When I was growing up, my mother worked in a daycare center, which for a time was ran out of our house when they were between premises. So for about a year when I was in high school I would wake up to the sound of my mom regaling the kids with the classic songs, both secular and Jewish. The kids learned about Old McDonald along with songs teaching them how to count in Hebrew and how they celebrated shabbos. My mom still works with little children, but now it’s for a different daycare center catering to kids with down syndrome and other learning disabilities. The kids come from homes ranging from the more secular side of modern orthodox to chassidic, so the place is run according to the strictest rules. Certain things have changed. It’s no longer Old McDonald but Old McDovid, and he certainly doesn’t have any pigs that go ‘oink’ or any horses that go ‘neigh’. In fact, any non-kosher animals are even expunged from the picture books the kids read along with any mention of bacon, Christmas or people not named Shloimy. I asked my mom what the reason for that was and she explained that some parents don’t want their kids learning about anything not related to their tiny little corner of the world they’ve carved out for themselves, as though hearing that pigs exist will make them want to go eat some bacon and hearing about holidays celebrated by the wider world around them will plant the seeds for these kids to put on their best red hats and drop Chanukkah for Christmas first chance they get.
It reminded me of a time a few years ago when I was visiting somewhere with one of my cousins. When my uncle, his father, became religious he went all out, and this kid literally knew nothing outside of his parents house where he slept and the yeshiva down the street where he spent his days. Already a teenager, I wanted to go into a store to buy a drink and he refused to go with me. Why? Because “there were goyim in there who would try to beat him up”. I thought he was joking at first, but he was very serious. It wasn’t until later I thought about it and realized that I was dealing with someone for whom non-Jews are the people in the Holocaust biographies and stories from Poland where the evil Poretz throws the pious, but poor, Jewish family in his dungeon for not paying enough money. He’d never even been grocery shopping or to a theme park. For him, non-Jews were the villain and every last one of them was out to get him.
My kids aren’t going to grow up in a situation where their Judaism is true to them only because it’s all they know. They’re going to know people from different groups and backgrounds. They’re going to be educated and they’re going to be religious because they’ve studied the Torah and know it to be true, not because they’ve not been allowed to ever think for themselves lest they dare make a decision rather than follow what they’re told. They’ll be religious for the same reason I am; because having had the choice and seen the world the truth of the Torah that they’ve learned rings truer than the other options. They won’t be thrown into the world without being raised frum and having the reason for everything they do explained to them and shown to them, but neither will they be so sheltered that they’re frum because they’re too scared to think otherwise. Is it really a devotion to Hashem if you do something because it’s all you know, rather than doing it out of your own free will and coming to do that mitzvah for a love of Hashem and recognizing the truth in the commandments?
There’s more to this than just raising young children to be overly sheltered or not. One of my rabbis at Ohr Someach coined a term for people who are practising but non-believing Jewish adults. He calls them ‘Culturally Frum’. The all too common situation of someone who has a shabbos meal and put on tefillin without believing a G-d even exists. He might even consider himself an atheist, yet he continues to live as part of a frum community, and not just because he’s married or has other commitments keeping him there. These are people who live a frum lifestyle without any of the religious belief that should be driving it simply because they’re comfortable there. It’s all they know and they don’t even feel a pull to throw off the pretence and live a secular lifestyle. They’re frum externally because that’s what everyone else around them is. They come from frum families and they have frum friends. They want to marry a frum girl and keep the pretence going because they couldn’t even relate to a secular girl or don’t want to complicate their parents with that situation. In my opinion it’s no different than being devoutly frum while believing that given the chance the next non-Jew you encounter will throw you in his dungeon. It’s only being halfway there.
I’m frum because I’ve studied and learned and given thought to it. Blind observance isn’t a mitzvah and being an inward atheist isn’t doing frum people any favors. Both are a form of self-delusion. I want to give my kids the chance to know why they must to or not do certain things and I want them to reach marriageable age with the intellectual honesty that lets them do it because they believe in it, not simply because I made them do it growing up. And definitely not because I didn’t let them know the existence of Old McDonald and his farm of oinks, neighs and barks.