If you only had four months – 12 weeks – to give a child their entire Jewish education, what would you teach? Could you hope to teach the child to decode Hebrew? An overview of Torah? What prayers could the child learn?
This may sound like a game, an existential question about the goal of Jewish education, but it is a rather real example of one student who came to me in January with a Bat Mitzvah party already scheduled for May 2nd. Four months.
Originally her parents were going to throw a big “Bat Mitzvah” party without any service. But the girl was attending other kids’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and she wanted to do what they were doing. She wanted to learn Torah! And I had four months to teach her.
I used to be shocked. I admit, sometimes I still am. But, when I meet them I am thrilled that they have found there way to me, and that I will be able to provide some kind of positive Jewish experience. Not just tutoring but a safe space for spiritual and educational growth, without expectations, without embarrassment about how much they don’t know.
I am reminded of this story: When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire, and meditate in prayer. And then he was able to perform the task. A generation later, faced with the same task, anther rabbi went to the same place in the woods, but he had forgotten how to light the fire. He said, “I can no longer light he fire, but I can still speak the prayers.” And so he prayed and he was able to complete the task. A generation later another rabbi had to perform this same task. He too went into the woods, but said, I can no longer light the fire, nor do I know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers. But I do know the place in the woods, and that must be sufficient. When another generation had passed, and another called upon to perform the task, he said, “I cannot light the fire. I cannot speak the prayers. I do not know the place in the forest. But I can tell the story of how it was once done, and that must be sufficient.
This is a sad story of well-meaning Jews – rabbis no less – who are generations removed from the knowledge they need to preform certain rites and rituals. All they have is story that it was once done. And for them, it is enough.
So many of the parents I work with have had little to no Jewish education themselves. Their children come to me never having heard “Sh’ma” or “Baruch Ata Adonai”. They don’t know the story of Creation or Noah’s Ark. They have never been to the synagogue on the High Holy Days or seen a Torah in an ark. Many of my students have told me they don’t attend a seder, or, if they do, it’s only a meal with family.
For these students, the argument for attending Religious School is hollow. Some meet with the rabbi or educator of a Temple when the child is twelve and they are told that the child must be in Religious for three years before Bar-Bat Mitzvah. They think, “That’s not happening,” and walk away.
And they should, because what would be accomplished putting a twelve year old with zero background into a sixth or seventh grade religious school class? They tell me, “We sent her once. She had no idea what was going on. No one talked to her. The teacher tried to engage her but the class was unruly and the teacher spent a lot of time on class mangagement. She never went back.”
Religious School is not the answer for every Jewish child. When it succeeds it is because of a combination of two factors: there is something Jewish happening in the family and the school is well run. But if you take out “the family does Jewish,” it doesn’t matter how great the school is – the student is lost.
So they find someone like me. And even with only four months, here is my goal: that each learner to go from knowing nothing about being Jewish, to knowing something. I want my learners to experience something that is Jewishly authentic. And when they become Bar-Bat Mitzvah, I want my students to learn to chant in Hebrew from the Torah scroll. And it can be done.
I feel blessed that I have the freedom to take each student on their own Jewish journey - beginning from wherever they are – culminating in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. For those who cannot light the fire, speak the prayers or know the place in the forest, I hope they find Jewish educators like me, who will begin with the story of how it was once done. I am proud that I am saving Jewish souls – one child at a time.