Jewish education and practice have been in a rut for many years. We have become complacent by doing what is comfortable and routine, because for years it seemed to have worked.
However, as the recent Pew Research Center report has shown, there has been a sharp decline in not only Jewish identity but participation in Jewish life. Why? Because doing things the same way we’ve been doing them for generations in the name of continuity and “This is how we’ve always done it,” is no longer welcoming and encouraging of individual Jewish identity.
Now add the moment when we ask our 13-year-olds to stand before a congregation filled with family and friends they might know, and display their Hebrew skills and ability to lead a service for said congregation in the manner established for them. Students are put into the Jewish mold rather than allowing the students to create their own Jewish moment in which they get to say, “Here’s who I am as a young Jewish adult, and I promise you, I will not believe the same way in 10 years, but that’s the beauty of my living Judaism.”
We know today that each person learns in their own unique way and one way of teaching is not necessarily going to serve each person equally.
The learning communities Jew By You and HaNefesh recognize this and from our educational experiences to bringing our students to Torah, we strive to help each individual discover and live their own unique Judaism.
Our students become BMitzvah because we recognize just by the name that each student is unique. We make no assumptions as to how a student identifies until they let us know who they are. This was only the first level of change we created in order to ensure a unique experience for the student to come to Torah. What is BMitzvah? It does not come from the Torah nor is it a commanded ceremony like a brit milah, circumcision at eight days. BMitzvah is marking when a young person comes of age as an “adult” in the Jewish community; when they are responsible for their actions in how they live or do Jewish.
This is just the beginning of their exploring what Judaism means at this time in their lives, starting to question and even starting to challenge Jewish thought and teaching. It is one of the greatest privileges we have, to teach our children about Judaism and encourage them to make it relevant to their lives and allow it to evolve as they get older. And 13 years old is a great time in a student’s life to start challenging ideas and beliefs!
At Jew By You and HaNefesh, we not only encourage our students to build their Hebrew and prayer skills, but more importantly, we encourage our students to know what they are saying and why they are saying it.
It is not enough to ask them to recite the blessings and read/memorize some lines of Torah. It is more of an investment by our students when they are able to answer for themselves challenging questions about Torah and G-d, to feel comfortable standing in front of those who they know and say, “This is what I think, this is what I believe, this is who I am!”
BMitzvah is not an event in which the student fits the mold of Judaism through doing the exact same thing as the student before, but rather Judaism fits into the life of the student standing before us.
Rather than trying to force our students into our boxes, let’s remove the box and encourage them to work together with us to learn and grow into the Jewish young adults they are becoming.
It’s time to break the mold, not do things the way they have always been done. Judaism has been evolving since Abraham and Sarah and it will continue to evolve. Are we poised to evolve with it? Yes, as long as we are open to change and step outside our comfortable boxes.
For more information, feel free to contact Rabbi Heidi and Jodi Kaufman at:
Rabbi Heidi Cohen is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.