Rabbi's Column | Congregation Beth Am

Rabbi's Column

Breathing in Jewish Oxygen

By Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, Associate Rabbi

In his sermon to the 5,000+ Reform Jews gathered in Boston for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial in December 2017, Rabbi David Stern, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, focused on the challenges and opportunities in engaging children in Jewish life. The sermon was delivered to a majority-adult audience, though there were over 100 teens present as part of the NFTY delegation. He reminded those gathered that children should not be regarded only as “the Jewish future,” but as a key element of the Jewish present. In particular, he had this important message for the adults in the room:

"[A] word about adult responsibility towards our kids – it begins with responsibility for our own Jewish lives. The great wisdom of the Federal Aviation Administration is that you put the oxygen mask on yourself first, and Jewish oxygen is no different. We will create the path to nurtured Jewish children by nurturing Jewish adults. As communities, we need to create meaningful Jewish learning for adults, inspire adults in prayer, challenge adults to justice, so they can model learning and prayer and acts of justice for our children1."

Rabbi Stern argued that it is not fair for Jewish professionals and lay leaders to speak only of engaging children, but rather, emphasized that it’s important for adults — all of us: clergy, professionals, lay leaders and regular Jews — to set an example of how to live and love a Judaism that we want our children to emulate. If we adults don’t tend to our Jewish well-being, if we don’t engage in a search for answers to our most burning questions (which, granted, may lead to discovering more questions), if Jewish adults don’t find ways to live out Jewish values in their everyday lives, how, then, can we expect our children to do so?

As the holiday of Passover approaches, the seder actually offers some insight into how the rabbis, who developed the seder around 2,000 years ago, considered this challenge of engaging the next generation of Jews. At its core, the rabbis designed the seder to teach the central narrative of the Jewish people, and through that narrative, one of the most fundamental values in Judaism: the value of empathy. As we navigate the Haggadah, we are instructed to place ourselves into the narrative. We read that “With a mighty hand, God brought us out of Egypt” [Exodus 13:14] as a reminder that each of us has a personal - not just historical - connection to this narrative, that there is something to be learned from this experience.

Because understanding this story is so important, the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud also wanted to make sure that children remained engaged, and so they structured the seder so that children play a central role in retelling the Exodus narrative. At the center of the whole seder is the youngest child asking the Four Questions. Our children must prompt us to retell the story, and do so by making sure they ask for the key points of the story. These questions were designed 2,000 years ago to elicit a response from the adults in the room, and to answer these questions, the adults needed to not only know the story, but to also own the story and retell it with excitement and enthusiasm.

In many ways, the Haggadah provides adults with a toolkit for retelling the story to children, complete with props (i.e. the seder plate and its symbolic foods) that engage all four senses. The rabbis recognized that this might not always be enough, and in the Talmud, there are discussions about other ways to keep children engaged, such as moving the furniture around, giving them parched ears of corn (which apparently passed for something resembling a toy 1,600 years ago), and even throwing bits of matzah at them [Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 108b-109a]. While some of these strategies might seem silly, they reflect the importance of keeping children engaged and interested, and they emphasize that this should be done no matter how silly it might make the adults seem. Because if the adults are engaged and having fun, and teaching from a place of personal ownership, investment and love, then they create an infectious atmosphere that encourages children to breathe deeply the sweet Jewish oxygen fostered at the seder table.

The opportunities for shared learning and engagement don’t have to end with Passover. At Beth Am, there are many opportunities for adults to engage in their own Jewish exploration. We have fantastic programs for families, with Tot Shabbat for families with young children, family education days at each grade level of Sunday Program, and our Shabbat Together family education program for families with children in pre-k (4 years old as of 9/1/18), kindergarten or 1st grade and their younger siblings. We also have outstanding adult learning programs, including Torah Study every Shabbat morning, and regular offerings of classes and lectures.

This year, there’s also another opportunity to engage in your own Jewish growing and learning, while making new friends in the process. Beth Am’s Sh’ma Groups initiative brings small groups of Beth Am members together in intimate settings to know and be known, learn and laugh, rest and rejuvenate, deepen connections with one another, to Beth Am, to Judaism and to the rhythms of Jewish life. Through lay-led, structured conversations facilitated by a trained Group Guide, these groups will help you carve out an intentional space to explore some of the big questions in Judaism and in your life, while getting to know 8-12 other Beth Am members better in the process. New Sh’ma Groups will be forming in April and you can learn more at betham.org/shma-groups.

As Rabbi Stern taught, “We will create the path to nurtured Jewish children by nurturing Jewish adults.” How will you make the time to explore your questions about Judaism and nurture your Jewish soul? What might our lives look like if Jewish living becomes as natural for us as breathing?

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).