Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What's the first thing to teach children about Judaism?

I have the pleasure of helping young men prepare for bar mitzvah, generally by teaching them how to lein (read from the Torah) and, sometimes, lead davening. I also get to work with them in preparing a dvar torah, and I take the opportunity to train them in various Jewish ideals and in practical Jewish life as well.

The experience is generally a combination of pedagogy, amusement and frustration (and that’s just in dealing with the parents!). My task is a convergence of passing along new information, conveying high expectations without burdening them with stress, and helping them succeed even as they handle everything that comes with the onslaught of adolescence.

Generally, the kids come in with some level of background; whether they’ve been to day school or supplementary Hebrew school, they have some awareness of Jewish concepts, at the least. Once, though, I had a truly different experience: An unaffiliated family came to me with a child who had no Jewish knowledge.

No Jewish knowledge. None.

We’re talking blank slate, tabula rasa, didn’t know who Avraham and Sarah were, didn’t know who Moshe was or what Mount Sinai was. No – he did know what Israel is, in the sense that it’s a country with a lot of Jews living there. But beyond that, nothing.

His parents understood that he wouldn’t be able to lein from the Torah coming out of this; they just wanted him to know “what a Jew needs to know.”

So what do you teach a 12 year old boy about Judaism, as his introduction to the whole thing? The very first thing?

Do you teach him Shma, do you talk about Gd and monotheism?
Do you teach him תורה צוה לנו משה, that HaShem gave us a Torah of ritual mitzvos and social mitzvos, which is the anchor of everything Jewish?
Do you teach him about Divine reward and punishment, Gan Eden (heaven) and Gehennom (hell) and what we believe about theodicy, about bad things happening to good people?

Do you teach him about Jewish history, our ancestors and the kings and the Beis haMikdash and the exiles?
Do you teach him how to live daily life as a Jew – kashrut, Shabbat, holidays?
Do you teach him how to daven?
The possibilities are endless; ארוכה מארץ מדה ורחבה מני ים (its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea)!

I settled on Motivation as the first focus.

For a 12 year old boy raised without any exposure to Judaism and then suddenly thrust into Bar Mitzvah training, the biggest question must be WHY – why do my parents think this is important to me? Why, when I am on the verge of adulthood, when I could be out playing basketball or listening to music or playing with my Nintendo or just relaxing, when I have all of these school pressures and social pressures, do I have to spend 45 minutes a week with a rabbi? We’ve never cared about this before!

So I thought he needed to learn Motivation – why any of this matters, to him.

And so I started not with any of the above, but with a list of 20th and 21st century Jewish accomplishments. You know, like those chain emails that go around about Jews who invented the cell phone and got Nobel prizes, et cetera. Broader than that, though – I included survival in the Holocaust as well as the founding of a country and its defense against numerous invasions. I included the ways in which modern legal systems trace themselvs to the Torah’s laws. I included pioneering Jewish leaders from many different areas of thought and life.

And I asked him, “Did you ever know you were a part of this? Do you want to know where all of this originates, what binds it all together, what all of the people I’ve mentioned have in common?”

And then we were ready to get started.

I’ll tell you this – it worked so well that this is now the first thing I do with all Bar Mitzvah kids, including the ones trained in Yeshiva.

What would you have done? What’s the first thing you would teach a Jew about Judaism?


  1. oh my goodness. As someone with NO insight into the adolescent male mind (not to mention no rabbinical training), that would be quite a challenge for me. Good job.

  2. good choice
    but i would have relied on chazal
    that moshe kebel torah i.e. Mesorah
    the concept that we have an unbroken chain reaching back to Abraham
    is mind boggling to todays entirely DISCONNECTED youth

  3. Tzipporah-
    Thanks, but you underestimate your knowledge of the adolescent male mind; you are married to a man, after all, and there is no such thing as an ex-adolescent male.

    I hear the approach; thanks for your feedback.

  4. Great post. I think you gave over what is fantastic starting point. Feeling that you are part of something 'greater' is key.
    I recently started some work in a non-observant Sunday school and am dealing with the whole "why do we have to come on a Sunday" issue. You're post is very appreciated by this reader.

  5. I probably would have done something similar. It is like learning how to walk. You can't do that until you learn how to crawl. And as most parents know you have to learn how to crawl.

    I probably would have been interested in finding out if he had any sort of beliefs. If he considers himself to be an atheist, agnostic or whatever it takes the lessons in a different direction.

  6. I had a professor who would always ask on the first day of class (I took him 3 times), "Why are you here?"
    I've found that to be a good starting point w/ informal education.

  7. Jack-
    A good idea, but, in my experience, much harder to accomplish with a 12-year-old male who doesn't know you. Most of them (although not all,of course) tend toward reticence at first.

    Thanks! And re: Sunday school - you have my sympathy.

  8. interested in fleshing out exactly what you speak to them about that first time and then posting it? I would love to take a look at it. Brad

  9. Now if you can get someone to develop a game for the Wii that incorporates learning you'll be set.