We live in a troubled world. Our political culture has become increasingly toxic, vicious and angry. Electronic screens dominate our lives, affecting our ability to listen and be sensitive to the presence of others. We have seen the emergence of a culture of entitlement, in which people are demanding and self-centred.
As a parent, I worry about the impact these social currents will have on my children’s values and character. I ask myself whether my kids will grow up to be responsible adults who live by high moral standards. Will they contribute meaningfully to their community and to society?
As a rabbi, I am concerned about the future of our community – not its survival, but whether it succeeds in handing down such core values as respect, gratitude, responsibility and spiritual refinement to future generations.
How can we respond to these challenges, in order to create a better future? I believe the answer lies in two areas: Jewish wisdom and the Jewish community.
In a world focused on the self and its icon, “the selfie,” Judaism connects us to enduring values and helps us form our identity and ground our moral being in something larger than ourselves. Millenia of inspired reflection, as ancient as the Book of Proverbs and as recent as contemporary Musar teachings, provides ethical insights as to what it means to live a good life and how we can reach our moral potential.
But simply learning wisdom is not enough, if we want to pass down moral values to our kids. Children learn from the examples that they see modelled in their homes, schools and communities.
If our younger generation sees that civility, gratitude and responsibility are priorities in our community, they’ll show progress in their capacity to respect others and to value contributions to the community and to society.
If there is hope in the moral refinement of the community of tomorrow, our children need powerful, inspiring examples of what it means to live lives in which we sincerely strive to become better people – kinder, more patient, more honest, with ourselves and others, and more disciplined. Unless they see the value we ascribe to these virtues and the true joy that they bring to our lives, our children won’t see the point of developing character qualities such as self-control, sacrifice and service.
What would it mean for us, as a community, to take this challenge to heart?
During the school week beginning May 20, Jewish schools throughout Montreal will be running a program called Rise Together, in which students will reflect on the importance of having good character and what it means to develop stronger virtues.
For the children of our community to learn these values, we must learn them ourselves, as well. On May 25, at least 16 synagogues throughout the city will be placing special emphasis on teaching Jewish perspectives on self-improvement and character development. The project culminates on May 26, when Beth Ora, Mada, Adath Israel and Or Shalom will host programs for all ages involving learning and activities related to kindness and gratitude.
Too often, we hear about religion motivating prejudice and hatred. What a privilege it is to be part of a community that comes together to promote a counter-narrative: that religion can elevate the character of our children, ourselves and our culture.
As we come toward the week of Rise Together, I call on everyone to reflect on how they can take a step in their own lives to embody the virtues at the heart of our faith: to be more patient, more sensitive to the needs of others, quicker to forgive and more willing to admit when we’re wrong.
If we set this example as a community, we’ll be helping our children become the best people they can be.
Rabbi Anthony Knopf is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Ora in Montreal, the founder of the Rise Together project and the father of four children.