This Intervention Was Unnecessary, But Perhaps It Was Good Practice

matzah womanYikes. As I sit here in my favorite (and the only) free trade coffeeshop in Savannah, I’m listening to a man with a big belly talk Jesus and sin to a young man whom I don’t know well but has a distinctively Jewish last name. In spite of my seasoned eavesdropping skills, I can’t be positive that he’s trying to convert him, but it’s certainly what it sounds like. Either that, or he’s trying to enroll him in multi-level marketing. Excuse me…

So of course being the crazy obnoxious yenta I am, I had to go over to the young guy after his companion bailed and find out what the what was goin’ on. Turns out the dude didn’t need saving from being saved — he was raised in an Orthodox home in Nashville, Tennesee and has his Jewish identity firmly in place. He’d accidentally invited the man’s Christian commentary by wearing a Jesusy t-shirt — in a totally ironic way — and was being polite while the man ranted. He was with an adorable girl, who giggled “Anyway, Jesus doesn’t play klezmer and we do.” The two of them have been hanging around Savannah since their bus broke down a few months ago (eep, sounds familiar. Careful, kids, 12 years might slide by…) They’ve been absorbed into the local hipster scene and play music for tourists when they’re not trying to fix their vehicle.

The kid’s a real mensch — he was just as polite with me while I apologized for thinking I was Ms. Jewish Intervention Specialist Superhero. I explained that I feel rather protective of Judaism’s young people, those who didn’t grow up in homes that practice traditions, teach Torah and tell stories. I know there’s a Jews for Jesus chapter somewhere around these parts, and I couldn’t sit by and let a wandering Jew fall into the bogus trap that salvation comes by giving up one’s birthright of a 5760-odd year ongoing story.

I’m particularly senstive about keeping our kids in the fold since I taught Sunday school for the first time a few days ago. I was subbing for the regular teacher, so maybe my first grade charges (all girls, except for my son) were shy, but they didn’t seem to understand why they were there. First thing I tried to start off with how I remember Hebrew school, with a big loud round of “Hinei Ma Tov,” but my kid and I were the only ones singing. I finally got a whispery verse out of them, only after I told them to pretend they were on “American Idol” and I was Paula Abdul.

After a brief but enthusiastic cheer on how great it is to be Jewish, I stuck to the lesson plan. We went over the Hebrew letter of the day (“yud,” as in “Shalom, yeladim) and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, commemorating when God gave Moses the tablets and the Torah, which led to a semi-lively discussion of the Ten Commandments, though none of the girls had heard that there are another 603. It’s not like I learned that in Hebrew school either — in fact, I don’t remember much except the prayers themselves, even though I attended every Sunday from the age of six until my bat mitzvah. But I had to work not to let my frusturation show when I asked the name of the queen from the Purim shpiel and got blank stares. Throughout the day, I did everything I could to bring life to the story of Moses on the mountain, to keep repeating the names of Aaron and Miriam, to praise God and the Torah and the laws given to us so that our world could be a more civil place. I can only hope they retained something.

This is definitely not a critique of the teacher or the school itself — it’s a beautiful place with an enthusiastic, intelligent staff made up of respected community members and is run by a progressive, kind gentleman who is open to my zany ways. There was a fabulous Israeli dance session (I haven’t pranced “Mayim” for ages!) with another teacher and the older kids know their aleph-bet through and through. I’m very honored to be a part of the school and I’m so excited to get my own classroom in the fall (if I still have the job after this post.)

But something seems to be missing from Reform/Conservative Jewish education, and it was missing from my own Reform “religious” school — it just doesn’t seem that spiritual. It’s wonderful to teach history and culture and make cool crafts like havdalah spice boxes out of milk cartons, but where is the love? The joy of being Jewish? It’s almost like the Chassids have the monopoly on the “praise God, let’s dance” practice, leaving the rest of us to contend with the historical and social complexities of being Jewish in America, a struggle that many kids understandably become bored with and wander away from as they become adults. There’s got to be a spiritual or some other meaningful context to touch the hearts — not just the intellect — of Jewish little ones.

I’m just kinda ranting here, and it could be that those blank faces mean that I’m just a crappy teacher. But I worry about the future of these kids — why should being Jewish matter to them? How can I make it matter? Why does it matter to me, why does it matter to you? As I’ve said before, I’ve learned more about Judaism in the past three years writing this blog than what I learned at Hebrew school and summer camp combined. If I weren’t doing this, would my son know all the lyrics to Matisyahu’s “King Without A Crown” and know that Moses stuttered?

Rabbi Shmuely had a piece in yesterday’s JPost that says maybe the Jews ought to start go against our traditional view of proselytizing — I say we need to put a whole lot more focus into keeping the ones we got.

In the meantime, I’m thinking about getting a cape and a mask and stalking the guy with the big belly should he decide to talk anymore Jesus to any Jewish kids.

15 thoughts on “This Intervention Was Unnecessary, But Perhaps It Was Good Practice

  1. i experience the same things in our Conservative shul’s religious school. I think it’s because the vast majority of the kids in the school experience 98% of their Judaism during religious school. Instead of having the opportunity to teach them deeper, we have to teach them the bare bones basics that they won’t learn at home. Sigh. That’s why the Conservative movement is in such crisis.

  2. all that stuff you are ranting about is true, but as BN said above, almost nothing comes from the homes of most families in the Reform and Conservative movements, which is the true “alter” of our religion. Your kids are very lucky they have connected parents who are giving them the love of Judaism that even the most strict adherence to mitzvot cannot impart. Having a husband who is a Reform rabbi, and having attended a Conservative seminary and taught in the Conservative movement for 9 years, I can say that in terms of the amount of people who are active Jews, the numbers are about the same in both movements. Deeper stuff comes from parents and examples at home. Like most things 🙂

  3. Don’t sweat it. They’re little kids. What they will “get” out of the first few years of religious school amount to little more than a bunch of strange and wildly disconnected stories mixed with a few nice life lessons. They’re simply not emotionally and intellectually ready for the big picture yet. Hit them with “Pathways Through the Bible” around the fifth or sixth grade, and everything will become clear.

  4. Oy, if you are so smart about these things – give me a coherent explanation why believing in Y’shua (Jesus)is giving up my Jewish birthright. For that matter – give me a clear explanation of why you can reject out of hand Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah of Israel. Do you even have a reason why, except that you’ve been indoctrinated to believe that? I look forward to a cogent reply (for once).
    A Jew who believes in Y’shua

  5. I’m sorry this experience is not more rare, but I taught Hebrew school for three years and received the same blank faces.

    I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to attend a Hebrew Day School for the majority of my education and be immersed not only in the Hebrew language, but in the laws, traditions, and JOY of Judaism as well.

    I went in to teaching Hebrew school with the hope of sharing my joy and knowledge with the 3rd and 5th graders in my classes. Unfortunately what I found was a group of tired, over-stressed kids who were already exhausted from the school day during the week and restless on the weekends. Even more alarming, however, was the school’s curriculum. Despite using a major-brand text book, the majority of the lessons we were supposed to teach these kids were reading and writing Hebrew and rote memorizing prayers and songs, which they were then trotted out to perform in front of the parents. No wonder these kids were bored stiff – no one ever bothered to teach them the meaning behind the words they were reading and the prayers they were repeating!

    After about a month of this nonesense I brought this problem to the attention of the education director who basically said that they “just don’t have time to teach the kids more about the language” and that making the kids perform rituals that are ultimately meaningless to them “keeps the parents happy.” Eventually I started defying the curriculum and taking the time to teach the kids how to break down the roots of words to discover their meaning. And surprise, surprise…the kids got into it! Giving them the tools to understand a new language invested in the kids in their own education and made them want to learn more and robotically repeat things less.

    Needless to say I eventually got into trouble for my “radical” teaching process (despite the fact that the kids and parents were happy) and after three years of battling with the administration, simply stopped teaching. I wish my situation was a lone example of administrative incompetance, but it is not. I have friends across the country who have taught Hebrew school and run into the same problems. It saddens me deeply to think that our future generations will not have as many opportunities to experience the beauty of Judaism because they were taught only to repeat, not to think or understand.

  6. Yo, Yenta:
    Loved the bit about grabbing onto our 5760-odd year ongoing story. I’ve just ranted about emulating the emulators in my blog ‘The G Word’ – sounds nasty, eh?
    But your enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit gets us where it counts – this is the reason I’m such a great fan of Chabad-Lubavitch who proseytize ie., do outreach with wandering Jews. Keep packing ’em in, whether kiddies in school or adults who lead their Jewish lives as though they’re playing pin the tail on the donkey for dummies.

  7. Rachel:
    Bravo! This was my exact experience attending an after hours Conservative Movement Hebrew school. We were handed Hebrew-only siddurim and treated as though we should have already known the contents. Hebrew instruction was abominable due to its paucity, with most of the teaching effort centered around pro-Israel propaganda – ie.,
    ‘when you grow up, make aliyah!’ My real Jewish education came as an adult.

  8. Babka, Ezer, Rachel, Jack, and Schvach ~ I knew it wasn’t just me. For all the talk about “crises” in American Judaism, shouldn’t we start with the kids? The director of the Shalom School just emailed today saying that they’re adopting a new CHAI curriculum in the fall, which sounds hopeful…

    Paul ~ I don’t think you have kids. Just guessing.

    Michelle ~ Several people have told me otherwise, though I haven’t seen anything with my own ozen.

    Richard ~ The point I try to make most is that I’m not smart about very much. But calling yourself a Jew while preaching Jesus is an oxymoron – how many Jews have been killed in Christ’s name over the centuries? As far as I know, being Jewish means you believe the Messiah has yet to come. Being a Jew for Jesus doesn’t make you a Jew, it makes you a Christian who ancestors are turning in their graves.

  9. Actually, I had two sons who went through the same angst I went through in those first few years of Reform Sunday School. “What is this all about?! First Moses then King David then Noah then Joshua then King Solomon then Samson then Hillel.” Come on, how could any tiny kid straighten all that out?

    When they finally became old enough to emotionally and intellectually put the whole thing together, our Temple really dropped the ball and never taught any real Torah. They learned a lot of Jewish history and some basic principles, but little else. Judaism-lite. At least I got two years of “Pathways Through the Bible”, which gave me a good basis to set me on my own direction. Without much base for them, how can they competently proceed with lifelong learning? I’m afraid that as they head to college and beyond, they will have a particular feeling of emptiness. And yes, I brought this up many times with the education administration but was ignored. I could go on about a lot of other things, but won’t, keeping on your topic instead.

    So, think about this — for the fidgets in the early years, only discuss what Jews believe. Even little pick up right from wrong. In later years, then throw all those wild characters in using a time line that they can understand and relate to. Just a thought.

  10. Paul S ~ so sorry, I thought you were someone else! Because I’m teaching the little kids and I have little kids, that’s where I’m at. But I’m ESPECIALLY worried about your kids – the lack of Jewish foundation makes them so vulnerable to culties like J4J and worse.

    But then I think of myself: Same vapid Jewish “education”, went to college but never even found the Hillel building, did a lot of drugs, went home for all the Jewish holidays, did more drugs…yet somehow I hung onto enough Jewish identity to know that I wanted to marry someone Jewish and have Jewish kids. And here I am at 35, finding my way through the traditions and DNA and actual Torah to distill what’s really meaningful to me. And while it’s unorthodox, my kids know who they are, the joy is in our home, in the Shabbat candles, in the stained glass mogen david in the window…

    So I figure all I can do is spread a little joy to the kindergarteners and leave the Scary Future of Disappearing Judaism to the people running the show. ‘Cause they don’t listen to folks like you and me anyway, do they?

  11. Richard,
    This isn’t that kind of website. But my short answer is Jews are more concerned with the Messianic era than The Messiah. If there is no Messianic Era, no messiah has come to institute it. This means Jesus, Sabbatai Zevi and Menachem Schneerson could not be The Messiah because no Messianic Era occured in their lifetimes. Also, worshipping a man is idolitry. You should also read what the Torah says we should do to Jews who try to get us to follow other gods. Check out Deuteronomy 13:7-12.
    My rabbi has a website called
    You might want to look around and even e-mail him. I’m sure he’d love to talk to you.
    This is the last I’ll post on this subject, so don’t expect a debate. If you want to debate, e-mail my rabbi.

  12. Hey, Yo:
    I’ve taken your cue and have blogged about
    R’ Shmuley Boteach’s article in the J’lem Post on my blog site, and cited your post to boot (hope you don’t mind). Also, drugs were a surrogate for a lot of young Jews in school, as was/is the distraction with Eastern religions. Too bad that Jewish education was handled so poorly – and we aren’t the first generation to have suffered this error; according to one rabbi with whom I’ve spoken about this subject, it’s been a major problem for generations. Perhaps the error lies with the practice of holding out substitute carrots to Jews in an attempt to convince us to stick with it, rather than following an all-out traditional Jewish religious curriculum with the Hebrew of the siddur and Chumash as its core component.

  13. This is an excellent discussion! We have to get the kids “enrolled” in their Judiasm. It’s a community effort. Even when I moved to a new place with small children that didn’t have a temple we gathered the families for vents and holidays. Every one of those kids who are now in their 30s still identifies themselves proudly as Jews. Give them the self esteem.

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