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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Two Secrets

There are two open secrets about becoming a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. The first is that one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah automatically upon reaching the requisite age, whether there is a special ceremony or not. Although it’s our custom to recognize the coming of religious majority by having the young person participate in the worship service, every Jewish adult has exactly the same religious privileges and obligations.

The second open secret is that one is still Jewish on the morning after the mitzvah event. Students in religious school sometimes ask, “Do I have to learn this for my bar/bat mitzvah?” as if there were no reason to learn anything not required for the ceremony. Students at this age are pragmatic learners: they’re ready to learn everything that seems useful, but not always receptive to knowledge and skills of uncertain utility.

The problem is that – obviously – a young student has no personal experience of any later stage of life, no frame of reference for determining what may eventually be useful. It’s also true in secular education: in math, for example, students learn to calculate percentages before there is any practical need to use percentages.

What this tell us is that education focusing solely on preparation for a bar/bat mitzvah service is insufficient for Jewish life. Our choices about religious-school curricula embody not only immediate utility, but also predictions about the knowledge and skills that students will need throughout life.

For example, an acquaintance with the worship practices of other streams of Judaism is valuable whenever you attend services away from home—whether as a guest at the bar/bat mitzvah celebration of a friend, in college, or later in life. This is an area in which a community school has an intrinsic advantage, because congregations’ schools rarely teach any practices except their own.

Jewish history is helpful in understanding our place in the world. It helps to know that Jews have lived in America since 1654, when New York was still New Amsterdam, and that one 18th-century Jew, Haym Salomon, helped to finance George Washington’s army. And with Israel in the news almost every day, we all need to know the history of modern Israel.

Ethics? It may be true that all that is really necessary is to try to be a good person… but how do you learn how to be a good person? Learning how to think about ethical issues is an essential part of growing up, and it’s important to have a framework of values that transcend popular culture.

Most important, perhaps, is that each student develops a capacity for lifelong Jewish learning. It’s not only that school time is too limited to include everything that would be worth learning, but also that we are ready to learn different things as we mature. Thus, we want each student to learn more than the minimum to get through a bar/bat mitzvah service, because breadth of learning in school sets the stage for learning throughout life.

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