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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.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ki Tavo: How do you measure?

If you want to talk Torah with a tween who professes to have no interest in the subject, Ki Tavo is a great place to begin. In this portion, to put it simply, Moses relays to the Israelites a clear ultimatum: If you follow God's commandments, life will be great; if you go against God, beware!

In my experience, middle schoolers, recognize immediately -- and perhaps more acutely than any other group of people -- that this ultimatum doesn't hold water. They know that kids who follow the rules often  suffer dearly, whether they're teased for being "chicken" or ostracized for being a"dork" or  "nerd." And kids who feel entitled to break the rules -- by being disrespectful, mean, disruptive, or worse -- are often glorified, romanticized, or considered intimidating and invincible.

So I  ask my students: How does this portion make sense? How can you explain the fact that good people don't always get rewarded and disobedient people don't always get punished? As Reform Jews, we consider the Torah a guide for living a moral and spiritual life. What are we to make of this portion, which runs so counter to our own experiences?

After considering this issue from a number of different vantage points, they eventually came up with a response that I've come to regard as interesting, provocative and quite insightful. My students decided that you can't find meaning in this portion if you look at it in a short-term way. Doing something good, they said, won't automatically bring you a reward the next day, or the next week, or even the next year. The rewards, they told me, only become apparent in the long term.

I then paraphrased for them a line in the song "Seasons of Love" from the Broadway musical Rent, changing it from "How do you measure a year in the life?" to simply, "How do you measure a life?"

And their answer was: It takes a lifetime to measure a life.

Beautiful. And this was only our first class meeting.

It's going to be a great year.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Middle Schoolers and the Holocaust

Here's an encore post from a few years ago. An updated version of this post appears on the Reform Judaism website, along with a link to a video on bullying that my class created as a response to their Holocaust learning. Please visit at  http://goo.gl/Xyrpdn

A few weeks ago, in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), our religious school invited a Survivor to speak.

The man, who was well into his 80s, was charming and delightful. Dressed in a dapper blue blazer, with a layer of snow-white hair on his head and a hearing aid tucked discreetly behind one ear, he told jokes, displayed photos of his grandchildren, spoke lovingly about his wife and his long marriage, and said that in spite of all he had been through, he never wanted to be a "sad sack." In fact, he said, he had refrained from talking about his childhood for years, until a producer connected with the Spielberg project found him and admonished him for staying silent.

Even now, she told him, there are people who deny the Holocaust; for the sake of future generations, the truth had to be told.

And so he began speaking out, visiting countless communities including ours. He described being kicked out of school and facing increasing hatred; he described a hellish trip on a cattle car and a brutal separation from his family at Auschwitz; he described coming home to learn that his entire family was dead; and he said that he wanted our children to know the facts because, in his words, it could happen again.

At the end of his talk, he noticed a parent in the audience crying quietly, and he went up to her and took her hand. He told her that he wasn't sad, and she shouldn't be either. He asked her to point out her children to him, and when she did, he told her they were beautiful. Then he kissed her hand. It was an amazing moment in an remarkable afternoon.

When I saw my students again a few days later, I asked them to talk about their reactions, and they told me plainly that he had terrified them. His warning that the Holocaust could happen again echoed in their ears. They talked of nightmares after his talk. Several went around checking the locks on the doors before they could go to sleep that night, and making sure they knew where their parents were. They were confused because they didn't feel threatened in their day-to-day lives, and the possible presence of some unknown, unforeseen enemy only compounded their fear.

I knew that this lovely gentlemen would not want fear to be the overriding effect of his talk. So I asked them to consider what positive feelings his talk inspired, and what other aspects of his presentation he might have wanted them to remember.

They told me that it was inspiring that he had made a good life for himself in the United States after all he had been through.

They told me it was inspiring that he refused to be sad and didn't want others to be sad either.

They told me it was inspiring that despite the brutality he had experienced, he was still be capable of giving and receiving love, as evidenced by his happy marriage and his pride in his family.

They told me it was inspiring that he could come and share his story and his life with them.

It was one of the most thoughtful class discussions we have ever had. And I know my students will never forget the Holocaust.

I'm also sure they will never forget this unforgettable gentleman.




Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Breaking Passover": A Middle Schooler's Perspective

Here's an encore appearance of a post about the way middle schoolers regard the challenge of keeping kosher. It also has significance for the upcoming Passover holiday.


"I broke Passover last week!" one of my sixth-grade students proclaims as she enters the classroom. She looks around at the other students, and one by one, they all similarly confess that they "broke Passover" too.

Listening to them retell the circumstances surrounding their transgressions, I found myself struck by the language they used. To them, Passover was some kind of spiritual line in the sand, and in breaking it, they severed their tie to the holiday for this year.

 But is that really what Passover is -- a challenge? a endurance test? a race toward a finish line? 

Rules about food abound in Jewish life, specifying how we are to celebrate holidays from Passover to Yom Kippur. But perhaps no food rules are as problematic as those we read about in this week's Torah portion, Shemini -- the rules about keeping kosher. In this portion, the Israelis are told that they can eat only animals that (1) have clefts in their hooves; and (2) chew their cud. Other types of animals -- such as swine, camels, and hares -- are labeled "unclean" and thus unfit to eat.

As for seafood, the Israelis can eat only those creatures that have fins and scales; other creatures (such as shellfish) are "an abomination." There are also restrictions on eating birds and insects.

In my experience, middle schoolers love talking about keeping kosher. I think this is because they find the subject of rules in general totally absorbing. After all, their lives are full of rules -- you can't be late to class without a pass; you can't get an A for the quarter if you haven't turned in all your homework; you can't go on the field trip if you don't return your permission slip. Middle schoolers are rule experts.

If I gave them the chance, my sixth graders would talk about the kosher laws for hours. They would question the reasons behind the laws, and try to parse the meaning of the term "unclean." They would try to come up with animals who might not fit precisely in one category or another. And they would play out imaginary scenarios in their heads: What if a kosher person were to eat something non-kosher without knowing it was non-kosher? What if he only were to eat a teeny bite of the non-kosher stuff -- would that be as bad as eating a whole meal?

As a teacher, my goal is to get them to look at kosher rules from a broader perspective. I ask them: What effect do religious food rules have on a person's life? Can a person ever really be perfect when it comes to being kosher, and is perfection even a worthy goal? How is the kosher/non-kosher dichotomy similar to other important Jewish separations -- such as evening versus morning; earth versus sky; and Shabbat versus the rest of the week?

Most important: Should the Torah's rules about food be viewed as fences that break? Or as paths from which we may occasionally choose or need to step away?

One rabbi I know likes to tell a story about a time when he was working in the Midwest, among people who were unfamiliar with Jewish ways. He was staying with a family who desperately wanted him to feel comfortable. So when they found out that he kept kosher (and they learned what that meant), the mother traveled to a city far away, where she was able to purchase a kosher chicken. She came home and proudly served it to him -- along with a scoop of mashed potatoes made with milk and butter.

Despite the fact that the chicken was kosher, if he ate the meal, he would be violating the kosher law regarding milk and meat.

So what do you think he did? Refuse the potatoes? Or eat the whole meal, potatoes and all, in the belief that mixing meat and milk was the more "kosher" way to behave in this situation?

I'll leave it for you and your middle schooler to decide.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Tazria: The "Yuck" Portion!

What are sixth graders to make of a Torah portion that turns their stomachs?

Tazria -- it's the portion that sends b'nei mitzvah students into hysterics, cursing their parents for bringing them into the world during the spring, rather than in the fall, when the Torah portions come from Genesis. Countless rabbis have started sermons with memories of the horrible day they learned that Tazria was their bar or bat mitzvah portion -- so many, in fact, that it would seem that chanting Tazria at age 13 is a prerequisite for joining the rabbinate!

What's so terrible? Well, this portion (which is combined this week with the following portion, M'tzora) enumerates in great detail what the high priest needed to do when  someone in the community developed a skin eruption. The descriptions of such eruptions are graphic, with references to white inflammations, red streaks,  and scaly patches with white hair. Few sixth-graders can get through even a few sentences in the English translation without cringing, squeezing their eyes shut, or exclaiming, "Yuck!' and "Gross!"

So how can sixth graders have a productive conversation about Tazria?

I decided to open the conversation by telling them about my dog.

Last week, my dog picked up some kind of stomach bug. I called the vet and said that he had vomited three times during the night. The first thing the vet asked was, "What did it look like?"

Well, it wasn't exactly my pleasure to spend time on the phone describing my poor dog's vomit; but since that was the only way my vet determine if my dog's condition was serious, I gritted my teeth and did it.

I asked the students to tell me if they had ever had to do something that made them uncomfortable, but they did it anyway, because the consequences of turning away would be worse.

They responded with some interesting comments. One student mentioned that she had once chosen to taste a Japanese food that she thought looked disgusting, because she didn't want to insult the Japanese friend who had offered it. Another mentioned that a recent school lesson on puberty as an example of an experience that was distasteful -- but necessary.

I finished the discussion by talking about how the Torah is full of contradictions and separations, a theme we have covered before. There's darkness and light, masters and slaves, earth and sky, joy and grief, and so on. I reminded them that there are many beautiful portions in the Torah, but many less-pleasing ones as well, and as Tazria reminds us, attention must be paid to both.

Yes, there are times in life when you can mull over the glorious majesty of the land of Israel, as viewed by Moses after years of wandering through the desert. Sometimes you can relish the sublime mystery of love at first sight, as experienced by Isaac when he meets Rebecca.

And sometimes, you have no choice but to buckle down and describe what the dog's vomit looks like.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Shemini: Rules, Rules, Rules!

"I broke Passover last week!" one of my sixth-grade students proclaims as she enters the classroom. She looks around at the other students, and one by one, they all similarly confess that they "broke Passover" too.

Listening to them retell the circumstances surrounding their transgressions, I found myself struck by the language they used. To them, Passover was some kind of spiritual line in the sand, and in breaking it, they severed their tie to the holiday for this year.

 But is that really what Passover is -- a challenge? a endurance test? a race toward a finish line? 

Rules about food abound in Jewish life, specifying how we are to celebrate holidays from Passover to Yom Kippur. But perhaps no food rules are as problematic as those we read about in this week's Torah portion, Shemini -- the rules about keeping kosher. In this portion, the Israelis are told that they can eat only animals that (1) have clefts in their hooves; and (2) chew their cud. Other types of animals -- such as swine, camels, and hares -- are labeled "unclean" and thus unfit to eat.

As for seafood, the Israelis can eat only those creatures that have fins and scales; other creatures (such as shellfish) are "an abomination." There are also restrictions on eating birds and insects.

In my experience, middle schoolers love talking about keeping kosher. I think this is because they find the subject of rules in general totally absorbing. After all, their lives are full of rules -- you can't be late to class without a pass; you can't get an A for the quarter if you haven't turned in all your homework; you can't go on the field trip if you don't return your permission slip. Middle schoolers are rule experts.

If I gave them the chance, my sixth graders would talk about the kosher laws for hours. They would question the reasons behind the laws, and try to parse the meaning of the term "unclean." They would try to come up with animals who might not fit precisely in one category or another. And they would play out imaginary scenarios in their heads: What if a kosher person were to eat something non-kosher without knowing it was non-kosher? What if he only were to eat a teeny bite of the non-kosher stuff -- would that be as bad as eating a whole meal?

As a teacher, my goal is to get them to look at kosher rules from a broader perspective. I ask them: What effect do religious food rules have on a person's life? Can a person ever really be perfect when it comes to being kosher, and is perfection even a worthy goal? How is the kosher/non-kosher dichotomy similar to other important Jewish separations -- such as evening versus morning; earth versus sky; and Shabbat versus the rest of the week?

Most important: Should the Torah's rules about food be viewed as fences that break? Or as paths from which we may occasionally choose or need to step away?

One rabbi I know likes to tell a story about a time when he was working in the Midwest, among people who were unfamiliar with Jewish ways. He was staying with a family who desperately wanted him to feel comfortable. So when they found out that he kept kosher (and they learned what that meant), the mother traveled to a city far away, where she was able to purchase a kosher chicken. She came home and proudly served it to him -- along with a scoop of mashed potatoes made with milk and butter.

Despite the fact that the chicken was kosher, if he ate the meal, he would be violating the kosher law regarding milk and meat.

So what do you think he did? Refuse the potatoes? Or eat the whole meal, potatoes and all, in the belief that mixing meat and milk was the more "kosher" way to behave in this situation?

I'll leave it for you and your middle schooler to decide.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tzav: Taking a Lesson from Idina Menzel

One night, I found my sixth-grade daughter sleepwalking.

It was almost midnight, when I heard an unexpected noise coming from the family room. I peeked in, and there she was, turning over sofa cushions and moving the DVD cases and Wii controls on the coffee table.

"What's going on?" I said, assuming that she was awake. "Why are you down here?"

"I'm looking for the book. I can't find the book!" she muttered angrily.

"What book?"

"The book...the one that...uuuugh!" she growled in frustration. Her loss for words helped me realize that she was still asleep, so I put my arm around her and led her back to her bed.

The next day she didn't remember a thing.

Sad to say, this wasn't the first time that my daughter had had a troubled sleep. Twice before, I heard her talk in her sleep -- once she said she needed to hurry to a restaurant, and the other time she mumbled something about a misplaced board game. She had started middle school that year, and I had no doubt that the pressure of switching classes and managing many projects and tests had taken its toll. I think that during the night, she was wrestling with the same stress she felt earlier in the day.

Why did she hold onto all that worry? Why couldn't she--to quote Idina Menzel in her award-winning Disney anthem--simply "let it go"?

In this week's Torah portion, Tzav, we learn about rituals that the ancient priests needed to carry out when making sacrifices. Among them is the rule that after making a burnt offering, the priest was not to let the ashes lie; instead he was required to gather the ashes and take them away from the altar. In this way, there would be no remnants from a previous sacrifice when it was time to perform one anew.

I can't help but think about my daughter's sixth-grade year when I consider this aspect of Tzav. After all, there are many days when the last words she said before she went to sleep were the same ones she said when she awoke -- that she was worried about how she did on a test, or she didn't know how she was going to have the time to complete an upcoming project.

Wouldn't it be great if she could have gathered up all her worries each evening -- like the priests with the ashes -- and put them away, so she could start the next day fresh?

Worrying is tough -- it can be unhealthy, too -- so it's unfortunate that middle schoolers often take on this disturbing habit while they are still so young.  One likely cause of their worrying is the big workload that comes with moving from elementary to middle school, and I've been involved in PTA committees that try to partner with teachers to keep middle-school homework assignments reasonable and reduce stress on kids. But I know it's a parent's job, too, to make sure their kids know that they have choices each night.

They can hold onto those ashes from the day, or they can remove them.

To be sure, it may take some experimentation on a child's part to figure out just how to get rid of those ashes for good. It may take some deep breaths before bedtime, and some internal effort and determination. They may try listening to music before bed, or losing themselves in a funny book or TV show.

I hope that in time, and with parents' loving help, the middle schoolers I know can learn to remove the ashes at the end of each day. That way, they'll have a much better start in the morning.

And they'll certainly sleep better at night.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Vayikra: Do Tweens Know How to Sacrifice?

It was great news when my sixth-grade daughter was promoted to a new ballet level -- but our excitement was dampened when we realized that the timing of new dance class made it impossible for her to continue with ice-skating lessons. We found ourselves at the kitchen table having one of those "You can't do everything," discussions, until finally she decided to forego the skates.

But it bothered me, that she had to make that choice. I wondered if she'd end up regretting it. In my mind, I saw all the bows she would never take, all the trophies she would never accept, her mittened fingers outstretched, her cheeks pink from the cold and excitement. I saw her hot pink skate bag and her white figure skates resting unused in her closet.

She was only eleven. Why should she have to give up one favorite activity just to progress in another?

Sacrifice -- it's at the heart of Vayikra, this week's Torah portion. In Vayikra, God gives instructions to the Israeli people about how to make sacrifices. Our ancient forefathers had plenty of experience in this activity. Among the most famous sacrifices, Abraham killed a ram and made a burnt offering after God stopped him from killing his son Isaac; and Moses commanded the Israeli people to sacrifice lambs so they would have blood to apply to the doorposts of the Egyptians.

In Vayikra, we learn that sacrifices were sometimes intended as a way to atone for a sin. But they were also a way to express thanks, awe, or reverence toward God.

These days, we generally think of sacrifices as trade-offs. We sacrifice -- or let go of -- something we currently find desirable to attain something more valuable in the long run. Sacrifices involve a weighing of options; they can be easy or painful, but ultimately we hope to be left with the feeling that we've done something correct, moral, or noble.

Parenthood is all about sacrifices. We sacrifice career growth to take care of our children; we sacrifice vacations and other indulgences to save for a house or a child's college education; we sacrifice sleep to comfort a child who has had a nightmare; and we even may sacrifice our blood pressure -- hopefully only on a temporary basis -- when our teenagers start to drive. 

But I'm not a fan of asking middle schoolers to give things up. Oh sure, I'm all for making sure that my kids cut back on candy to maintain a healthy body, or trade the fancy sandals for winter boots when it's 32 degrees outside. But when it comes to pursuing passions or seeing how far they can take a new activity -- I say, go for it. I think middle schoolers should ice skate and dance, play soccer and write for the school newspaper, learn Hebrew and act in the school musical, play piano and make pottery, swing a tennis racquet and ride a horse.

I think middle schoolers should play outside on the first warm day of spring, even if it means spending not quite enough time on homework; I think middle schoolers should grab any chance they may get to see a World Series game, even it comes on a school day.

In short, I don't think middle school is a time for shrinking options; I think it's a time to expand options, and to see much that life has to offer.

So while my daughter needed to miss a few ice-skating classes that year, I was determined to get her back on the ice you can bet she'll be back on the ice as soon as I could. And the only sacrifice I hope she'll make as a tween is the kind that involves reverence.

 I hope that every once in a while she'll stop and think about how big and awesome the world is, and how thankful she is to be a part of it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tetzaveh: Clothes Make the Tween!

Not too long ago, my sixth-grade daughter was promoted at her ballet school, and after her first day in her new class, she came home asking for "ballet shorts."

Now when I took ballet, the standard uniform was leotard, tights, and slippers; but I've been around present-day dance-school dressing rooms often enough to know that ballet shorts are kind of these skimpy bicycle shorts that girls wear over their dance clothes. As far as I can see, they serve no purpose other than to add a cool, layered look to a dancer's appearance.

According to my daughter, ballet shorts were essential now that she was in Ballet 4. All the Ballet 4 girls wore them, she told me; not only that, you needed to be in Ballet 4 before you were even allowed to wear them, so they were an honor as well as a desirable accessory.

I took my daughter to the local ballet shop and skeptically held the shorts up on their hanger. They were tiny, about the size of two washcloths stitched together, and at $20, they were pricey, considering that they didn't replace any garments but were just an add-on.

What would I do? Support this craving for what the other Ballet 4 girls had? Or use this as an opportunity to teach a lesson about the perils of peer pressure and the benefits of saving money whenever possible?

I think this dilemma provides an interesting counterpoint to this week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh. In previous verses, God gave instructions for how to build the Tabernacle. Now, God describes the garments required for Aaron and his sons, who will serve as "priests."

God says the purpose of these garments, which include a breastpiece, robe, tunic, headdress, and sash, is "dignity and adornment." Consequently, the people are to make them from colorful yarns, fine linen, and precious stones and metals. No detail is left out; there are even directions for how the items should be fastened.

At times, I've seen these demands as excessive and unnecessary. Why would priests need the finest fabrics, the most valuable jewels? After all, the Jewish people had just been released from slavery and could finally stop fleeing for their lives. They were dusty, tired, and emotionally drained. Why did they need to work so hard on an outfit?

But lately, I've started to think that maybe these reasons are precisely why Aaron and his sons needed fancy duds. This was a community that needed to believe in its future, a group of people who wanted to know they were part of something bigger than themselves. As psychologists will tell you, sometimes attitude follows behavior. For the Jewish people back in the desert, creating priestly garments that demanded respect was likely one of the best ways to begin creating a strong and solid future.

Clothes are big source of stress for middle schoolers and parents. But discussions about clothing are well worth having. Why does a particular garment become a "must have"? Is it functional or decorative? Does it serve vanity, or a more important purpose? Does it provide status? Confidence? Encouragement? Help in accomplishing a goal? Something else?

Ultimately, I bought my daughter her ballet shorts. I understood that she had some trepidation about moving into a class of girls who had all been in Ballet 4 for several months. I saw that the shorts were a way for her to fit in with the group in a good way -- to feel that she belonged at this level and could blend in as a skilled dancer. I thought they would give her confidence and help her believe in herself.

I can only hope that Aaron felt as good in his new vestments as my daughter felt in hers.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mishpatim: The Stranger is YOU!

One summer when my son was in middle school, my husband and I agreed to send him to a two-week sports camp held on the grounds of a New England prep school. He was thrilled to go, but he had never before been away from us other than for an occasional sleepover, so we wondered how he would adjust.


We didn't have long to wonder. David didn't have cell phone back then, but he did have a calling card, and at around eleven o'clock each night he would leave his room and find a phone to call us, imploring us to come get him. He couldn't sleep; the bed was uncomfortable; the room was too hot; his roommate's breathing was too loud; he wanted to come home.

He sounded panicked, as though he didn't even know who he was anymore. He couldn't understand why he hated a camp that should have been exciting and fun.

I can still hear his voice when I think about this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim. For the most part, Mishpatim is little more than a list, a dispassionate rundown of laws that God for the Jewish people. But ironically, this dry portion includes one of the most haunting and evocative pronouncements in the Torah.

That pronouncement: "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."

With these words, God is urging the Israelites to treat outsiders with empathy. They are to remember how it felt to be stranger, and to let the memory of that unhappy feeling guide their behavior. But I'm struck by the implication that being an outsider is a universally familiar experience. We try so hard throughout our lives to connect with people -- building communities, joining groups, developing friendships, searching for "soulmates" -- but in the end, as God says, each one of us knows "the feelings of the stranger."

Middle schoolers in particular spend a lot of time feeling like strangers. They leave the familiarity of elementary school while they are still young, they enter new classes with new teachers as often as every quarter, they join new teams and clubs, and encounter new faces continually. They often take on unfamiliar and grown-up responsibilities -- earning their own money by baby-sitting or shoveling snow, taking charge of a house key, deciding whether to meet with a teacher for extra help before a test day.

And don't forget -- they are also strangers in their own bodies. Doctors say that physically, middle schoolers are changing more quickly than they will at any other stage of life other than infancy.

These days, middle schoolers are trained to do just what God demands of the Jewish people -- put themselves in other kids' shoes and behave accordingly. Many schools have a formal empathy curriculum, with guest speakers, reading assignments, and structured discussions.

But are kids equally equipped for the times when they feel like strangers to themselves? Do they know how to talk about it and work through it? Do they have ways to cope?

David eventually got through those long nights at the sports camp, and one of the most important outcomes was that he learned a little about who he was. He knows now that he's the kind of person who takes time to adjust to new situations. He's since gone away further from home and for longer periods of time, but he knows what to expect. And he always remembers to pack his ipod and earphones, an issue of his favorite sports magazine, and a booklight, which will help him cope with those first few nights.

When he leaves home, my husband and I always remind him that he has faced long, lonely nights before, and he's made it through.



Just like God reminded the Jews.