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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.