Holy or Horrible: Can We Force Meaningful Moments?

As a Jewish educator, I teach students of all ages about the sacred moments we will experience throughout our lives as Jews. Some of these moments are special to those who experience them… and some are not. We teach our students what to do, how to prepare, the words to say and, as best we can, what it will feel like to experience different milestones. We prep our students for these holy moments, hoping that they will indeed feel something.

But what do we do when they feel nothing? What about when it’s our own kids who are experiencing that disconnect we dread?

This has been on my mind a lot lately, since my 16-year-old-twins are preparing for Confirmation. One of them is fine going through the motions and will likely have a memorable Confirmation experience, while the other one is questioning Judaism altogether and has little patience for this process.

It’s been tough for me as a mom, who also happens to be a Jewish educator, to watch my kid push back against this expectation. I’m trying to be reasonable. I can acknowledge that my son’s reasons for not wanting to be confirmed are well-expressed, and his points are valid. His main argument is that he is being forced into participation and into publicly declaring a connection to beliefs that he isn’t sure he’s on board with these days.

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My way of handling the situation is to explain that it’s an experience that his parents decided we wanted him to see through, start to finish. He began religious school as a small child, and he will now mark the end of this experience. It doesn’t need to mean more than this to him. He has his whole life to decide what he believes, and can opt out of Judaism as an adult if he so chooses. (I hope he doesn’t. But that’s part of growing up: making our own choices.)

I have done my best to show him that while he may question the ceremony, classes, requirements and even beliefs, that he has benefited much from being a part of the Jewish community. Even if camp, youth group, and having Jewish friends is all that stands out to him, that’s still a very strong connection to the Jewish community. He doesn’t have to have anything else figured out for now. But he would finish his religious school education, all the way through to Confirmation.

I am 100% aware that I am forcing him to do this, just as I am sure that many a parent has forced their children to go through with their Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Most of the time we get away with it, and our children do have some positive memories of the experience — but some do not, and that’s tough to take. Forcing my child to participate in a Jewish ceremony that he doesn’t want to participate in could have a negative impact of his Jewish future, or our relationship, and that makes me nervous.

But then I think back to the first Jewish moment of his life, his bris. It was a terrible day for me. I was working at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (the Reform movement’s seminary), and hundreds of students and staff gathered to witness the naming and bris of our twins because it was a mitzvah to observe this ceremony, and they all knew our family.

As the moment drew closer, I didn’t want to go through with it. I had been to dozens of bris ceremonies before, but when it was for my own children, I felt a real violation of my privacy. I had already made the decision, against lots of unsolicited advice, to use a real MD rather than a ceremonial mohel; now I was having a crowd watch me offer my child in what felt like a public sacrifice. I felt this way despite truly loving being Jewish, cherishing my identity and heritage, devoting my professional life to Judaism… and even so, that particular Jewish moment felt not only less than holy, but outright horrible.

Thanks to the amazing rabbis that officiated for us we ended up with a public naming, followed by a private bris. It was the solution that worked for us.

Sixteen years later, I’m facing the Confirmation dilemma. And it turns out that after battling it out over this lifecycle event… my son will be out of town on the day of our congregation’s Confirmation ceremony. He’ll be playing, by special invitation, in a Memorial Day concert in DC, far away from San Antonio and his religious school classmates. Music is his great love and I knew enough not to pit Judaism against music, but I did make him finish his final project and pose for the Confirmation picture and even attend the final classes that he complains about attending. It was our unexpected compromise.

Perhaps the scheduling conflict was God’s way of making the decision for us. Perhaps my son feels closest to God when he is doing what he loves to do, playing music. For today, I’m trusting in that. We are letting the sacred moments find us, and we will see where they lead us. I’m a Jewish educator, after all, so I know the importance not only of teaching, but also of learning and making room for new knowledge and experiences throughout our lives.

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