As Jews, our faith in Jesus doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s part of a long heritage of people who longed for Messiah, many of whom have found Him.