Serving the Reluctantly Jewish Student

Rabbi Avi Weinstein

“Because,” I answered, “I care more about you than you do. I know that this feels like a meaningless burden now, but you never know when knowing how to pray will be important to you. I don’t know, God forbid, you lose someone close to you, and you decide to go to shul, but no one bothered to show you how to navigate the siddur, and then you would blame me for not teaching you something so basic.” One can argue that it is our job to provide perspective and leadership to those who have difficulty seeing beyond tomorrow. Even though this little speech mollified her for the moment, I would be deluded to think that the rest of her high school career would see her davening with fervor, or even behaving appropriately in minyan. My response may have been clever, but ultimately, not wise.

For this student and many like her, being Jewish is perceived as being abnormal, something that is abhorrent to adolescent identity. It is the challenge of a Jewish day school to transform that feeling of being abnormal to being special. This was not going to be achieved for her through morning prayers, but it is our responsibility to find gateways for identity which are not only quintessentially Jewish, but are resonant with a sense of being part of a special community.

More often these days we have students who are not synagogue affiliated, and even if they are, their families do not see the synagogue as their primary affiliation. Once, at a meeting, I was asked how many of my students are unaffiliated. I answered, “Zero, but we do have many students for whom their primary affiliation is our school.” These include families for whom Medinat Yisrael is important, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, families from Israel, and self-described cultural Jews who may not fall neatly into any of these categories. I don’t believe that the vast majority of our students identify strongly with a particular denomination, or that this will ever be important to them. More parents are sending their children to day school who do not belong to a synagogue for large portions of their lives.

They may belong to AIPAC or the JCRC, or take classes of Jewish interest, or participate in informal minyanim in their neighborhood, or practice certain Jewish rituals at home. As I’m writing, new gateways of affiliation are being created for those who feel strong Jewish connections, but connect through a very specific passion that is not answered through membership in a particular organization. For them, a day school provides the means for circumventing the synagogue route and being independent while still being connected. Often, the students who mark the second generation of anti-daveners have the greatest need for realizing their Jewish potential in ways that do not contradict their upbringing.

It is no accident that the easiest celebrations for a community day school are Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Hashoah. Hitler didn’t distinguish between Jews, and virtually all the Jews we serve have a stake in Medinat Yisrael. It is also no accident that what was once called social action but now has been given the inaccurate moniker Tikkun Olam also affords many of our students a positive pathway toward feeling part of something larger that is quite wonderful and exemplary. These events offer moments where students celebrate being part of a particular community and feel kinship with a world that is specifically theirs but well beyond their individual concerns. The success of these events is instructive. The provision of opportunities like these have to be part of daily life at school, and davening alone cannot be relied upon to provide them.

It is up to the school to introduce Jewish ideas, Jewish rituals and practices that inform, resonate, challenge and provoke, not offend, but provoke our students. If we say “We care about the world too!” or “We’re environmentalists too!” we’re irrelevant and we are not needed. We have to demonstrate the “whats” and “whys” of our tradition through the same unique rigor that makes our tradition so special. Giving something a Jewish label does not make it Jewish, but giving an idea unique Jewish understanding does. To learn that the word “shalom” is a name of God and therefore one cannot say Mah shlomcha (How is your shalom, a common greeting in ancient and modern Hebrew) in a polluted place teaches that the earth has to be untainted in order for God to dwell in it, for the holy is part of mundane personal encounters and the environment must be prepared for it. We don’t believe necessarily in the intrinsic holiness of the earth, but we certainly believe the earth must be unpolluted in order for holiness to dwell there. Such a lesson requires looking up the verse that demonstrates that shalom is a name of God and seeing how that is ascertained. Then one must see the connection between greeting and the name of God and then extrapolate that the earth only has this potential if it has been cared for properly. This brings the point home for those who need to know that these concerns are not only modern ones, but deeply and particularly Jewish ones.

When students returning from Birthright Israel were interviewed, the vast majority of them were self-defined as cultural Jews, but the first Jewish event they went to upon their return was Friday night services at Hillel. They had connected to Israel, but back here they went to the only Jewish place they knew. Even though enthusiasm for the synagogue may be on the wane, we cannot rely on davening in the school as the primary gateway for meaning for the vast majority of our students. The classroom, along with special celebrations, will be the environment where we connect our diverse traditions of learning with the passions of the individual student. Once that connection is made, we must articulate the necessity for respecting everyone’s unique, deep connection, for ultimately we share the goal of peoplehood. They will be taught not tolerance, but reverence for all aspects of Jewish life, including davening. They may not be inspired by it, but they will see its value and be respectful because they have found their place within and not without the community.

I should have answered my recalcitrant student that our school provides many gateways of meaning, so that you can find the path most meaningful to you. It may not be davening now, but it may be later. Your job is to know what we have so that you can connect deeply and profoundly to a tradition and a community that offers more opportunities than you can begin to know. For we know that as much as you may like a good time, it’s the meaningful moments that are most memorable. We provide not only what we think you need to know, but we are here to help you discover how this thing called being Jewish will make you feel truly special. ♦

Rabbi Avi Weinstein is the head of Jewish Studies at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas.
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HaYidion Religious Purposefulness Autumn 2008
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Fall 2008