September 24, 2014
Rabbi Batsheva Appel, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ
One of the downsides of being a rabbi is that people complain to me... about other congregations. I remember being at my cousin's wedding and listening to a distant relative complain bitterly about his synagogue's expectations of his son who was to become bar mitzvah that year. The synagogue is being entirely unreasonable, he said, given that his son is playing on a Little League team that will very likely go to Williamsport, Pennsylvania and win the Little League Baseball World Series. His son has to be at practice, he cannot go to mid-week Hebrew. His son has to be at games, he cannot go to Sunday School. His family cannot be expected to attend services. My relative set up private tutoring for his son, but the synagogue is still making what he thinks are unreasonable demands.
As I stood there listening to his litany of complaints, I remember having two flashes of insight. The first is that becoming bar or bat mitzvah is more than learning a certain number of things and performing them well at the right time. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah happens when one reaches thirteen, no matter what happens. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah as part of a public ceremony requires the context of a community; and being part of a religious school community, a worship community, is more important than knowing a certain number of verses of Torah. If one is signaling that one is ready to take on a greater role in the community by leading services, then one has to be a part of that community.
My second flash of insight had to do with the very real differences in how the religions of baseball and of Judaism were treated. Children are encouraged to start baseball as soon as possible, so they can become proficient. Parents play baseball with their children, offering encouragement as new skills are learned and developed. Children attend baseball camp. Parents emphasize the importance of attending practices to become a better player and not letting the rest of the team down. There are rewards for achievements, both large and small, and parents try to attend the games in which their children play. Baseball is something that is discussed over meals and at other gatherings. Parents take their children to professional baseball games, to see how the game is played by adults. And it is not uncommon for a parent to play baseball or softball themselves for the fun of it.
Contrast this with what my distant relative was teaching his son about Judaism. Children are not encouraged to start early; it can wait until they are older. The expectation is that Religious School will help children learn and develop Jewish skills, Jewish concepts, and Jewish values, without the help of the parents. Children do not attend a Jewish summer camp. Parents do not emphasize the practice that helps the child become more proficient at things like leading prayers or reading Torah, and if the child is not as proficient as they might be, they are not told that they might be letting the community down. They are told do not worry because no one will really know anyway. There are no rewards for any small achievements, just one very large reward for becoming bar or bat mitzvah. Parents do not always attend events with their children. Jewish learning is not something that is discussed over meals or at other gatherings. With a few exceptions, children do not see adults engaging in Jewish learning or Jewish practice. Judaism thus becomes a competency that is developed by the time one is thirteen years old, and then is left behind, so that one can get on with the things that adults do, the things that adults value.
The bar mitzvah student in question became bar mitzvah. He did not go on to college on a baseball scholarship. He does not play professional baseball. He is now married and is a lawyer by profession.
I am not speaking against baseball or soccer or hockey or football or track or swimming. There are many gifted amateur and professional Jewish athletes. I know that my life would be enriched as an adult if I had been involved in sports as a child. I am not speaking against drama or dance or music lessons or odyssey of the mind or math Olympiad or model UN or any of the many activities that our students are involved in and in which they excel. Through all of these activities our children grow to be adults who are well-rounded in their skills, their talents, and their interests.
But I am asking: what are the lessons that we can learn from baseball that will help us teach our children about Judaism?
The first lesson that we can learn from baseball is "Attitude is Everything", how we think about the game, our chances, our playing ability, our team, makes a difference in the outcome.
Too often I hear – they teach the same stories year after year in Religious School. An adult shared with me that she tried to get out of going to Religious School when she was young by using that complaint. Her father's response: what are the stories? If you are learning the same stories every year, tell me the stories. Her grand plan failed and she went back to Religious School.
Too often I hear from adults that Religious School is dreadful and it is natural for children to hate it. Too often I hear that we are forcing religion down our children's throats. When I ran a Religious School on Long Island, I had a student come to my office complaining that Religious School was torture. I told him that it should not be torture, and that he should ask his parents why they wanted him to go. The next session I had the father knocking on my door, apologizing to me for his son's bad attitude about class and Religious School. He had not realized how much of what he said about his experience at Religious School had been absorbed by his son.
The attitudes that we have about our own learning as children, for better or for worse, can be absorbed by our children and can affect how they see the Kurn Religious School. We have an enthusiastic, caring, creative, passionate, knowledgeable faculty working with me this year. I am actively working on building a school program that is educational, fun, engaging, stimulating, and that emphasizes hands on learning of Judaism, creating Jewish memories.
That is the second lesson we can learn from baseball. "Practice, practice, practice."
Playing baseball at any age requires practice. No matter how talented the athlete, they will spend hours on the field, in the batting cage, in the backyard, practicing and drilling. No one has the expectation that a baseball player can read a book or watch a YouTube video or listen to their coach just once and successfully be able to execute whatever maneuver they are learning. In learning how to throw the knuckleball from Charlie Hough, R.A. Dickey says that it took more than 30,000 balls thrown at a brick wall before he got it.i In baseball the need for practice is reinforced. Coaches require regular attendance at practice. Parents will practice with their children, playing catch over and over again.
The hands-on Judaism we are teaching our students does not take 30,000 repetitions before it sticks, but it does take practice. There is a difference between hearing the Shofar once and hearing it every day in the Hebrew month of Elul. There is a difference between hearing the Shofar and being given repeated opportunities to learn how to sound the Shofar. There is a difference between learning to how to make all of the sounds and the practice that our Shofar Choir has put into learning this month.
There is a confidence and competence that comes from giving every student repeated opportunities to learn hands-on about Jewish rituals and Jewish values in ways that are age-appropriate and that provide the theological and historical contexts. The hands-on repetition is what makes the Jewish memories that I want our faculty and madrichim to create with our students. But that hands-on learning really sticks when our students have a chance to see it in their homes. We can teach the candle blessing. We can provide opportunities each month for the students to say the candle blessing. But it is not the same as seeing and participating in lighting candles and saying blessings every Friday with their families.
The third lesson from Baseball is beyond any cliché or pithy saying. If you ask someone who follows baseball what team they follow and why, there are two answers that are most common, they follow the team in whatever town they are from or they follow the team that a parent follows. The young people who develop an interest in baseball observe that the whole community supports the team; they understand that adults are interested in the game, and that even though it is a game, it can be a lifelong passion.
I believe that we can make a substantial difference in the education of our children. I believe that all of us can impress on all of our students that Jewish learning is a lifelong endeavor, simply by being adults who are actively learning.
We are a congregation of academics and teachers, doctors, nurses, and scientists; engineers, lawyers and judges, architects, business people, social workers. How many of us have advanced degrees? How many of us have requirements to maintain our licenses or certifications, through on-going study? How many of us invest time in continuing to learn about our professions so that we know what the latest techniques are? We want our children to learn and be Jewishly engaged, but at the same time, they do not always see us engaged in Jewish learning and doing as adults. Without adults engaged in Jewish learning, Judaism becomes something that children do until they are old enough to abandon it.
We are people who love learning. We are people who are curious. We are intelligent and competent and thoughtful. Why are we ignoring our heritage, our inheritance, a component of our identity? Why are we ignoring the fun, the puzzle, the challenge? Why would we not want to apply our best skill set, the place where we shine the most to Jewish learning?
People tell me that it is too late for them. In truth, it is never too early or too late to begin learning or to begin again. There are rabbinic traditions that outline a course of Jewish study to begin at age three as well as the example of famous rabbis like Rabbi Akiva, one of the great authorities in Jewish legal tradition, who was illiterate until he was forty years old. Too often I hear – why didn't they teach me this in Religious School? Because the quality of supplementary religious education can be very uneven or, more likely, it is not something that is taught in Religious School, in the same way that particle physics or econometrics are not taught in grade school. As adults we are ready to learn a more adult version of Judaism. Too many adults try to make a seventh grade religious school education work for them, and are frustrated by it. And too many adults do not even have a religious school education. I cannot tell you how many times adults have told me how much they regret not having the chance to learn about Judaism as a child.
People tell me that they do not know where to start. Jewish learning is a lifelong adventure. The compendium of Jewish knowledge is often referred to as the sea of Jewish knowledge. My teachers in rabbinical school, who I see as really knowing the sea of Jewish learning, are still learning, and they made that clear to us. Not just the academic research that they need in order to publish but learning for learning's sake. As Dr. Leonard Kravitz kept telling us: If you don't keep on learning, constantly, you will be gornisht al nisht, nothing on top of nothingness!
In Jewish learning, everyone learns from everyone else. There are master teachers, but teachers always make it clear that they will learn from their students and the students will learn from each other. And because we are dealing with a tradition that is thousands of years old, there are choices to suit everyone's taste: liturgy, music, history, philosophy, language, mysticism, law, and on and on and on. Broaden the definition of Jewish learning to include Jewish culture - fiction, films, plays, art, and music. Not all of us are learners who learn best by reading a book and there are a many ways of learning about Judaism other than reading the Torah or rabbinic sources.
Jewish learning is a vast sea, but anyone can wade in at any point. Find what most interests you, whether it is complementary to the discipline in which you are most at home or something completely different. Start there. No one can know all of it, but if one never starts, then how can anything be learned?
People tell me that they do not have the time. In Pirkei Avot, Rabban Gamliel says: "do not say, 'When I have leisure, I will study'- perhaps, you never will have that leisure."ii Shammai also says: "Make your Torah [meaning learning], a habit."iii Clearly, lack of time for learning is not a new reason for not studying. When I say that I do not have time to exercise, I am told to make the time, to make it a habit. Both Jewish learning and exercise require an investment of time in order to develop the skills, the muscles, the habit and the pay off.
Think of entering the sea of Jewish learning as sailing. Once the basics are mastered, it's fun. There are times that it is hard but there are those exhilarating moments when the wind is right, and the sails are right and as you sail across the water all feels right with the world. Jewish learning can be a challenge sometimes, but there are those exhilarating moments. . . .
The beginning of the year is the perfect time for us to take stock, to decide what we will do differently in 5775. Here are suggestions:
Learn Hebrew. There is a Hebrew Marathon Class in October that you can take and then the Prayerbook Hebrew Class. Hebrew is the language of our prayers, of the Torah, and knowing how to read Hebrew gives you an entrée into those texts that you might not otherwise have.
Read a Jewish book. Or join the Wednesday Sefer Book Club and read lots of great Jewish books.
Go to see a Jewish film or play.
Go all out and become a bar or bat mitzvah as an adult. There is a class that is beginning at the end of October.
Already bar or bat mitzvah? Go one step further and become confirmed as an adult. There will be a class forming in the next year or so.
Take a look at the many offerings in the Adult Education Academy Brochure. There is a topic for every interest and something for every day of the week. We have one of the most comprehensive Adult Education programs that I have ever seen.
Find just one other person, pick something to learn, and set a scheduled time to study together. Before I even knew that I wanted to go to rabbinical school, I had a study partner. We would learn Talmud together once a week. He told me that he once overheard his daughter saying to friends: "You'll never believe what my father does! He studies! He doesn't have to, but he spends his free time studying!" Yes, our learning affects how children see Jewish learning.
Years later and I am studying Talmud again, this time with Rabbi Cohon. We study Tractate Sanhedrin together once a week. Our schedules don't always work, but we study together as much as we are able to.
Jewish learning offers us another possible connection with God. As 'the scholar Dr. Louis Finkelstein once remarked, "When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me."'iv
Learning is a mode of connecting to God, to our history and to our people that could be immensely rewarding, if we would only start. Jewish learning is our heritage and our legacy to the next generation. It is our attitudes, our encouragement of practice, and our own involvement in Jewish learning are what shapes that legacy and how willing the next generation is to receive it.
To quote from the religion of baseball: We need to get into the game. Play ball!
iiPirkei Avot 2:4.
iiiPirkei Avot 1:15.
ivDavid J. Wolpe, The Healer of Shattered Hearts, p. 106.