Practicing for Game Day: Jewish Life at Age 12

Rabbi Andy Bachman of Brooklyn Jews and Congregation Beth Elohim (and just named one of the FORWARD 50) offers lyrical reflections in his blog. Rabbi Bachman describes a recent 7th grade class in “Practicing for Game Day.” Drills for the students included:

  1. orientation to Torah commentary
  2. tzedakah (charitable) giving
  3. prayer, especially the meaning of movements Jews do

He adds:

I think the non-orthodox community needs to feel comfortable with a similar approach to how we’re educating our young Jews. Even when we are not circumscribed by Jewish life, we can’t shy away from approaching the discipline of Judaism as a living, breathing practice.

The tougher approach, I have to reflect, has yielded not a single discipline problem this year. We’re moving along, having fun, working hard, and learning.

I only pray that, not unlike practicing free throws or fielding ground balls, when the game day comes, they’ll see their hard work pay off.

How could it not! Read the whole thing to observe the care with which he teaches.

A flow of thoughts…

Middle school students are odd creatures for us adults. They can rarely hold a decent conversation and seem quite focused on themselves. They are surprisingly responsive to accomplishable tasks. My own efforts at teaching that age were full of wonder at what they were and were not capable. My planning led to a few great hits and lots of misses.

For my empathetic and whimsical personality, it can be difficult to transform into a taskmaster. However, I keep in mind that students of that age are still LOOKING for authority. It is always the task of the teacher to exercise authority honorable and justly, not pretend it doesn’t exist.

And now we come back to liberal Jewish life at the cusp of adulthood. What do the constraints look like and what mixture of freedom and responsibility is being programmed? Much of life at that age feels burdensome, though sexual attraction offers compelling reasons to shower. Gender poses new questions. At 12 one’s world is still small — class, family, a few activities, hobbies and friends, perhaps some books. Using money often feels liberating. Most kids spend more time “doing Jewish” than their parents. The goal of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah offers relief.

What role do we want Jewish stuff to play in their adult lives? That’s a hard question for liberals (parents and teachers) to resolve. Students recognize their effort to throw some “marry a Jew” didacticism into an otherwise liberal, “choose what’s best” upbringing. I don’t think in the long-run the hip Jewish music and culture scene will capture many hearts. Liberal activism can’t be an end in itself (more on this in future posts).

My thoughts for what we can hope that Jewish life introduces at age 12.

  • a sense that prayer can be powerful
  • skills to study our tradition (some Hebrew and interpretation methods)
  • an awareness of the sacred possible in sexual union and how to honor that
  • habits of civic concern and involvement as Jews

What would you add? Maybe I’ll invite folks to share there thoughts here later this month.

From the FORWARD 50

Andy Bachman
In the past few years, the leafy Park Slope section of Brooklyn has come to rival Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a hub of non-Orthodox Jewish life ― only hipper. Alongside the neighborhood’s five established synagogues ― which run the gamut from Orthodox to left of Reconstructionist ― several independent minyans have sprung up to serve the area’s burgeoning bourgeois bohemian set. As much as anyone, Rabbi Andy Bachman has been in the thick of the Jewish renaissance in so-called Brownstone Brooklyn. In 2003, Bachman and his wife, Rachel Altstein, launched a group called Brooklyn Jews, bringing youngish Jews together for low-pressure text study, holiday celebrations and socializing. The group’s High Holy Day services quickly became the place to be for local 20- and 30-somethings. Last year, Bachman took over the pulpit at Brooklyn’s largest Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim. Even as he has taken on the challenge of leading an established congregation, he has continued to nurture the independent Jewish scene, keeping Brooklyn Jews going and making Beth Elohim’s facilities available to local minyans on the Sabbath. Beyond Brooklyn, the 44-year-old Bachman is a rabbinic favorite of the creative crowd, having participated in the Reboot network and serving on the advisory board of the Web site Jewcy.

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One Response to “Practicing for Game Day: Jewish Life at Age 12”

  1. jewwishes Says:

    What an excellent post…and should be thought-provoking for many parents, and grandparents (such as me).

    What ethical legacy do we want to instill and leave for our young Jews?

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