No, that’s not quite right. Although the shtetl experience had significant effects on Jewish thought, it is not central to Jewish life today.
Few of us would willingly trade the freedoms of twenty-first-century America for the forced closeness of an isolated village in eastern Europe. But it does take a community to raise a Jewish child. This is not to say that one can’t be Jewish in isolation, such as when required by schooling, work, or military service. What it means is that to be a Jew is to be part of a worldwide Jewish community that cannot be defined by either religion or ethnicity alone.
Thus, not all Jews are religious, nor are all religious Jews religious in the same way. Our religious practices show a range of ethnic and philosophical differences. Nor are our ethnic customs all the same. Think about Jewish food: what is Jewish food? Sefardim such as Moroccan Jews knew nothing about bagels until they saw them in Ashkenazi bakeries in Israel or North America, but they eat rice during Passover. There are Jews who don’t like gefilte fish!
About a decade ago I taught an eighth-grade class on Jewish family history. The idea was that family history was the gateway to more general Jewish history. Jewish food was one illustration: whatever we think of as “Jewish food” is the typical food of the region of the world from which our families came, perhaps adapted to make it kosher. (Russian borscht might contain both meat and sour cream; in French cooking, à la juive, Jewish style, means fried in oil instead of pork fat.) By the late 1990s this was lost on students, because family food had become either mainstream American food, or the latest foodie craze—that year, Thai. So if family food is Jewish food, Thai food was Jewish.
Furthermore, our Jewish community, especially in America, is becoming progressively more diverse. It includes Jews by birth who are religious and who are not religious, and Jews by choice and other family members who participate voluntarily in the life of the community.
Young children do not think in global terms, and identification with a worldwide community is not automatic. For a very young child, the world is defined by home and family, and gradually expands to include the neighborhood, the school, and the temple or synagogue. As it expands, the child learns to be part of a community that is one step larger than the family, but still familiar and safe.
As the child matures, the connections of those communities to larger ones can become meaningful. This meaning develops through the family’s participation in their Jewish community.
Once children are of school age, religious school (Hebrew school) is the most obvious manifestation of Jewish community, because children spend three to five hours a week in Hebrew school. But school is not the only form of Jewish community, and it’s a somewhat artificial one, focused on specific kinds of learning. School can’t represent all the facets of a Jewish community. For example, the tzedakah component of our school curriculum can’t convey the experience of those who work together at the Community Kitchen on the first Thursday of every month. Our prayer curriculum doesn’t convey the bonding that occurs during a worship service. School parties don’t fully represent the experience of social events in our two congregations.
So I encourage the families of our religious-school children to participate as fully in the life of the Jewish community as they are able. That includes not only worship services—our most frequent community event—but also mitzvah projects, book discussions, social events, concerts and films, or even fund raising, and to bring their children whenever it’s feasible.