Friday, February 1, 2013

Fathers Needed: Lebron James at the White House

THIS PAST WEEK THE WORLD CHAMPION Miami Heat made their visit to the White House. These tend to be ceremonial and trite, a tribute to the team’s “perseverance” and “toughness” and a celebration of their success.

Of course, a few predictable jokes are thrown in along the way. Toward the end of his speech, President Obama mentioned a more important theme:

“And I don't know all these guys, but I do know LeBron (James) and Dwyane (Wade) and Chris(Bosh). And one of the things I’m proudest of is that they take their roles as fathers seriously. And for all the young men out there who are looking up to them all the time, for them to see somebody who cares about their kids and is there for them day in and day out, that's a good message to send. It’s a positive message to send, and we’re very proud of them for that.”

The three Heat stars have become very public about their fatherhood. Bosh showed off his kids on Oprah, LeBron’s new Nike commercial shows him joking with his children, and Wade has written a book on fatherhood and spoken about it consistently.

This should not be understated. While Chris Rock famously joked that people shouldn’t take credit for being a father because that’s what they’re supposed to do, we can’t always make that assumption. This predicament is felt most acutely in the African American community. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that a whopping 72% of African American children are being raised in a single parent home. Seventy two percent!

This attitude can be found throughout American society. As much as we have become an egalitarian society, the perception that parenting is best left to mothers is prevalent. The ubiquitous “Parents” magazine should be fined for misrepresentation. It should be called “Mothers” magazine. The focus is on motherhood, and the tone of the magazine assumes that mothers will read it. Currently on their home page you can read a story about “The Dangerous Mistakes Moms Make While Driving” or use the “Pregnancy Weight Gain Calculator”. There is nothing that speaks to a father’s experience or needs.

We are making a huge mistake. Fatherhood has its own challenges and fathers need to develop their parenting skills too. We can’t assume that mothers will figure it out and dad will be along for the ride.

When we see Moshe interact with Yitro, his father-in-law, the relationship is startling. There is obvious love and affection between them. However, when Yitro thinks Moshe is mishandling a situation, he gives it to him straight. Moshe immediately follows his advice. There is no human being Moshe more readily listens to than his father-in-law. That’s because Yitro is really his father figure. Moshe grew up fatherless, and Yitro plays an essential role in Moshe’s growth. Moshe needed a father, and Yitro filled that hole in his life.

Our ancestors were active and devoted fathers. From our patriarchs to modern times, Jewish culture had relied heavily on active and devoted fathers. It has played a huge part in our strong family structure and focus on education and moral uprightness. The Jewish community needs to promote this essential component of Jewish life and bring it to the forefront.

However, in societies without strong father figures, who will be the role models to show the benefits of fatherhood and teaching young boys the importance and responsibility of being a father? For better or for worse, the LeBron James of the world can have such an impact. Just by being front and center with their children sends a message that to be a man means to be a father. Over time, that can begin to have an impact.

Now if only Parents magazine could learn that lesson as well.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.