Like all of us, I do my best to learn from everyone and every experience. Every morning, when I say the blessing for studying Torah, I think to myself that torah is everywhere, if I’m open to it. In that way, I’ve learned torah from many of you here and I am deeply grateful for it. Still, I have to say that what I cherish the most is what I’ve learned from kids. I’ve heard many, many kids say many, many insightful things over the years that have touched me deeply and I honor them all. I’m only picking out one now because, in many ways, it embodies the rest.
When the kids from JELLI gather with me on a Sunday morning for t’fillah, a learning service designed to give them not only some practice with our prayers, but also a time to explore their meaning and purpose, I ask many questions. After asking questions about God all year from every perspective I could, I received the response I didn’t know I was waiting for. It turned out to be a question! One of our students, Nate Jaffa, asked, “So, do you mean God’s a verb?” I almost jumped out of my skin on the spot. “Yes! Yes!” I said, “That’s exactly what I mean!” I could have said, “My work here is done!” But now, there’s another question: “What could it mean that God is a verb?!” I can’t wait for some of the questions that follow that one!
As Jews, we treasure questions. On my first day with my beloved first-year rabbinical school teacher, Cantor Avram Alkai, he told our class that our JOB was to ask questions and that there were no bad ones. Judaism engenders questions. The Bible is filled with questions, many of them rhetorical. One of the most famous scenes with the first humans in the Garden of Eden is when, after they have eaten the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and are hiding, God asks them, “Ayekah, where are you?”, as if God didn’t know! Again famously, in the book of Job, when he questions the steep decline of the circumstances of his life and God’s role in that decline, God asks Job two chapters of questions beginning with, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The great commentator Rabbi Isaac Abravanel always began his comments with questions, upwards of forty of them!
Questions are central to the ways in which I teach and central to the way in which we teach in our education program that we call JELLI, the Jewish Experiential Living and Learning Initiative. Under the wonderful direction of Elana Mabashov, who has now returned to us as our Education Director with her great passion for teaching, individual care for our kids and her incredible smile, JELLI is back and better than ever. This year, we’ve added to Elana’s electric presence, the talents, wisdom and experience of one of the top Reform educators in the country, Rabbi Laura Novak Weiner, to serve as our consultant. Laura is helping us turn the JELLI dream into the JELLI reality. JELLI is living up to its name and its mission – to create literate American, progressive, Reform Jews. We create that literacy and progressive attitude by asking and stimulating questions.
The Pew Report of a couple of years ago, entitled, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, paints a complex and often self-contradictory picture of American, non-Orthodox Judaism. Here are a few major points:
- The overwhelming proportion of Jews (94%) say that they are proud to be Jewish.
- The American Jewish population turns out to be larger than expected: 6.8 million rather than previous estimates of 6 million or less.
- Most (61%) Jews who intermarry are raising their children as “Jewish or partly Jewish”.
- Overwhelming numbers of American Jews of all ages rate working for justice and equality as well as leading an ethical and moral life as essential aspects of their Jewish identity
- While American Jews say they proud to be Jewish, the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America: one in five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.
There are easy, “safe”, knee-jerk responses to these challenges like…PANIC! “Quick! Indoctrinate the kids and shove as much tradition down their throats as possible!” Seems like Jews have been experiencing this sense of panic for a long time! Some of us bore the brunt of such attitudes as we were growing up.
We don’t indoctrinate. We don’t shove Judaism at unwilling or unsuspecting young recipients. We won’t do that. I’d rather motivate our kids to ask good questions, questions that they would no doubt ask later about Judaism if we didn’t entertain them now. The difference would be that later, with no one around to tell them that Judaism not only welcomes their questions, but has been asking similar ones for several millennia, they would probably become frustrated and cynical and reject Judaism altogether.
We need your help to support this kind of Jewish learning experience. Elana only works a few hours and week and Rabbi Laura is very much an outside consultant. I know that JELLI does, can and will make a significant contribution to the future of a thinking, organic, exploratory, exciting, individually validating, process and project focused and joy-filled Judaism. Elana and Rabbi Laura are doing wonderfully, but I wish we had a little more of a JELLI budget to have them even a few more hours a week. I wish we had a little more of a JELLI budget to have more special programs like the Kosher Chocolate Factory and the Jewish Cooking Workshop and the Drumming Workshop. I wish we had a little more a JELLI budget to fix up our classrooms so that they could really flip from a preschool room to a room, an entire room, that’s fit for older children. I wish we had a little more of a JELLI budget to afford musical performances, plays and a guest Torah scribe for our kids!
Some of you are thinking, “I’ve figured out a reason why I don’t have to do this! I don’t have kids in JELLI! My kids are too young or too old so this isn’t relevant for me.” “I don’t even have kids at all!” “I’m not even a member of this community!” Now that we have all those smart reasons out of the way, let me say why we should do this. If you believe that Judaism and Jewish values and Jewish perspective and the Jewish sense of moral imperative is in any small way relevant now and will be in the future, then you should help support our JELLI program. If you believe that it’s not just happenstance that the Civil Rights Act was largely drafted on the tables of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, then you should support our JELLI program and the Reform Movement’s curriculum we mix into our approach. If you believe that kids grow into empowered, change-making adults when their questions are encouraged rather than ignored or discarded, then you should support this open, daring, provocative and creative way of teaching and learning we call JELLI. If you’ve had a positive experience at these High Holy Days, it’s because of the Beth Shir Shalom way of expressing our Jewishness and our humanity and we give our kids the same experience through JELLI every Sunday morning.
Of course, we’ll take any contribution to the future of Judaism you think is your fair share and…I’d like to make a more specific plea. We call it “Chai” and “Double-chai” giving. Here’s how it works: this drive, this campaign to raise money for JELLI, and it REALLY will go to JELLI – all of it – starts now and will end on the first night of Chanukah. That means we have a bit more than three months to gather your donations, donations that will not just enhance but bring great new possibilities to JELLI. If you can contribute $60 in each of the next three months, you will make a “Chai” donation, 180 being 10 times 18 and 18 being the numerical value of the letters in the Hebrew word “chai”, which means life. If you are able to contribute $120 per month that will be a double-chai contribution. Again, while our campaign will create its foundation from those chai and double chai gifts, whatever you can contribute will be accepted – gratefully
Let me leave you with some questions and some answers. In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, the rabbi known as Ben Zoma asks, “Who is wise? One who learns from all…Who is strong? One who manages oneself. Who is rich? One who takes nothing for granted. Who is honorable? One who honors others.” So, be wise and learn from all, especially children. Be strong and help Jewish children be strong enough to take Judaism into the future. Be rich, and don’t assume that someone else will take the whole task of ensuring Judaism for another generation. Be honorable and honor these kids. Amen.