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FRONTAL FREE: The Flag of the Snowflake

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!

In my classroom, I keep a copy of the page from the ship's manifest that recorded when the oldest of my father's uncles arrived at Ellis Island. Like so many other things in the room, this too becomes a conversation piece. Often when I teach about the ever-tightening US immigration quotas in the years leading up to the creation of the state of Israel, I use this document as a tool for unpacking my own family's history and travails in the Holy Land pre-1948.

As the years slip by me, I'm increasingly fascinated by my recent ancestors' footsteps around the world. But simultaneously, I must remind myself that each student or program participant I encounter has their own story about how their family survived as Jews to this day. And as we hear these various stories and map them out, the stories grow stronger as their connections to each other become real, intersecting through countries and journeys, and enhancing our collective Jewish identity.

These Jewish kids are snowflakes. Each is a delicate but unique mix of heritage, secularism, modern tech, and personal Judaism. Each is influenced by all aspects of the world around them, both the passive elements that envelop them and the active elements that are often so forcefully thrown at them.

Young women and men approaching b’nai mitzvah often face their first true identity crisis. They feel a need to figure out and concatenate the wide-sweeping pieces that make up who they are as people, as Americans, as Jews. And as it is for grownups too, their search for identity can lead to an inner revolt and a demand for individuality, raising the flag of the snowflake while declaring that they are their own person and cannot and will not be told who they are or how they should live.

This is why outreach, inclusion, and empathy are so crucial in our approaches to teaching them what it means to be a Jew. They need to feel us trying new techniques in the classroom and at home, with games or puzzles or songs or anything that gets them up and moving. They need to see us bringing them into a larger circle of the Jewish community, with synagogue activities or youth group events, anything to help them visualize that they are part of something that’s not only a horizontal timeline of Jewish history and legacy but a vertical connection to communities around the world and Jewish kids just like them.

And above all, they need to feel us empathizing with them, in their world and in their minds, relating to them on a level that’s beyond adult and kid, involving them in discussions and planning holiday celebrations and creating new and novel liturgy, until they gradually feel the pull, the deep-seated responsibility, the personal need to take ownership of their Jewish heritage and contribute to their home, or school, or shul, or community.

My ultimate goal is to teach them to be empathetic towards the Jewish people. But as empathy cannot be taught directly, it must be seeded and nurtured, inspired and cultured. And then, one day, you find them teaching you, and they’re ready for the world.

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