Asking a child to do a grown up’s job

A recent JEDLAB discussion on Passover got me thinking. Are Jewish educators asking children to do the job of grown ups when it comes to Jewish life and living? And if so, are we inadvertently infantilizing grown ups in the process? Here’s what I mean…

When it comes to Passover, Jewish tradition is pretty clear that it’s the job of the grown ups to find ways of engaging children in the seder. As a Jewish educator I know that I have limited capacity (time, influence, and otherwise) to equip grown ups with the skills to do this if they don’t already have them. So I focus on the kids. I make sure that they’re conversant in the liturgy of the seder and also that they’re equipped to bring something creative, provocative, engaging, and different to their seder so that they might be the ones who engage the grown ups. A complete reversal of the traditional Jewish view that places this onus on the grown ups.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the grown ups are very appreciative that their children come to seder ready to engage them in a meaningful experience. But this comes with a potential (and I do mean potential) shadow side– we empower the children but infantilize the grown ups and the seder experience more generally.

While children are more than capable of bringing something cute and interesting to their seder table, they’re not capable of facilitating and participating in the kind of adult conversation that really honors the complex themes and social critique embedded in the Passover story. Seder, when focused only on the children and built around their engaging contributions, may be memorable, enjoyable, rewarding, celebratory and many other things, but it is likely not deep,  challenging, transformational, or significant. Of course a well-timed query from a child can propel a seder table to new depths, but this isn’t a guarantee. As grown ups wait for and depend upon the energy and creativity of the children at the seder table the really important questions may go unanswered.

More than likely seder is actually a blend of child generated joy and adult conversation. But as Jewish educators we have to ask whether our focus on the child runs the risk of letting grown ups off the hook a little too easily.

From the End to the Beginning

Once a year the entire Davis Academy kehillah gathers to celebrate Simchat Torah. We do so by unrolling our two Torah scrolls, symbolically and literally surrounding ourselves in the stories, laws, and customs of the Jewish people and everything else that Torah represents. Faculty members share personal reflections, we sing songs from Jewish tradition and our Davis Academy album, Be a Blessing, a middle school student shares a Dvar Torah, and we fulfill the customary obligation of concluding and beginning the cycle of Torah reading.

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Here are a few takeaways from this year’s celebration.

 

1. The Torah ends and begins with ruach. Dt. 34:9 describes Joshua as malei ruach chochmah, “filled with the spirit of wisdom.” And Gen. 1:2 references the creative force of ruach Elohim “a wind from God.” Ruach is much more than enthusiasm and energy it is a primal creative force that gives order to chaos as well as a core part of our humanity.

 

2. Kol Yisrael. The Torah ends with the words kol Yisrael (“all of Israel”). It is the responsibility of kol Yisrael to make Torah relevant and alive in every generation. This morning’s ceremony was immeasurably enriched by remarks that three different Davis Academy faculty members as well as a Davis middle school student. Hearing words of Torah and personal reflections from different voices within kol Yisrael serves as a powerful reminder that Torah is made real through and only through kol Yisrael. We are truly responsible for one another: aravin zeh l’zeh.

Life Lessons from Rosh Hashanah Services at Emory

It’s my 5th year leading Reform High Holy Day services at Emory. It’s an honor and something that I really look forward to even as there’s always a small part of me that longs to be “just” a congregant during this sacred season. Here are a few life lessons that I offer as a reflection on the Rosh Hashanah services that have just concluded.

1. Whitney Houston got it right: “Children are our future.” When we “teach them well” then they “will lead the way.”

It’s become an annual tradition to invite Davis Academy students to join me in leading a portion of the service including the Shema and the Shofar Blessings. This year Davis students played an extended role helping with a variety of prayers and readings as well as creating a reading of their own (on the spot). Featuring Davis Academy students helps everyone feel a sense of hope, community, and connection.

2. “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Either by chance or by fate this quote from Susan Sontag was hanging on a poster directly behind me on the bimah at the beautiful Marcus Hillel Center . As a rabbi I’m favorably disposed to the idea that words carry great power. Yet one of the things I most enjoy about leading services at Emory is that I don’t give a single sermon. Instead, I demand that Emory students give the sermons. My silence elicits their words and their words (invariably) elicit deep reflection for everyone in the congregation. One of the great blessings of my rabbinate is getting to hear the wisdom of Emory students that is vocalized as a result of my silence.

3. Building kehillah is hard. The Davis Academy is a very vibrant kehillah, a true community. On my annual pilgrimage to Emory for the High Holy Days I face a challenge that I don’t face in my role at Davis– the challenge of building kehillah. At Davis, kehillah is evident in all that we do. Kehillah can’t be suppressed and the power of kehillah sustains and strengthens us. During the High Holy Days at Emory we have to build kehillah. We have undergrads, grad students, professors, Davis families, community members, out of town visitors and more. On an annual basis only about 50% of the congregation are “repeat offenders.” Everyone else is new– freshman, new professors, folks who have relocated to Atlanta, and so on. Our task over the course of the High Holy Days is to build a sense of kehillah. It isn’t easy. The amazing staff of Hillels of Georgia does a great job of laying the foundation for this work but it’s still a challenge at the High Holy Days.

4. The fate of Judaism is directly tied to Judaism’s relevance to modern life. If Judaism doesn’t speak to the challenges we face as individuals, as a community, and as the human race in modern times then Judaism should probably just go away. If Judaism can’t help us navigate the horrors of Syria, the complexities of genetic coding, the human rights of gay marriage, and other societal and geopolitical issues than Judaism has no place being a part of our public discourse. I’m convinced that Judaism is more relevant than ever and that Jewish tradition, in its multivocality, does speak to these and other issues. But it’s clear to me that if rabbis aren’t able to make this relevance undeniably manifest than we are doing a disservice to our congregants and our tradition. Similarly, it’s the responsibility of every professing Jew to bring Judaism to bear on the issues that define our world.

There’s much more that could be extrapolated from the last 24 hours at Emory, but one of the highlights of Rosh Hashanah is the unique chance it provides for the ever elusive “nap” that comes with parenting a 2 year old.

Shanah Tovah!

Simchat Torah Verses

FIRST ALIYAH– DEUTERONOMY 34:8-12

Deuteronomy 34:8 (Zack’s verse)

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וַיִּבְכּוּ֩ בְנֵ֙י יִשְׂרָאֵ֧ל אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּעַֽרְבֹ֥ת מוֹאָ֖ב שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וַֽיִּתְּמ֔וּ יְמֵ֥י בְכִ֖י אֵ֥בֶל מֹשֶֽׁה׃

 

Deuteronomy 34:9 (Sienna’s Verse)

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וִֽיהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ בִּן־נ֗וּן מָלֵא֙ ר֣וּחַ חָכְמָ֔ה כִּֽי־סָמַ֥ךְ מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־יָדָ֖יו עָלָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁמְע֙וּ אֵלָ֤יו בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וַֽיַּעֲשׂ֔וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה׃

 

Deuteronomy 34:10 (Jessica’s Verse)

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וְלֹֽא־קָ֙ם נָבִ֥יא ע֛וֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל כְּמֹשֶׁ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְדָע֣וֹ יְהוָ֔ה פָּנִ֖ים אֶל־פָּנִֽים׃

Deuteronomy 34:11 (Cara’s Verse)

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לְכָל־הָ֙אֹת֜וֹת וְהַמּוֹפְתִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר שְׁלָחוֹ֙ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֖וֹת בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לְפַרְעֹ֥ה וּלְכָל־עֲבָדָ֖יו וּלְכָל־אַרְצֽוֹ׃

 

 

Deuteronomy 34:12 (Ian’s Verse)

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וּלְכֹל֙ הַיָּ֣ד הַחֲזָקָ֔ה וּלְכֹ֖ל הַמּוֹרָ֣א הַגָּד֑וֹל אֲשֶׁר֙ עָשָׂ֣ה מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְעֵינֵ֖י כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

 

SECOND ALIYAH– GENESIS 1:1-5

Genesis 1:1 (Sam B.’s Verse)

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בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

 

Genesis 1:2 (Sarah C. Verse)

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וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

 

Genesis 1:3 (Jack’s Verse)

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וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃

 

Genesis 1:4 (Justin T.’s Verse)

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וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ׃

 

Genesis 1:5 (Sophia G.’s Verse)

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וַיִּקְרָ֙א אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ לָאוֹר֙ י֔וֹם וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃