A few years ago, Congregation Beth Israel of Chico, California hired us as its "Rabbi Team." Probably like most rabbis who are new to a congregation, we had ideas of what we hoped to do, and we launched several initiatives. But we quickly discoveredagain, probably like most rabbisthat some of our initiatives worked and others didnt. Our "Family Holiday Workshops" attracted only a handful of members. Maybe people were just too busy at the beginning of the school year to participate in a Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur workshop. And our "Saturday Night at the Jewish Movies" series was not well attended. Other initiatives, such as involving the congregation in planning for the Rabbis weekly potluck tisch (table) that we had after Shabbat-evening services, also had limited success.
Sometimes we just werent sure why one initiative worked and another didnt. But of one thing we were absolutely sure. The members of our congregation, like congregants everywhere, wanted to see their children more involved. So we kept asking ourselves: How can we make religious life and learning appealing to young people?
We began with a strategy as old as the Torah itself: Ask challenging questions. We created a curriculum for the older Hebrew school students that was built on questions. This curriculum emphasized comprehension of the Hebrew prayers for Friday night (when most families were present), but also required students to grapple with the related Torah concepts. We also began to teach the tunes for the Friday-night service. The children soon became the most enthusiastic daveners. So that helped.
We then created a weekly 15-minute, Friday-night service for children, which began at an early hour (and after which, childcare was available). This also helped. Every Friday evening at six oclock, Moses arrived in costume to talk with a modern Jew in a brief drama that, based on stories from a variety of Jewish sources, asked and answered a question about the Torah reading. At the end of the drama Moses engaged our young people by asking them challenging questions about the meaning of the story. For example: After his wife Rachel told Rabbi Akiva, "You thought we were unfortunate, but there are people even poorer than we," why do you think he said to her, "Bless you for your words"?
Every week our young people also struggled with questions that we asked as part of our Chayat Hashavua (Animal of the Week) devar Torah. On one Shabbat they answered these questions: Can anyone teach us why this is a particularly good time to be talking about lice? What do you think it means that the heavens, the tablets of the commandments, and the plague of lice were all created by "the finger of God"? What can we do about lice if they get on us or in our clothes? What do you think is the meaning of the proverb that says, "He who killed lice on the Sabbath is as though he killed a camel"?
These additions to the Shabbat evening service got the young people participating. But we wanted to go beyond that. We wanted to involve them in teaching the congregationto get them asking the questions.
Our answer was Midrashaa class for young people who could passably read English, typically eight years of age and older. Midrasha also answered another question: How do you get young people not only to learn and live Judaism but to teach it toobased on Scripture, Talmud, Midrash, and commentariesand have fun doing it? So, once a week, on Thursday afternoons, young people gathered for an hour and a half to prepare a devar Torah, which they presented every other week on Friday evening. Their devar Torah took the form of readers theatre. The dramas, which Khulda wrote and directed, illuminate the weekly Torah readings. Over time we added costumes (from old clothes bought at thrift stores), simple cardboard scenery (made by the children from refrigerator cartons) and a short songall of which added to the learning and the fun.
Readers' theatre doesnt require any memorization, since the young people hold the scripts in their hands as they teach. Since there is no memorization, the intensity of their learning and the frequency of their teaching are much greater. In the first ten months our young people made 28 devar Torah presentations. Equally important, without any need for memorization they had far less "performance anxiety" when they were on the bimah. Indeed, they were not performing. They had learned that what they were doing was teaching. And of course, to teach the Torah they first had to understand it themselves. So again, the concept of challenging questions came into play. For instance, at one session the Midrasha students were asked and answered these questions: Why is it considered worthier to give tzadakah anonymously? When we give anonymously, what are we trying to protect?
But one of the most striking aspects of the Midrasha Class resulted from our efforts to set expectations for the children about the culture of the group. The key features of the Midrasha culture were the concepts of teaching and teamwork. As a regular part of the class, young people explored what it means to be a teacher in Israel, in contrast to a performer or entertainer. Students also explored what it means to be a team member, for they were teaching as a team. This was not difficult since most had experience with a sports team. Team members support and encourage each otherteam members cooperate to succeed. We often saw these two aspects of Midrasha culture played out by the children. We watched on more than one occasion while a child gave up a part for a newcomer. We saw older children act on their own to help younger ones, those who were struggling with their parts, by whispering their lines to them.
As a result of Midrasha, many children became actively involved in the week-to-week religious life of the Congregation. They and their parents became regulars at Friday evening services. (What parent would forgo the nachas of seeing their child on the bimah teaching the Congregation?) Moreover, adults in the Congregation told us that they also learned much about Judaism and Yiddishkeit from the young peoples teaching.
Which principles most contributed to this outcome? We believe the following were the most important:
It was exciting to watch the change in the participation of young people and their parents in the week-to-week adult religious life of the Congregation. This transformation was highlighted at High Holy Day services that year, ironically, by the nearly constant presence of Midrasha. The young people filled 65 roles, presenting five Readers Theatre devar Torahson Erev Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, on Erev Yom Kippur, and at Yom Kippur Mincha.
Who would have ever imagined that the young people would be so ubiquitous at services, or that adults would so often be following them and learning from them?
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© 2019 Moshe ben Asher & Khulda bat Sarah