Here are four strategies for teaching kids about tikkun olam and instilling the kind of spirituality that’s tied to giving, caring for others, and overall menschiness in your kids:
1. When kids are small, make righteousness a commandment, not a choice. Take kids with you to visit a friend in the hospital (they can say hi and then sit outside the room playing on your iPhone). Have them help you make sandwiches for hungry people and hand them out in a park. Collect little bottles of shampoo and body wash from hotels and frequent travelers and donate them to a shelter (calling to be sure the shelter actually wants them first). Older kids can lead coat drives, make string or lanyard bracelets to sell to raise money for charity, walk an elderly neighbor’s dog when it’s snowing out. Demand that all children say please and thank you.
2. Encourage children to bring peace between people. The Hebrew term for this is Hava’at Shalom ben Adam l’Havero. Help friends resolve an argument, choose not to throw a fit when your sibling borrows your jeans without asking, share the lone remaining cookie rather than grabbing it and running cackling through the house while your sibling screams in rage. (I am not familiar with this behavior at all.)
3. Care for the planet. Kids love lecturing adults about environmentalism. God help you if you leave the water running while you brush your teeth. Channel your child’s desire to feel superior to you by teaching the value of Bal Tashkhit, avoiding wastefulness. Participate in park and beach cleanups, make sure everything is properly thrown away and recycled at home and at school, donate seedlings from your backyard to a community garden, take nature walks to appreciate the world’s wonders.
4. Get involved in volunteer work, and let your kids know about it. Show kids that service is an essential stand-alone value, not just a way to suck up to someone, make yourself feel noble, or buff up your résumé to get into college. (I have been a Harvard alumni interviewer and I have sat in on a season of Columbia admissions for a magazine story, and if I see one more college essay by a privileged white child about how she learned perspective from her volunteer trip to Guatemala, I will hit someone with a hacky-sack.)As a Jewish mom who has just sent her one and only child, a son of whom I'm immensely proud, off to university, my suggestions are somewhat different:
- When kids are small, start sending them to a Jewish day school: There they will learn that what's central to Judaism is the Torah and not the feel-good "progressive" squish of "tikkun olam."
- When they're old enough, send your kids to a Jewish summer camp: It's one of the most effective ways to instill an ongoing pride in their Jewish identity/
- Visit Israel as often as you can: It's an awesome country--and it's ours!
- Go to synagogue on Shabbat as a family: If your kids grow up in a shul, they are more likely to feel comfortable there.
- Don't fall into the "tikkun olam" trap: If you do, you may or may not be able to raise a "mensch," but you may well raise a child who feels nothing but antipathy toward Israel and those who esteem and cherish it.
Follow the first set of suggestions, and you may end up with a compassionate kid, but I wouldn't bet money on his having any feelings at all--save negative ones--for Judaism and Israel.