On lovely summer afternoons, I like to study with my b’nei mitzvah students out on my deck in American suburbia.
Recently, against the backdrop of chirping birds and ripening patio tomatoes, I practiced with one of my more diligent students who is using her skills gleaned from public speaking competitions to memorize her Torah portion. As we worked on the sentences of her third and final Torah reading, she stumbled for the fourth time on this one word she could not wrap her brain around.
Hay. Nun. Hay.
“Surely you know this,” I gently coaxed. “It’s the first word in the song Henei Matov u’manayim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.”
A shy shake of the head, no.
Then I sang it to her.
Still a blank look.
No glimmer of a memory of singing it on a carpet during circle time at Jewish preschool or a Tot Shabbat service. No memory of singing it in a round at campfire at Jewish camp or arm-in-arm at a Jewish youth group event.
No, there is no joyous association in hearing the word henei. At this point in her bat mitzvah studies, with just a few months to go, the young lady’s bat mitzvah is prepared in a Jewish vacuum. It is just one more chore on the adolescent to-do list, another test to cram for in the American landscape of standardized-testing.
This lack of recognition and shortage of joyous Jewish memories is consistent with most of my students — sweet, respectful, well-meaning kids — who week after week, month after month — meet me at either my patio or dining room table for bar/bat mitzvah lessons.
There is no connection to the words like Motzi or Ha’aretz.
Most startlingly, they struggle over pronouncing Hebrew words like Moshe.
The lack of Jewish memories continues as we circle the Jewish calendar.
They cannot name the two main symbolic foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, so I send them home with honey sticks and an apple.
They love studying in my Sukkah, but cannot remember the last time they sat in one during the Festival of Booths.
They enjoy the hamantaschen I bake for them, but cannot seem to remember the name of the bad guy or the queen in the story of Purim.
Week after week, their parents come to me panicked that their child cannot read Hebrew. Why can’t you just transliterate the whole thing for them, they ask me? How are they supposed to do this? Why didn’t they learn enough Hebrew in Hebrew school?
I think they know they can answer these questions for themselves.
When your kids were younger, did you prioritize soccer or baseball practice over Hebrew school attendance?
When your kids were very little, how often did you take your kids to age-appropriate Shabbat services, services carefully crafted and planned by clergy, educators and congregational volunteers? As they matured, did you go as a family to a Shabbat service, even just once monthly, even when you were not on the invite list to a bar or bat mitzvah? And now that your child is on the bar/bat mitzvah circuit, do you go with them and encourage them to open their siddurim to follow along? Or do you just drop them off?
I know the answer to this. I witness it with my own eyes and ears. With regular attendance at religious services, Hebrew words like Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak Rivkah, Yaacov and Rachel and Leah would roll right off their tongues.
If not in temple or shul, the home is the first and easiest place to instill Jewish memory.
Do you have home observances like Shabbat dinner so they will come to my lesson table knowing the Hebrew words and values connected to words like Motzi — to bring forth, or Haáretz — land?
Do you have a Passover seder and, at that seder, do you sing songs out of the Haggadah so your kids will come to the tutoring table knowing words like Mitzrayim (Egypt) and concepts like ‘We were slaves in Egypt’ and ‘Next Year in Jerusalem?’
As we enter the three weeks before the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av, there has been a lot of troubling news coming out of Israel and Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora, namely in matters such as egalitarian status at the Kotel and validation of non-Orthodox conversions.
It is understandable that Jewish leaders in the Reform and Conservative movements are upset that the ultra-Orthodox Rabbanut are not offering us a seat at the table — an egalitarian prayer space directly at the Kotel.
It upsets me too, even though I am not one of these leaders.
But as a bar/bat mitzvah tutor, I am in the trenches.
I am on the front lines witnessing just how little our Jewish children know about their own traditions because they cannot read Hebrew to unlock them and use them into their Jewish adulthood.
Before we wring our hands about not being validated at the Kotel in Jerusalem, let us as parents, rabbis and Jewish educators take a good hard look at the Jewish foundations we are laying for the next generation of American Jews.
Long before they come for b’nei mitzvah lessons, let us instill in them Jewish knowledge, the basic mechanics of the Hebrew language, yes a love and pride in Israel, and above all — joyful Jewish memories here in the Diaspora. Instill in them a strength and pride in their Jewish identity — a pluralistic and egalitarian one rooted in tradition and knowledge so they will then continue the quest for a seat at the table of validation in Israel.