At this time of the year, especially, as we end the old year and begin the new one, we look back on where we came from as we dream of new directions. We reflect on our ancestors — the ancestors we read about in the Torah, the figures who shaped our people's history, and our own families' forebears. Each contributed to our life, uniquely adding to our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual DNA.
Just as it's important to remember our ancestors, it is also crucial to remember that we, too, will be someone's ancestors someday. What kind of role models will we be? What legacy will we leave to our children? What inheritance will our descendants be able to attribute to us? Will they do so with pride? And how will we transmit the legacy we would like our descendants to inherit?
We sometimes miss an opportunity to become the ancestors we want to be simply because we choose not to assert ourselves, preferring to be neutral in guiding our youth. We refrain from exerting influence on them. To become worthy ancestors, though, requires purposeful planning, not neutral neglect.
We transfer our nonmaterial inheritance from one generation to the next through education, both formal and informal. The Jewish community has a well-deserved reputation for its commitment to learning. Although it's essential to teach children how to earn a living and to function in the world, it is also vital for parents to teach their children how to relate to God and to nourish their souls.
Each of us can make a significant contribution to ensure that our cherished values do not die with us. How can we prepare ourselves to become better ancestors?
First, each of us transmits that which is important to us by what we say and what we do, not by what we think but do not model. We cannot assume that our children or our community will know that we think Judaism is important unless we say and act it clearly. Feeling it in our hearts is not sufficient. Our children have to hear from our lips that we care that they live as Jews, and they have to see us live Jewish priorities so they can follow our example. We are their ancestors.
Living the Jewish calendar in our homes creates an ambience in which our children experience Jewish living as the way they live their own lives. Living the values of g'milut hesed (acts of lovingkindness), tzedakah (acts of righteousness), and derekh eretz (treating others with sensitivity) creates models to transmit those values to our heirs. Becoming an ancestor means accepting responsibility.
Congregations also play an important role in transmitting our heritage. Quality formal Jewish education and dynamic informal Jewish education help to shape Jewish souls. Congregations must invest in highly qualified, committed educators and youth leaders. It is unacceptable to tolerate mediocrity. Our children deserve the best we can offer.
Rather than surrendering to those who request less education, parents must demand more. Instead of responding positively to those who call for diminished standards, we must require accountability. After all, we are the ancestors of tomorrow.
Rather than trying to reduce the congregational youth activities budget, we must find ways to invest more.
We have a responsibility to provide for the future. After all, we are the ancestors of future generations.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.