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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Yitro: Now I Get It!

When my daughter was 12 years old, she began learning her Torah portion during weekly tutoring sessions with our temple's cantor. One afternoon while she was practicing, the cantor noticed that her voice was too soft. "That was great," the cantor said. "But I need you to do it louder."

"I'm sorry, Cantor," my daughter responded. "But I'm just not a loud person."

The cantor recounted this story to me, because she found my daughter's very interesting. My daughter didn't say that she didn't want to speak loudly, or she didn't feel like speaking loudly. If she had spoken one of those sentences, the cantor could have tried to change her mind or reverse her feelings. But my daughter's statement wasn't specific to this particular tutoring session or activity. She wasn't talking about a temporary, fleeting emotion or condition.

Instead, she was defining herself; she was expressing her understanding that she was a whole person with ongoing traits and characteristics that needed to be respected.

I think of this interaction when I come across this week's Torah portion, Yitro, which describes how Moses acquired the Ten Commandments. To be sure, the Commandments are rich with meaning and could be the subject of countless blogs. But for now, I prefer to focus on Moses' experience in receiving them.

Think about it: Up until that fateful moment on Mount Sinai, Moses surely had been feeling a host of disquieting emotions -- fear, confusion, insecurity, reluctance. Having fled from Egypt to live a humble shepherd's life, he was suddenly confronted with a burning bush and commanded to stand up to Pharoah. His dealings with Pharoah led to huge and catastrophic events for the Egyptian people, after which he found himself in the position of leading a massive group of followers on a journey toward an unknown future.

But then God summons him and gives the Ten Commandments, and in that instant, everything becomes clear. The word often used to describe the moment when God is revealed is "revelation." But I think of it as the moment when Moses said to himself, "Oh, now I get it!"

Middle schoolers are a lot like Moses --they are asked to do things they don't understand or take on challenges they don't feel equipped for, or they find themselves following directions when they can't the point or purpose. They study math problems that don't seem to have answers, poetry passages that don't seem to make sense, friends who are inexplicably nice one day and unpleasant the next. But then, finally -- and often unexpectedly -- some strange, new connection forms in their brains between previously unrelated ideas. And that's when they blurt out, "Now I get it!"

If you've ever had the opportunity to watch a kid who finally gets it -- whatever "it" is -- you'll no doubt agree that it's a memorable moment. Their eyes light up; their mouths open wide in delight; their shoulders drop, and they fall back in their chairs, as if all the tension they've been carrying is washing right off of them. They may even let out a huge sigh, as the magnitude of this new understanding leaves them literally breathless.

How does the middle schooler in your life look when he or she finally "gets it"? What do you feel when you watch that moment of revelation, and what does your middle schooler feel? What kinds of revelations are most satisfying to him or her? What are some of the most exciting revelations he or she has ever experienced?

The difference between "I don't want to be loud" and "I'm not a loud person" may be just a few words, but it's grand developmental leap. When my daughter made her statement to the cantor, she was showing her understanding that she wasn't just a compilation of isolated thoughts and feelings, but a united, discrete whole of a person. In short, my daughter "got" herself.

No wonder the cantor and I took notice.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Beshalach: Can You Sing?

It happened when my daughter was ten years old. Her grandmother had given her a pink shoulder bag for her birthday, and she was simply delighted. I watched her show it to another girl, saying, "Look at my new bag!" in that tuneful, spirited way people speak when they're really happy.

The other girl lifted one side of her mouth, shrugged her shoulders, and tilted her head from side to side. "It's okay," she said.

Now I don't know what was going on with that girl, whether she was jealous or angry or just in a plain old preteen funk. But afterwards, I heard my daughter sing out in that tuneful, spirited tone a whole lot less.

My daughter was about to become a middle schooler, and as you know, middle schoolers are self-conscious; middle schoolers worry about what others think; middle schoolers get embarrassed.

In short, middle schoolers don't sing. I don't mean literally singing -- matching voices to notes on a sheet of music; I mean figuratively singing -- singing out, shouting with glee, letting the sheer power of one's joy pulverize any inhibitions and produce uncensored verbal expressions of delight. That's something that young children do -- but middle schoolers don't.

In this week's Torah portion, Beshalach, the Israeli people are beside themselves with delight. They are safely across the sea and can finally put their nightmarish existence behind them, slaves no more. And what do they do at this moment? You guessed it. They sing. They throw back their heads, open their throats, and sing. It's one of the most inspiring portions in the whole Torah.

Babies sing when they're happy, squeaking and shrieking and playfully experimenting with their voices. Toddlers sing all the time. To me, one of the most marvelous revelations about becoming a parent was that I got to sing! I sang lullabyes and wake-up songs and nursery rhymes, and silly songs. I sang because I was happy; if I wasn't happy, singing made me happy.

In fact, there's nothing more fun then watching someone so delighted and excited, there's no choice but to sing out loud. Some time ago the deaf actress Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award for an acting performance. She delivered her acceptance speech using sign language and an interpreter, but was so thrilled to have won that her self-control gave way, and as she communicated with her hands, she also burst out with audible, jump-for-joy gasps. The audience went crazy, clapping and cheering and enjoying her sheer delight.

When does the middle schooler in your life sing? Who gets to hear it? Does she sing in front of her peers? Will he sing in front of you? Can you help him or her sing more?

Some time back, country singer Lee Ann Womack had a hit song, "I Hope You Dance" -- an anthem about living life to its fullest. In the refrain, she implores her listener, "And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance...I hope you dance."

I don't know about dancing; but when it comes to the middle schoolers in my life -- I hope they sing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Sh'mot: Who Becomes a Hero?

How does an individual choose a hero to admire? How does a group choose one?

I asked my students to think about this question as we prepared to discuss Sh'mot, the first portion in the Book of Exodus. It's the first time we meet Moses -- and he acts in ways that might be considered...well, unhero-like.

The portion tells the iconic story of Moses' birth -- how his mother placed him in a basket and sent him down the river to spare him from death at the hands of the Egyptians, which would otherwise have been his fate. Pharoah's daughter finds him and raises him as her own.

In time, Moses learns what his real heritage is, and he leaves the palace one day presumably to try to understand the way of life that should have been his. He comes upon an Egyptian slave-master who is beating a Jewish slave. This apparently enrages him, and he proceeds to kill the slave-master and hide the body. The next day, he comes upon two Hebrew slaves who are fighting, and he tries to break up the fight. This leads one of the slaves to assert, "Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?"

The question reveals to Moses that his killing of the Egyptian slave-master is no secret -- so he hightails it out of town.

After reviewing these events, I asked my students: What do you make of this? What do you make of a man who impulsively kills another, hides the body, and then flees? What do you make of a man who won't take responsibility for what he has done? How does a person like this become one of our most revered historic leaders?

The ensuing conversation was fascinating, as most of the students sought to find a way to excuse Moses for his actions.

Some maintained that Moses is very young in this part of the story, and that he matures from this point to the point where he leads the Jewish people from slavery.

Some pointed out that Moses, like many Torah characters, is flawed. They add that he also behaves impulsively later in the Torah --when he smashes the tablets, for example, and when he strikes the rock in search of water. Moses ultimately gets punished for his angry nature, they said, when he dies without having entered the Promised Land.

But interestingly, some students chose to focus on his encounter with the two fighting slaves. When Moses approached them, my students pointed out, they could have stopped fighting and praised Moses for killing the slave-master. They could have thanked Moses for putting an end to the slave-master's cruel behavior.

Instead, however, they refused to embrace Moses as their kinsman; quite the contrary, they rebuffed him and challenged him.

Essentially, my students told me, Moses was caught between a rock and a hard place. He didn't identify with the Egyptian--and yet, the Hebrews didn't identify with him. He was at one with nobody; he was alone in his struggle to understand the world in which he lived. No wonder he had to flee, they said. Perhaps he  removed himself from that violent world in a search for understanding about himself and his role.

In this way, my students once again found their own essential struggles in the stories of the Torah. Middle-school students live in an emotionally dangerous world. They know how it feels to think you're doing something right, but then get called on it by the very people you thought you were helping. They know how it feels to face insults and harshness from those you expected to welcome and embrace you.

My students told me that this experience probably taught Moses a great deal about human nature, and helped him grow into the leader he eventually became.

Sad to say, sixth graders know how it feels to have people turn on you when you least expect it, and they know how that can make you question yourself and refrain from stepping up and speaking out.

I  hope that my students also will know the satisfaction that comes with standing up for a cause and leading people towards something better.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lech L'cha: Time to Move On?

Like many synagogues, ours faced a time not too long ago when our rabbi made the difficult decision to leave. Sometimes rabbis retire, sometimes they relocate, and sometimes they decide to accept an offer from another institution. But whatever the reason, congregations sometimes have just a few short months to adapt to the loss of an individual who has been a teacher, a comforter, an adviser, and -- for congregations that are lucky -- a leader who makes us all better people. 

And while congregants may regret the loss, most nonetheless also understand that time marches on and change is inevitable, and the right thing to do is embrace the rabbi's decision with love and support.

While the loss of a rabbi typically happens infrequently in most synagogues, the resulting feeling of ambivalence is something that middle schoolers know very well.

When we read Lech L'cha during the year when our rabbi left, I asked my sixth graders to tell me how they they thought he might be feeling. Proud? Excited? Happy?

Actually, the first words that come out of their mouths were far different. Scared, they told me. Nervous. Anxious. Uncertain.

And maybe that's not so surprising. After all, eleven- and twelve-year-olds are on the brink of independence. They are eager to assert their individuality and make their own decisions -- and yet they know it's so much safer to stay back and fade into the crowd. It's tempting to "go forth" -- the common translation of Lech L'cha -- but it is also dangerous. 

Each year when I teach Lech L'cha, I find many sixth graders who are wrestling with the inevitability of change. Some are facing sad family situations -- a sick grandparent, or an upcoming unveiling or yartzeit for a relative who died too young. These children talk about wanting to go back to a happier time, before illness struck their families.

Other students are adjusting to more benign but nevertheless significant changes. Many have recently begun middle school, and are missing their old, familiar elementary schools. Some have moved or are moving to a new house, and they have mixed feelings about leaving their friends and familiar settings. They, too, aren't so sure that "going forth" is all it's cracked up to be.

And yet...who says that "going forth" automatically entails unmitigated pleasure? 

In this week's portion, God tells Abram (whose name will soon be changed to Abraham) to leave his native land and his father's house. Two short verses later, we learn that Abram does indeed do what God has commanded. To be sure, the outcome of Abram's obedience is spectacular: Abram learns that he will be the progenitor of an entire people, his name will be made great, and he will be blessed, as will his descendants. 

How does Abram feel about all this? Funny enough, the Torah doesn't tell us. It just says that he was commanded to go...and he went.

I ask my students to describe their favorite, personal "Lech L'cha" moment, and they often relay moments of challenge and achievement -- whether it's mastering a new kind of dive in the swimming pool, reaching a new skill level in skiing or another sport, or feeling comfortable at a new summer camp. Sixth graders want to confront change successfully, and they're proud when they do. And yet, the prospect of change feels scary, no matter who is in the driver's seat. 

So I think that this Torah portion is particularly revealing for what it leaves out. Abram's feelings are simply beside the point.

As one of my students said this year, "It really doesn't matter what Abraham felt about leaving his home; what matters is that he did it."

My students and I came to realize that the Torah’s key lesson in this portion is simply this: Time marches on. And it’s by accepting this fact -- rather than reacting to it – that we can begin to develop a larger and richer understanding of life, and of ourselves. Whether you're a character from the Torah, a beloved rabbi, or a sixth-grade student, sometimes, it's simply time to move on.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

B'reishit: I Wish I Didn't Know That!

For many years, our temple's rabbi visited my sixth grade classroom to teach a mini-course about responsibility and ethics. He began by describing a scene he witnessed in New York City, which involved  a police officer and a young man crossing in the middle of a block.

The officer began to write up the man for jaywalking, but stopped when the man said, "What's jaywalking? I never even heard of that!" Ultimately the officer decided to forego the ticket because of the man's ignorance, but he warned the man never to jaywalk again, since now he knew what it was and understood that it was wrong.

Our rabbi then related this situation to Jewish learning, maintaining that learning entailed responsibility, because the more you knew, the more accountable you were to behave in accordance with that knowledge.

But my students often went on to challenge him: Sure, you were responsible for what you knew; but did ignorance always let you off the hook?

And that opened the door to a whole new and even more provocative discussion.

For many years, I led a parent-child book discussion of the wonderful middle-grades novel VIVE LA PARIS! by Esme Raji Codell. In one of the most provocative subplots, Paris McCray, an African-American fifth-grader, is given a yellow star by her elderly piano teacher, a Holocaust survivor. Not understanding its significance, Paris views it as a symbol of an exclusive club and proudly pins it to her clothes when she goes to school.

For her insensitivity, the principal gives her a two-day in-school suspension that she must use to research and write a report about the Holocaust. She complains to her mother that the punishment is unfair -- she that she did nothing wrong because she didn't know what the star really symbolized.

Her mother responds, "There comes a time when ignorance is no longer an excuse."

I think about both the rabbi's teaching and Codell's remarkable book when my class discusses B'reishit -- particularly the moment when Adam and Eve switch from ignorance to knowledge. The preteen years, too, are a time when new and complicated relationships with knowledge and information appear. Sure, kids of all ages are responsible for information they know -- but unlike younger kids, preteens  are also increasingly responsible for what they should know, what they could know, and what they need to find out.

When they are home from school with a cold, for example, they are expected to reach out to friends to find out what they missed. "I didn't know we had homework," is not an acceptable reason to come in empty-handed the next day. Similarly, when there is the possibility of bullying, preteens are expected to look closely, to pay attention, and to do something -- confront the bully, support the victim, and tell a grown-up -- when they recognize it is occurring. We expect preteens to begin to watch out for one another, to notice signs of unhealthy behavior or abusive relationships, and to speak up accordingly, since we feel that oftentimes these behaviors and relationships are more visible to peers than to adults. And although sometimes preteens may not want to know what's out there, they have to know.

Ignorance is appropriate when you're a toddler and it's an excuse preteens sometimes wish we had. But unlike that lucky jaywalker, they all don't always get a second chance.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sukkot: How Welcoming is Preteen's "Sukkah"?

"Come and have a lookah
In my sukkah
And have yourself something to eat!"

The old Sukkah song -- my sixth graders have been singing it since they were three years old. Each year at this time, they jig and jump and goof around and mug to one another as they hear this familiar tune at our synagogue. But what do sixth graders really know about making others feel truly welcome?

Several few years ago, I had a student who showed up for class one rainy afternoon and burst into tears before she had even put down her backpack. I put my around around her and took her to the hallway, where she revealed that she had had a misunderstanding with her parents. I brought her down to the office and with the help of the office secretary, we agreed that she would be more comfortable if she called home. I encouraged her to come join the class as soon as she felt up to it.

But on my way out, I began to wonder: How exactly could I make sure that the class provided the kind of "welcome back" she would need?

When I arrived back at the classroom, the other students, who were naturally both concerned and curious, bombarded me with questions. Was everything okay? Did she fall? Or did someone hurt her feelings? A teacher? Another student? Did something happen at school? On the bus? At home?

I told them that while I wouldn't discuss the specifics, everything was going to be fine and I expected the student to return to the classroom shortly. But my bigger concern was with them: How were they going to react when the student walked back in?

They really didn't know what to do -- whether to say something or not, whether to acknowledge the tears or pretend the whole thing didn't happen. So I turned the tables on them and asked: How would you feel right now if you were that student, and you were about to return?

Being sixth graders, they agreed that their uppermost feeling would be embarrassment and a desire not to have the spotlight shine on them. They said they'd want to blend back in right away. Secondarily, they thought they'd like to know that they weren't alone -- that the rest of the class cared about them and didn't like to see them upset.

So if you were in her shoes, I asked, what would you like others to say?

Most agreed, that the best approach would be to "not make a big deal of it" -- to just act "normal." They also agreed that those who were her closest friends might offer to fill her in on any classwork she might miss, or simply say, "Glad you're back."

I was proud of them -- of how they showed insight into the situation, problem-solved the an approach, and ultimately made the student feel welcome when she returned.

A sukkah is a physical space, and often a beautiful one at that. But I think my students would agree that it's also a state of mind -- a way of watching the outer world from a safe position and of drawing others in for shelter or warmth or comfort when they need it.

"Come and have a lookah in my sukkah..." On that rainy afternoon, this is exactly the invitation my  my wonderful sixth graders extended.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Yom Kippur: Is It All About the Rules?

Not too long ago, my teenage son was invited to join a group of friends who were attending a nearby event. Now, I don't know exactly what was going to happen at this event, but whatever it was, my son said he was uncomfortable going. 'Nuf said.

Still, he didn't want to be the guy who wimped out, so he asked my husband and me, "Can I tell them you guys are making me do something else that night?"

"Of course," we said. "Blame it all on us. Make us the bad guys. We're happy to be the heavies."

Even when you're a teenager, authority can sometimes come in handy.

I think of that story at this time of year, which can be an anxious time for sixth graders. Yom Kippur is just days away, and as twelve year olds, they think it's the last time they can decline to fast and not feel guilty about it.

"Next year, we have to fast," one says.

"I'm going to try this year," another comments.

"But you don't have to," a third responds. "Next year, you have to."

Inevitably this leads to a conversation about different family members and their Yom Kippur habits and routines. One student mentions that her mother refrains from eating but still drinks a morning cup of coffee, or else she'll get a migraine. Another says that his grandfather passed out in synagogue one year when he hadn't eaten, and since then he has never fasted. All fully understand that when one's health is at stake or one may truly suffer physical distress, then it's okay to eat on Yom Kippur.

But for these young, strong, and able-bodied students, no waivers are acceptable -- at least according to them. As far as they're concerned, there are no exceptions when you're thirteen.

I understand their anxiety. Not eating from sunset to sunset is hard! Plus, it's an experience they've never had. All they know is that when lunchtime comes at school, they're hungry, and if they go to a restaurant where there's a hour wait, it's almost too much to bear. They don't know how their body will respond as the hours go by. They don't yet know what coping mechanisms they will use to get them through.

But at the same time, their view of this solemn holiday troubles me. It's not a marathon, it's not endurance test, and it's definitely not a competition. There's no finish line and no medal given once the 24th hour as passed. Fasting is less about the absence of food and more about the decision behind that absence. Its's less about what you're doing and more about why.

In the past, I've tried to offer this alternative way of thinking to my sixth graders, but typically they refuse to enter this more nuanced realm of thought. "No you have fast at thirteen," they tell me. "You have to."

Common wisdom tells us that preteens and teens abhor rules. Tell them what to do, experts say, and they'll rebel; it's best to give them the tools to make a good decision on their own. And yet, sometimes kids this age appreciate rules (even though they'll never admit it). Rules trump doubt and ambivalence, so they can sometimes be a great help in relieving anxiety.

So I've decided that this year, my sixth graders can talk about rules.

So maybe in a year or two, they can talk about reasons.