While I'm hardly what I would consider an observant Jew, Judaism is an important part of my identity. My parents enrolled me in a Temple's preschool and kindergarten, and later on, Reform Hebrew School. I want my 18 month old daughter to have the same foundation and sense of belonging in Judaism. When is the best time to start a child's Jewish education?
My father had his Bar Mitzvah at age 30. My brother and I were in a temple pre-school and they offered a night class for anyone in the community who hadn’t gone through this rite-of-passage. He became a Bar Mitzvah with a group of adults including his father-in-law (my grandfather) and, incidentally, the family dermatologist. I didn’t know those specific details until this evening; I’ve been sitting with your question which at first yielded a simple response (now, of course!). But I felt pulled towards something deeper in your curiosity, and it made me think of my dad starting his Jewish education as an adult, and becoming the first in his family to take on this obligation. I called him to ask why.
Your description of your Jewish observance is similar to my dad’s; he is not a religious man. But he had two kids and wanted to teach them that this was important, that it mattered. And he felt that taking it on himself was the best way to do so. Nothing that I have learned in Hebrew School, or any institution, moves me more than the thought of my dad (who had also, in my youth, given up his motorcycle and cigarettes) studying Torah as an adult and taking on this commitment.
It’s this type of generation-to-generation that is so hard to explain; I can’t recall the content of my grandparents family seders which took place in my early life, but I remember - vividly - the folding-card-tables covered with thick linen that extended all the way into the living room and crawling underneath them with my cousins, brushing up against the legs of great aunts and uncles, a generation that has almost entirely passed, but is so alive in my core and the deep connection to my own faith.
When you think about the ways that Judaism is important to you, what does it spark? Your daughter is quite young and you will be able to expose her to Jewish education in both formal and informal settings. I am confident, by your asking such a thoughtful question at a formative time in your child’s life, that you will will impart to her a Jewish foundation. Maybe it’s a preschool like the one you attended. Or it might simply begin with a weekly shabbat sing-a-long, attending a holiday service, picking out a challah together on Fridays, lighting candles, reciting a prayer. Whatever it is that ignited this question, start with that and share it with your daughter. The best time is now.