Family life

Why we go to synagogue, even though I’m an atheist

By exposing kids to religious services we are leaving them to make their own informed decisions about their own beliefs.

boy-mother Photo: iStockphoto

Let’s just cut to the chase, here: I don’t believe in God.

Every so often, I’ll check in with myself about my own atheism, plumb my depths just to make sure I haven’t missed something, but every single time I find nothing within me that believes at all in some kind of all-powerful deity that watches over us or keeps track of our sins versus good deeds. (Rather, I think that we, as people, are individually and collectively responsible for watching over our own sins versus good deeds.) I believe that people—sometimes highly flawed but at least certainly quite creative people—wrote the Bible, the Koran, all the various holy books of various religions.

And yet, I am raising my children as Jewish. I take them to synagogue. In fact, I’m on my synagogue’s executive (and yes, this is as surprising to me as it might be to you). It might sound hypocritical, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way to me. Here are a few reasons why:

Community: We live in Thunder Bay, Ontario, population 110,000. Of that 110,000, approximately 50 people are Jews. I’m not kidding. When I take my kids to synagogue and they celebrate Shabbat and Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah with a couple of dozen (or just a few) other Jewish people, it lets them know that they’re not alone, that they’re part of something larger, that they’re not freaks.

Tradition: I grew up in a household where we lit candles and ate challah and said blessings over sickly sweet kosher wine each Friday night. That and many other Jewish traditions—Passover seders, the Hanukkah menorah, the minor and beautiful tones of the kaddish, or mourners’ prayer—are touchstones of my childhood. They make me feel safe, loved, comfortable, part of something larger. I want my children to grow up with traditions that call up the same kind of feelings.


Change: As much as I value tradition, I also want my kids to understand that—at least, in my perspective—we can change and alter traditions to reflect current values and priorities. So, our synagogue is feminist and egalitarian. We include the names of our foremothers (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah) as well as our forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in traditional prayers. More recently, we’ve opted to include so-called handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah in those prayers, because members of the congregation felt it was an important and just addition. We point out sexism and racism in ancient Jewish texts, and ask the kids how contexts may have changed since then, or what they might do differently. We also talk about the situation in Israel, Palestine and Gaza, and how people’s traditions and beliefs need to be respected—and the misery that occurs when they are not. If my kids can see that, even in a synagogue building, we can openly discuss and critique religious texts, I hope they’ll bring an open mind to other areas of their lives.

Cultural literacy: I’m a writer and an English major. And I firmly believe that my kids need to have at least a working knowledge of biblical texts—Creation, Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, Noah, the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, what have you—in order to make sense of (and, again, be able to critique and analyze) the way in which so much of our culture tells its stories.

Informed choice: Ultimately, my kids will make their own decisions about what to believe and how (if at all) they will practice religion. But by exposing them to at least a few Jewish traditions and synagogue services, that choice will be more informed.


Thunder Bay, Ont., writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences. Read more of Susan’s The other mother posts and tweet her @MamaNonGrata.

This article was originally published on Aug 14, 2014

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