Raising Children in Two Worlds
Mommy, does Grandma believe in Yeshua?
“No, sweetheart, she doesn’t.”
“But why not? She’s Jewish, isn’t she?!”
All four of our children have initiated conversations much like the one above with my wife or me, and some of you who are parents have told me of similar interactions in your homes. Some messianic kids have even expressed skepticism about the Jewishness of relatives who don’t believe in Jesus. Since we believe that He is the Jewish Messiah, we rightly teach our children that believing in Yeshua is a very Jewish thing to do. At the same time, there comes a point when we have to explain that most Jewish people do not agree with us. These types of interactions hit on the complexities and challenges of raising Jewish children to believe in Jesus.
We belong to two worlds: the Jewish community and the universal body of Messiah—the Church. Our “worlds” are often at odds with one another, and our loyalties can be as well. When the Jewish community claims that telling Jewish people they need Jesus is a form of spiritual Nazism, or that messianic practice is deceptive, where are your loyalties? And when you hear of a church leader who is insensitive to Jewish issues or comes out against Israel, with whom do you side? As we go back and forth we may have difficulty reconciling what sometimes seem to be divergent aspects of our own identity—and that presents challenges in bringing up the next generation of Jewish believers. In our desire to raise well-adjusted kids who are committed Jews and committed Jesus-believers, we need to remember to put first things first.
And what is the first thing? Simply put, it is to love God and follow His Messiah, Yeshua. That’s the very reason we have the breath of life! The apostle Paul was willing to call every good thing in his life—including his own Jewish identity—rubbish in comparison to knowing the Messiah and the fellowship of His sufferings (Philippians 3:4-14). After this self-disclosure, Paul admonishes the rest of us saying, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you” (Philippians 3:15). The apostle is not calling us to disrespect, disregard or deny our Jewish identity; he is simply telling us to put it in perspective. Paul placed far more importance on the surpassing greatness of knowing the Messiah than he did on his own Jewishness, yet he remained very much a Jew. We also can continue to live a Jewish life as Paul did.
We care about the continuation of our people’s history and culture, and about our family’s posterity. That is why many of us in the messianic movement are talking about how we are raising the next generation of Jewish believers. We want to equip them to carry on this vision of a growing community of Jews who embrace both their Messiah and their own Jewishness. But as we focus on our task, we face gnawing questions. Will they really identify as Jews? In what ways? Will they have a Jewish way of relating to their cousins and to the wider Jewish community? Will they marry Jewish?
Though our kids are already Jewish because we are their Jewish parents, we should do what we can to actively develop their identity as Jews. But ultimately, whether our kids will be Jewish in what we consider meaningful ways will be up to them. We can educate and train, nurture and hope, but then we have to let go. It’s been said that the best that we can give to our kids is roots and wings. Roots to be grounded in who they are as believers and as Jews, and wings to freely discover who they are as adults in this world. We will pass on what we have like a runner’s baton, but our children are the ones who will decide whether to grasp it and continue carrying it.
Most parents realize that we are not the only influences in our kids’ lives. They are shaped to some extent by everything and everyone with whom they come into contact. Though we often consider this issue when it comes to spiritual influences, many of us may not have considered the fact that these outside influences have some effect, not only on our children’s belief in Yeshua, but on their Jewish identity.
In a recent article, Rich Nichol, a messianic rabbi, pointed out that people become like those with whom they spend time, and that our children are spending much of their time with Gentile Christians in youth groups, schools and at concerts. While it’s true that some of our kids spend a lot of time with their Gentile Christian friends, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this will cause them to become less Jewish. If we are being intentional about shaping a legitimate Jewish identity in our children, this identity will not wither away as they play and study with Gentile friends. In fact, we can view our children’s world as a junior microcosm of the church, and rather than putting an end to these associations, we can allow God to bring benefit and blessing from them, just as He does in our adult associations with Gentile Christians.
The body of Messiah is the only real “rainbow coalition,” and there are many reasons to rub shoulders with each other. There’s no better way to fight our own prejudices than to eat a meal with believers who belong to a different nationality or race than our own. And there is no better way to show the world the power of Messiah, than by letting them see the unity He brings between Jews and Gentiles, one in Messiah. Our children can learn these lessons while still young, and they and their Gentile friends can see that there is mutual blessing that they bring to each other. If we’re in a church or in a messianic congregation that’s full of Gentiles, we can recognize the differences, celebrate the diversity and maintain our identities.
So long as we encourage our children to spend time with believing friends, I think it is also good to encourage them to spend time with non-believing Jewish friends. Some are concerned about the ridicule our kids might face from Jewish peers who don’t understand our faith. We cannot keep our children in a spiritual ivory tower. We’re involved in a battle for truth, and while the battle rages, the arrows fly, regardless of people’s ages. Some of my daughter’s friends have made comments like, “Do you know your dad is in a cult?” What should I do, quit my ministry, quit being a believer, or put her in a Christian school so she doesn’t face such difficult challenges? While some might advocate for the last option, I have not. I have chosen to try to teach her how to deal with that kind of thinking so in the future she’ll be able to handle such things for herself. It’s important for our children to spend time with Jewish friends, even when those friends don’t believe in Messiah. Our kids need to know how the “rest of our people” view life so they can see for themselves how we are the same and how we are different from the mainstream Jewish community.
If you don’t live near a Jewish community and/or you do not attend a messianic congregation, you can foster Jewish appreciation in your church. Teach a class, educate Christian friends about the Jewish roots of your faith, and always identify as a Jewish believer so you and your kids don’t forget. Some Jewish believers keep kosher, not for theological reasons, but to remember who they are. That is valid and may be helpful for some.
Those of us who are intermarried may find questions of how to raise children committed to their Jewish identity even more pressing. While the subject of intermarriage deserves its own article, you may be interested in the following statistics: according to The American Jewish Yearbook (1998) and Ergon Mayer for the American Jewish Committee, 28% of intermarried couples raise their kids Jewish, and a corresponding 24% of kids from intermarriages identify as Jews. That indicates that how we raise our kids does matter and if we are intentional and thoughtful about raising our kids as Jews, most will identify as such. Gentile spouses can definitely contribute to their children’s Jewish identity. If both parents learn to properly celebrate the Jewish holidays, preserve Jewish values and find ways to involve themselves in the Jewish community, then the kids will follow.
We could argue about the meaning of being “meaningfully Jewish,” but I hope we can agree that it begins with following the God of our people who created our identity and gave us our marching orders. Our kids will be meaningfully Jewish if they seek God’s purpose for their Jewish identity. If we raise them to take notice of the Scriptures, hopefully they will discover a sense of destiny in helping to preserve the believing Jewish remnant, and in reaching their Jewish peers for Messiah. To fulfill both of those purposes our children must know our history and traditions, our symbols, values and sensitivities. To impart some commonality with other Jews we have to give our own children Jewish life experiences. We need to involve them in ongoing activities which build a knowledge, familiarity and sense of Jewishness. The possibilities are almost endless, and below we’ve offered several ideas to “prime the pump.”
When all is said and done our children are in God’s hands. We hope they will grow up to be mensches who love the Messiah and identify with our Jewish people. And we should do much more than merely hope for such a result. We need to give our kids good reason to embrace their Jewishness along with a solid faith in Yeshua. And if their Jewishness is not as important to them as we’d like it to be, it will hurt, but not nearly as badly as if they forsake the Lord when they fly out on their own. Think about it for a minute. What do you want most for your children? Isn’t it a vibrant faith in our Messiah? Hopefully it is not an “either/or” choice of Jewishness or Jesus. Let’s make a pledge to each other. Let’s pray for each other to exercise love, wisdom and dependence on God as we bring up our kids Jewishly and in the fear of the Lord, whether we are parents or other important people in their lives…and let’s trust God that they grow up eager to fulfill the destiny that He has for them.
Though Jewish identity begins with the God who made us Jews, there are many aspects of our culture which can best be gained through involvement with people. Here is a short list of things you can do with your kids to help build an authentic Jewish cultural sense:
- Attend Jewish community events
- Participate in extended family gatherings
- Join a Jewish cause
- Watch Jewish movies together
- Read Jewish books and magazines
- Go to Israel
- Send them to summer camps
- Attend local synagogue services
- Explore the Internet for Jewish sites
- Visit Jewish museums
- Take classes at the JCC
North American Director
Stephen's grandparents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, ultimately settling in the Chicago area. As a boy, Stephen enjoyed sports and excelled in school. In his high school years he began to question the values he had been raised with, and instead of focusing on academics, began to spend all his time playing guitar and harmonica. Over the next few years he searched for answers to his many questions about life, eventually becoming a follower of Yeshua. Three weeks after receiving his bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Illinois, he got married and began to work with abused and neglected youth in a residential treatment center in Chicago, which he did for 10 years (taking one year out to live on a kibbutz in Israel). He received his master's degree in social work from the University of Illinois in 1984. He and his young family attended a messianic congregation for 13 years, where Stephen served as the worship leader. In 1989, Stephen began missionary training with Jews for Jesus and now serves as North American Director. For 12 years he oversaw our work in Israel and still continues to be involved with our work there. Laura and he have four children, three of whom are married. He received a master's degree in intercultural and Jewish studies from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1997. Stephen is known to be a warm-hearted and engaging teacher and a good listener.