on Tuesday, 29 May 2012.
I know that summer doesn't officially begin until June 21st, but in many parts of the country summer actually starts with Memorial Day weekend, and as kids get out of school and temperatures rise it begins to feel a whole lot like the season of sun and water and freedom. Or at least that's how I remember it from childhood, when the last day of public school signaled total release from responsibility. Ah, those blissful last days of school: I believe that in my memory they were sometimes actually more pleasurable than the summer vacations that followed... sometimes it's the idea of freedom that matters most, not the reality of it.
For most working people this summer period is not vacation at all, but there is a certain sense around an American synagogue, particularly among Religious School families, that they are taking the summer off from Judaism and will see you again when school starts in the fall. I don't know at what point people began to feel that Judaism was a nine- or ten-months a year experience, but somehow that message has been communicated pretty universally in our congregational life—in nearly every Reform and Conservative congregation's life, to be honest—and I know that there are probably some families with whom I celebrated at the Siyyum concluding ceremonies at Religious School in May that I will not see again until late August or even September.
I don't know what to do about this exactly, and neither does anyone else in the shul business, so far as I know. It's not that we don't preach the message that Judaism is a year-round commitment, a way to experience holiness in life every day, and I don't think it's even a conscious decision that people make to avoid religion when the weather warms up. It's just that somewhere along the way American Jews learned or decided that religion, or at least Judaism, was a pediatric exercise, something to give to kids to make sure they got the right values and holidays and rituals and hopefully married the right flavor of person, and that they themselves, the parents and even the grandparents, were exempt from actually experiencing the same things they required their kids to do.
That's why the best supplemental religious schools in the world—and many, like Temple Emanu-El's, are very fine—can only do so much. The kids learn and know the prayers and holidays, they can chant from the Torah and sing about Israel and the festivals, they can celebrate their wonderful Jewish identity in many creative and thoughtful ways, but when parents choose to just drop kids off and enjoy a free morning and when they don't model any particularly Jewish behaviors or provide Jewish experiences regularly at home it sends a very strong message: religion, at least Judaism, is kids' stuff. Grown-ups have more important things to do, like work out, go shopping, have dinner dates with friends, and volunteer for non-Jewish, or at least non-religious or Jewish educational, other activities.
It's not exactly what we rabbis preach, of course, but it certainly is a message that comes across loud and clear, especially in the summer time. The equation seems to be: Summertime=no religious school=no Judaism to speak of...
And that's a shame, because in truth it's during the summer that we can really experience some of the very best parts of Jewish life, like the home celebration of Shabbat dinner and the opportunity to study Torah creatively in a more relaxed environment. When kids don't have to rush from chorus rehearsal to ballet to baseball practice to debate meetings to student government to karate to homework they can actually experience life at a more human pace, and enjoy their Judaism in pleasant, embracing, creative ways. If you take the time to have your kids actually shut down their video devices for a little while and have real family time, and if you choose to use that time to explore your children's relationship to our magnificent tradition, you will reap lasting rewards.
At Temple Emanu-El we celebrate Shabbat in the summer with our Chardonnay Shabbat services: wine and cheese and fruit at 5 o'clock, one hour Kabbalat Shabbat services at 5:45 PM, then go have a Shabbat dinner with your family afterwards. It's a really great way in the heat of summer to just chill and enjoy being Jewish... to learn something important about Judaism, to celebrate your Jewish identity, and to help pass it on in a meaningful way to your own children and grandchildren.
So come! We'll provide the environment and the appetizers and the music. You just need to be here, and be present.
L'Shalom v'Rei'ut, in peace and friendship,
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon