“Drop-off Judaism” is defined as: a. the act of a parent “dropping off” their child off at a synagogue program, and then bolting for the closest restaurant for breakfast, and/or b. the act of a child, following his or her bar or bat mitzvah, “dropping off” the Jewish radar screen, with the expectation that in twenty to thirty years, that child will reappear as an adult with his or her child, to repeat the same cycle.
While the two definitions of “Drop-off Judaism” are somewhat different from one another, recent experts tell us that there is strong causal relationship between the two.
I was not around for the birth of “Drop off-Judaism”, but I imagine its beginnings looked a lot like the Coen Brothers' Oscar-nominated film, “A Serious Man”. In the film, both the child studying for his bar mitzvah and his father are the results of the child and adult drop-off.
The child, growing up in a home with few visible Jewish signs, draws no meaning from his bar mitzvah experience, enjoying smoking pot in the bathroom with his friends more than the ceremony itself.
His father, who may have grown up in a home with these rituals and symbols, is so theologically impaired that at a true moment of crisis in his life he is unable to draw any meaning from Judaism because it has grown so alien to him.
Fast forward sixty years to 2011: the anti-Bar Mitzvah child is now an adult. The current “drop-off” system has created a new generation of Jewish parents who no longer even have the religious knowledge that their parents did to reinforce what their children are learning at school—even if they wanted to—because they are the broken outcome of a broken system.
Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk, known as the Kotsker Rebbe, described our current state of affairs best in the 18th century when he wrote that if a parent “wants his or her child to study Torah, then they must study it with them in their presence. Otherwise, they will not study Torah, but merely instruct their children to do so.”
Today’s Jewish parents now in their 20s and 30s feel threatened--or perhaps even embarrassed--by their own inadequacies, and yet at covenantal moments, they are still looking to feel good about themselves as Jews.
If only the parent and the child in the film, and in life—would come to realize that the secret to finding meaning in Judaism lay in being supportive of one another. Parents have questions while children have rituals that provide answers, so that they may grow together.
Jewish parents have always had a sacred task of transmitting knowledge to their children, and children have always been bound to respecting their parents. But by dropping their children off, and relinquishing the opportunity to learn with their children, parents cheat themselves of this important Jewish experience.
Parents who continue to drop their kids off, yet expect their children to remain Jewish can at best expect more of the same: a lack of content knowledge, and a diminished connection to Judaism.
Now, it is more important than ever to work together to guide a broken generation toward doing what Jews have always done; transmitting knowledge from parent to child, and from “one generation to another.”
A popular Jewish teaching from the Talmud states that Rabbi Chanina once remarked that “our children are not to be thought of as just banim (children), but rather bonim, “builders” of the next generation.”
A wise colleague of mine similarly remarked that “the challenge for Jews today lays not in building institutions as it was in the 1950s, but in building the next generation of Jews who will continue to fill them.”
Now, more than ever, the Jewish community must work together to create educational opportunities for families that will inspire both parents and children alike to “drop-in” to Judaism, not off.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.
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