This week was a wake-up jolt. The Lieberman-Smith family returned to our regular non-holiday life: work, school, meetings, Nature Club, soccer, piano, a snow day, and Hebrew school. Aside from writing books and teaching almost full time, I also teach Hebrew school. That's right, not only do I write and teach five days a week, but Saturday mornings I get up and teach Hebrew school to my two kids and ten others at our Reform temple. This is both exhausting and incredibly rewarding. Each week I get to create a tiny Jewish oasis of community. For the years my kids and I go to Hebrew school, that's what Shabbat means to us. (In another lifetime I'm hoping Shabbos will also involve rest!)
I teach the program so I can create a meaningful Jewish experience for my children. I didn't want their Judaism to be, as one friend put it, only bagel and Holocaust. So what is important to me as a Jewish educator? I teach Hebrew reading, tfillah (prayer), holidays, bible stories, and about tzedakah(good deeds) and mitzvot. (There's also a healthy dose of snack, socializing and crafts.)
Every once in awhile I stand back and think about why I want my kids and students to be Jewish. I want them to use Judaism to celebrate family, create community, do Gimilut Hasidim (acts of loving kindness), and also as a way to approach the sacred and divine in life. I want them to know how to pray in Hebrew as a way to express the happiness and sadness they'll encounter in life. Is that a big goal to achieve in two-and-a-half hours once a week? You bet.
Recently I heard an interview on Unorthodox that put what I was feeling into words. If you haven't listened to Unorthodox yet, I suggest you momentarily stop reading and check it out. Unorthodox is a wildly entertaining, irreverent and frequently enlightening weekly Jewish podcast from Tablet magazine. For someone like who me who lives far away from major Jewish centers, it's a fantastic way to be engulfed in all things Jewy. For example, where else am I going to hear interviews with author and filmmaker David Bezmogis, musings on Drake's Jewishness, Holocaust puns, or interviews with divinity students who analyze Harry Potter as a sacred text? How else will I possibly know if there are or were Jewish pirates? If that doesn't move you, let it be said that Unorthodox takes Leonard Cohen very seriously. And that should be enough to move you.
As I said Unorthodox is also enlightening, and that brings me back teaching Hebrew school. A few episodes back the Unorthodox crew interviewed Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, the spiritual leader of Beacon Hebrew Alliance of New York. He's a rabbi interested in bringing Judaism out of the shul and into the daily life of his congregants. In the interview Spodek said that, "Part of the problem with American Judaism is that we think Judaism is the goal not the tool." If kids are bored in services or disconnected from Jewish traditions, why would they be invested in learning that tool? I agree with Spodek that Judaism needs to engage children and be relevant to them. Even more so, I agree with Spodek that kids should be Jewish so that they have tools to have a sense of awe and wonder, and to express frustration or hope. Being Jewish because you mother said you should, or because Hitler tried to eradicate the Jews is to miss the whole point of what Judaism, and other religions too, can do for you.
|Tibetan Prayer Wheels|
When I was much younger I travelled in Northern India and Nepal for several months. I visited a lot of Buddhist temples with prayer wheels. Pilgrims circumnavigate the temples and spin these prayer wheels as they walk, and as the wheels turn, the prayers written on them float up to the gods. As I spun those wheels, I couldn't help singing parts of the Jewish liturgy. The words rose up into my mouth and I sang. It was how I expressed the beauty and wonder of what I saw as I walked. And I was thankful for the knowledge of how to pray.
Before Hebrew school broke for the holidays, we had a service with our once-a-month rabbi that happened to fall on the same day as Amnesty International's Write-for Rights Letter Writing Campaign. I'd planned to write letters with my kids that morning as part of our Tikkun Olam (healing the earth) and social action curriculum. This term I'm proud that my students (and their families) collected food and volunteered at the Kingston food bank, and donated money and items for Syrian Refugees coming to our city. When preparing for our Amnesty lesson, I did some research on Human Rights to share with my students. It occurred to me that these rights are almost identical to the list of things we are thankful for in the Baruch Hashchar, a prayer chanted at the beginning of the morning service. I quickly decided to re-write the prayer to reflect the human rights we enjoy in Canada. The whole congregation joined me in praying our Human Rights Baruch Hashachar, and at least for me, it was an incredible connection between being thankful, being present, and helping heal the world a little bit. And these are also the Jewish tools I wish to impart to my children and students.