One of the nice things about doing what I do is that I get to ask nosy questions of people I hardly know. I meet people in other walks of life that I would ordinarily never get a chance to.
One of those people I was lucky—and privileged—to interview was Aryeh Hirschfield, who died in a snorkeling accident in early January in the waters off the Mexican coast. A rabbi with the Portland congregation of P’nai Or, he and his family had attended the wedding of his son Isaiah in Mexico. After the nuptials he and his wife and sons went on vacation in Oaxaca, a vacation that ended with his shocking death. He was sixty-five.
Some years ago Aryeh conducted the wedding of my sister- and brother-in-law, Cynthia and Gesher Calmenson, in Ashland, Oregon, and that was how I met him. The father of five sons, he wrote and sang songs for his congregation and led interfaith efforts to bring Jews together with Christians and other religious peoples. He was one of the fathers I interviewed for The Daddy Guide, my parenting guide for fathers. I talked to him about “Transmitting Spiritual Values to Your Children.” Here is a brief excerpt from our interview:
Q: When we raise children, we want them to grow up with certain values. How do you transmit values to your children?
Hirschfield: “That’s a big question, a very big question. For our family, prayer is an important part of our lives. We celebrate Shabbat every Friday evening, which is the start of the Jewish holy day. We do it every week. We come together as a family, and it centers us in the home and in our spiritual selves. We light candles, say a special blessing, and be together as a family.
Q: What’s the point of these rituals? What do they have to do with transmitting values to children?
Hirschfield: “Raising children is such a tricky thing. Kids have all this stuff coming at him. In order for them not to be lost, we try to give them a sense of place that’s holy. Kids especially get swept away, you know, by the mall and TV and peer pressure. When they get to be teenagers, they’re lost. In Judaism, we emphasize two central elements: home and community. Whenever I do a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, I always tell the young person that we have come here to acknowledge you, that you are an important person, that we care about you. You’re part of a community, you’re not just lost out there. When the family has some kind of faith at the center, there is something to bring them back home.”
Q: What about doubt? Should you share your doubts with your children? Some men want to be a rock for their children and equate having doubts with being weak.
Hirschfield: “I remember I had a talk with my son Jonathan before his bar mitzvah. It was very open, we shared a lot of things. He was thirteen. I shared how I had screwed up in my life, how I felt I lacked courage. And you know what, the more I shared how I screwed up, how I fell short, the closer we became. Be truthful. Don’t hide stuff. When your kids get older they’ll know that their parents had doubts. But they’ll know, too, that you were truthful and real with them.”
Q: Transmitting values to your children, then, is not a matter of just filling up an empty vessel. You have to look at yourself and your own actions.
Hirschfield: “Children will pick up on what you do. It’s not so much what you tell your children. The question is, how real are you in your own spiritual life? Look to yourself. If you walk the life, you stand the chance that your children will get it, too. There’s a Jewish phrase, heshbon hanefesh. It means an accounting of the soul. When you become a parent you have to do your own soul accounting. If you really care what values you transmit to your children, you have to ask yourself: What are my values? What path am I on? Even as you instruct a child on his or her path, you must always be in the process of finding your own path.”