Instilling Jewish Identity

by Sam Spinrad, Religious School Director

I consider it one of my primary objectives to instill a sense of Jewish identity and curiosity in students before they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

A good number of students develop their own ideas of what it means to be Jewish well before they turn thirteen years old. Some of these adolescents make Shabbat at home, celebrate holidays, enjoy studying Torah, make connections at Jewish camp or at Bet Ha’am, or find meaning in their family history.

Other kids do not enter their bar or bat mitzvah year seeing Judaism in such a positive light or considering it relevant. These students may go through the motions of the bar or bat mitzvah service preparation, learning Torah, writing a d’var Torah (the speech connecting with their portion), attending school, and completing a mitzvah project. But the spark of curiosity is dim and is quickly snuffed out following seventh grade. These students rarely continue into our Chavayot (experiences) program, where they finally get to study their religion through a mature lens.

Here are some ways I am working on keeping the Jewish identity and curiosity relevant:

We are connecting students with thoughtful tutors. This is a unique part of one’s Jewish journey: receiving private instruction in the Shabbat service, Torah, and Haftarah. Our tutors are asked not to make this experience one of rote memory and of completing tasks; instead they are asked to develop personal relationships with the kids. When the students see our tutors’ passion for the subjects and when the tutors take the time to explain the “why,” students get a meaningful look at how scripture and worship can personally affect people.

We are reinstating our Junior Youth Group. In early 2020, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders will have opportunities to go snow tubing and ice skating with their peers. At the Junior Shabbaton, they had the privilege of studying more mature topics (Mishnah this year; Jewish lifecycle in 2018). With more opportunities to be together in a social setting and to examine Jewish issues outside the path to becoming bar or bat mitzvah, students get a glimpse of what it means to be a Jewish adult by choice.

Of course, the school offers engaging programs for the evening school students, such as Jewish values in film, anti-Semitism studies, dance, cooking, and numerous student-picked topics. From studying Trump’s recent executive order regarding Judaism as a nationality to examining Jews and intersectionality at our Shabbaton, the students see Judaism’s relevance in everyday life. I believe that any student who completes our evening school program is well-equipped to function as a Jewish adult in Maine.

The education committee is always looking for more members to offer input on our school activities. Please contact me if you’re interested in becoming involved in any way.

I am looking forward to a great 2020 with our students.

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

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