Friday, August 31, 2007

More Religious Ed Mizukus

Ah, the High Holy Days. The food! The music! The arguments! And the annual Four Weeks of Elul posts sent out by the congregation. The combination can create quite a bit of mizukis (loosely translated as "insanity") in my mind.

Today, I opened my e-mail for the Week 3 of Elul study from the congregation. I read:

Four Weeks of Elul 5768 Week Three: Communal Lives
August 30, 2007

Dear Elisheva,

I recently had a discussion with a Rabbinic colleague about how our b'nai mitzvah students approach their mitzvah projects. We both agreed that most our children are very creative and industrious in the way that they go about researching and implementing their chosen acts of tseddakah. From recycling projects to working with animal rescue groups; volunteering in the school system and planting trees, our children do a wonderful job of finding ways to make a difference in our communities. And yet, we both expressed a sense of sadness and frustration that, increasingly, many of our b'nai mitzvah students are not choosing Jewish organizations that can benefit from these projects.
Now, I am probably being overly-sensitive here, but the whole thing kind of tee'd me off, if you know what I mean. First of all, the congregation provides very little guidance and support in the choice of projects or in the execution of the service work. The onus is on the parents and the child to develop a project and follow through on it. Secondly, there are limited opportunities within the Jewish community for young people to provide meaningful service. In our case, I wanted N. to get involved in service that would be on-going, that would be more than make-work, and in which there was room for increasing scope. I also wanted him to find service that flowed from his deepest values and concerns about the world. I wanted the project to reflect who he not only as a Jew, but as a member of the larger community. As a member of a minority religion, I think that any opportunity to express Jewish values in a larger community context is valuable public relations.
So, being a Jew, myself, I immediately sat down and wrote an essay responding to the posting. Remember: "Two Jews, three opinions." It is a sort of "My Turn" essay, that could generate discussion, but probably won't. So I am excerting it here, where I hope to get comments and discussion.
Excerpt I: In which try to demonstrate the rich growth in stewardship that N. has experienced from his non-Jewish community oriented mitzvah project.

Shalom, Rabbi ______,

I am the parent of one of those kids who did a tzedakah project that did not directly serve the Jewish community for his Bar Mitzvah this past year. Perhaps I am feeling a little bit defensive here, but I wonder about separating the choices the kids make into “better” and “lesser” categories depending on who benefits from the services volunteered. Yes, I would like my son to be more involved in the Jewish community and at the same time, I also guided him toward a project that would extend beyond the “one-time deal” into something that he could and would continue to do after all of the hoop-la was over. In fact, for N., the commitment to animal protection projects increased after the Bar Mitzvah, because he began to have more time to devote to it. He is now our neighborhood ambassador for Sandia Mountain Bear Watch, writing and distributing information about how to co-exist with bears, rattle-snakes and mountain lions in our East Mountain community. After the Holy Days, he will begin a volunteer project with the Sandia Mountain I-40 Safe Passage Corridor, in which he will observe and count animals using the safe-passages that were part of the I-40 Tijeras Canyon reconstruction.
Excerpt II: In which I argue that the scope of the service work is universal, the values it represents are important to our future, and spring from our core Jewish values. And that N. serves as an ambassador for Jewish values to the larger community.
These projects are ongoing, and involve doing important work for our mother earth, upon which our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren ultimately depend. This work is done in the company of other teens and adults. The opportunity for others to get to know N., and hear him explain how his commitment to conservation is aligned with his Jewish values (Bal Tashit (do not destroy wantonly), Shomrei Adamah (protect the earth), Tzaar ba-alei chayei (respect and care for living things), etc.) cannot be discounted. People of other faiths and those with no faith do learn from him about our Jewish faith and commitments as we live them.
Excerpt III: In which I point out that religious expression and spirituality must flow from our lives as we actually live them, and that American Jews generally live within the larger community.

If our religion is to mean anything to us, it must extend from and be applied to the choices and decisions we make in our daily lives. As it happens, our daily lives are lived largely outside of the Jewish community...
Excerpt IV: In which I express the age-old frustration that you can lead a kid to religion, but you can't make him pray. OR kids grow up to choose their own expressions of spirituality--or not:

(MLC) currently expresses a good deal of contempt for organized religion in general.... and is much more captivated by the unity of all life that she sees in her studies of biology and chemistry than she is by Torah and Mitzvot. She’d probably end up a pagan except that she also "eschews" (she uses that word—really!) the magical world view. Currently, she claims to be an atheist, (at least when she is not an agnostic). When she is present for Shabbat or Holy Day she participates by cooking and conversing, but refuses to sing the blessings. I live in fear that she might end up writing the next version of The God Delusion. I can see myself, like Woody Allen’s (movie) parents, wearing the nose-and-glasses disguise while I explain to reporters where I went wrong.

N., on the other hand, is far more receptive to and appreciates Jewish life as it is lived in our household, but he seems to desire a more personal (or maybe natural?) and less formal approach to his spirituality, and so really enjoys going to small group Torah study with (another rabbi in another congregation). He likes to pray at home, outside, and interrupts his worship to watch the hummingbirds, the coyotes and the deer that feed in our meadow. I sometimes wonder if N. is going to take off into the woods someday to find “the Spirit that moves through all things” in the natural world. He might end up being more like Starhawk with T’fillin than like Moses Mendelsohn.
Excerpt V: In which I point out that we, as a ReformJewish community, tend to sweep the fact that our children leave the practice of the faith in large numbers under the rug OR The "We need to talk about this..." plea:

As a parent, I have received little information or help in dealing with my children’s alternative approaches to religion and spirituality...(within Judaism). I suspect that the expression of spirituality is part of the make-up of the person (i.e. the heritability is high), so what does a mother do? I can make rules and boundaries, but I cannot force a specific kind of expression of religion or spirituality on another. Coercion tends to lead to forceful rejection, especially from independent thinkers like (my kids).
Excerpt VI: In which I discuss my concerns about the nature of the current culture in Reform Judaism and my concern with the lack of a clear philosophy of education there:

One concern I have about the current direction of Reform Judaism, is that there is much conformity of behavior but little philosophical justification for it. I think that a child—or rather a young person—like (one of mine) would have done better with the concepts of ethical monotheism and the prophetic voice that were taught in the more classical expression of Reform Judaism. The mix of lock-step adherence to certain ritual and custom (this is how we all must bow, dress, etc.) and rejection of other historic ritual and custom that seems willy-nilly, along with the materialistic values modeled in the current culture of Reform, does not appeal to (my kid's) idealism or ... desire for intellectual rigor. There was a heated discussion of this problem at our Passover table by the four Jewish young people there ( all in college)—two of whom were educated (here), one of whom was educated at a reform congregation in (another state), and one who received no Jewish education. The three who did receive a Reform education were very vocal about the materialism and “country club” atmosphere of their respective Reform congregations. Young people do notice when behavior does not model values preached! They are less tolerant of hypocrisy than are those of us who are older.
Excerpt VII: In which I point out that one-size fits all education does not work OR the "we need some educational flexibility to meet special needs" argument that I have unsuccessfully expressed here and here and, (weary sigh), here:

N., who does respect genuine Jewish values and ritual, would do better with religious instruction that is less formal and more connected with his life and passions. He needs teaching that starts where he is at, and role models that can appreciate, or at least attempt to understand, his child-like lack of sophistication in the social realm. He also needs to see values expressed in the every-day action of individuals, rather than the “do as I say, not as I do” approach, but for a different reason. People with Asperger Syndrome really do not understand the sophisticated social posturing that goes on among neurotypical people. For kids like N., values must be modeled in concrete ways—specifically in interactions between adults such as teachers and rabbis and him. It must be personal. Saying “we are going to spend quality time together” and then spending twenty minutes hurrying him through a hoop is sending a confusing message. So is the use of sarcasm in the religious school classroom—whether it is directed at him or other students. He notices and he does not understand and that hurts him. He wants to be part of things and sometimes his behavior is the result of trying too hard, or misunderstanding what a kid’s got to do to be accepted. He feels accepted among the people of Bear Watch, who appreciate his love of bears, mountain lions and snakes, as well as among the people of Children of the Earth Foundation, who share his love of the wilderness. So this is where his “action potential” has the best chance of taking root and thriving. This is where his life is lived and this is where his spirituality must be nurtured.
Excerpt VIII: Finally, after much digression, an attempt to bring it all back to the original message:

Anyway, maybe we should be happy that our kids want to repair the world a little bit, rather than consider those who choose ways that do not fit into the narrow range of options... of lesser value. Maybe we can see that they are ambassadors of the more universal values in Judaism to a world that does not know about them. Maybe we can include and learn from expressions of Judaism that do not fit the norm.

So, gentle readers, please chime in. Am I being overly-sensitive, maybe?
Is this, as the other testament likes to say, 'pearls before swine?'
Where do you think I might be missing something important?
Are there other ideas I might want to consider?
Sometimes I honestly get the feeling that our religious leadership doesn't really have a clue as to how the am ha-aretz (hoi polloi, for the Greeklings out there) live their lives. Or what our deepest desires concerning the religious upbringing of our kids are. Or what goes on for our kids religiously outside the synagogue. I get the sense that the good rabbi doesn't think we are capable of a deep commitment to our values. Or that our expression of them may differ.
And, as always, remember: Two Jews, three opinions. This is one of mine. In other words, you may not agree.
And finally, after much frustration editing, can anyone tell me why this compose editor does not always recognize hard returns for paragraphing? Oy!


Angela,MotherCrone said...

I find great resonance and truth in your view. In my school days, I had many Jewish friends( three traditional, a handful reformed, and two Orthodox.) I was always struck with the way in which their faith was about more than just their temple. They wanted to share their faith and be representitives to the larger community through their good works, and I often was involved in their many service adventures. I was so impressed with this, because the focus was not just on doing good for other Jews, but for others. This was so unlike most Christian churches, and even as a teen, struck a lasting chord in my soul. I would hate to think that the reformed church of today is losing that...for it was something to hold onto with pride.

denise said...

For me, I always thought that religion cannot exist only within a bubble. If it is to be more than a place to go, and is to be a life to live, then it must be a part of the world as a whole.

I think with volunteering, community work, giving back, finding a passion - all of those things that are a part of the "good works" - in order to be meaningful, must mean something to the person involved. Giving to cover a requirement doesn't offer any long term benefit to the giver or the receiver, and it seems that your son found something that is important and meaningful to him, while also affecting a greater good.

That said, I suppose I could understand how they may hope to encourage support for Jewish organizations or whatever, but I don't believe the way in which that was addressed in the letter approached it in the right way. And, as you said, they offer no guidance, support, nor are there a plethora of options to choose from (meaning that each child could easily pick something that truly means something to them from a recommended list). And perhaps the time taken researching to find the right thing for each person is part of the learning process as a whole.

I would have been sensitive to that approach in the letter as well if my child was one of those who it was clearly addressing.

And me? I don't know that I would have taken the time to be so thorough or patient in a reply. ;) But that is just me. Done rambling!

Megan over at Imaginif said...

It was N's voluntary service to the community that encouraged me to become a regular reader here. Your descriptions and discussions on reasons, philosophies and service, enthralled me. If not for your son and yourself, I would not know what I now do of the Jewish faith, the practice and the life traditions. I am a better person for this E and I am truly glad that I stumbled upon you.

Good works only within the Jewish community may not have bought us into each others daily paths.

Over sensitive? To the Rabbi, no. To a world that requires understanding of diversity and people who care to stand up for that which they believe in, yes.
May you stay sensitive my friend. I walk by your side.

arnie draiman said...

right on! tzedakah and mitzvah projects should be part of everyone's doing and not just the parents or the child, etc.

anyway, for more help, visit and his tzedakah fund website - we are always happy to help!

arnie draiman