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FRONTAL FREE: The Fragility of Judaism

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale! From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

Before I begin a teaching session, I look around the room. Maybe I'm in a classroom, or running a junior congregation, or just chatting with my kid's classmates or friends. And I often start off by asking them an open question, where they could really come up with any response.

And then, I listen.

I listen because I need to know everything I can about them. Where do their traditions come from? What do they do at home to be Jewish? Would they rank their Jewish identity ahead of their nationality, their school, or even their gender?

One evening when I was a student in Hebrew high school, a teacher pointed out to us that the term "Judaism" shouldn't really refer to our religion, per se. A "Judaism," by definition, would be an act you perform or behavior you display that demonstrates that you are Jewish, that defines your Jewishness. So when I'm engaging a group of Jewish tweeners nowadays, I prompt them to discuss their Judaism, their collective body of thoughts, opinions, knowledge, and traditions that make up their religion, culture, and personal dogma.

The fragility of Judaism lies in the personalized legitimacy of the child's Judaism. At some point, it's only natural for someone, at any age, to question the validity, source, or true meaning of a custom or a text. The individual thinks about a "Judaism," wondering where it came from, how it started, what it really means, if it's meaningful to them, and if they should keep it up.

But if they drop traditions entirely, so goes the Jewish people.

As I continue this blog’s theme of “frontal free” teaching, I emphasize the value in not standing in front of the kids and telling them what they should know or believe. As kids approach the traditional age of b’nai mitzvah, they begin to evolve in more thoughtful beings, instinctually wanting to think things through for themselves. At some point, most of the 10 year olds I’ve encountered will even push back against any approach to tell them something rather than demonstrate something.

Lest you, the parent or educator, risk pushing them away, I’ve come to value the need to engross them in the material you’re trying to communicate. Give them a context for the lesson, a taste of the material, then hand it over to them for them to explore themselves, at their pace, in their own way. Without leveraging them, or intimidating them, or, dare I say, guilting them, you must find a way for them to approach the lessons themselves.

Each year, I have preteen students who are agnostic, some with attention issues, some with lots of personal experience in Israel compared to the others. So how do I teach them deeper understandings of Jewish ethics, or the value of learning Torah stories, or an overview of Israeli history? Well, it’s always hard, but the hard part for me is letting go: sitting back and letting them drive. Give them the material but let them create a project around it; let the more experienced kids mentor the others; and have them do something active and on their feet to demonstrate their learning and understanding of the lessons.

In the end, when they’re given the reins of their own education, they come to respect you, the institution of learning, and the value of finding their own personal Judaisms within the curriculum. Their connections to tradition strengthen, thereby shoring up that fragility. It’s my hope that through non-frontal, creative, experiential learning, we’ll imbue the next generation with the impetus to further their education and pass along their legacy of leadership and learning to the next generation.

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