Passover is definitely one of my favorite holidays. It’s generally observed at home – with friends and/or family. There are some delicious foods (macaroons, matzah ball soup!) and some less delicious foods (gefilte fish, horseradish!). It’s a holiday that asks us to be creative and to celebrate it in ways that are most meaningful to us.
Yesterday, I had lunch with some friends and their kindergartner and second grader. The kids had recently learned about the Passover story in school and were eager to tell it to me in great detail. They recounted a lot of the details of the story (Moses and his role, each of the ten plagues, Pharaoh’s role, etc.). But as I listened to them, I was reminded that so much of what kids are taught about Judaism actually needs to be retaught (or sometime untaught!) later. A child simply can’t learn and appreciate the complexity of Judaism.
That’s why when I teach or coordinate programs for children, my goal is not just that they learn some facts. My bigger goals are that they learn to think and question, to be analytical in their approach. And that they are intrigued enough by Judaism that they want to come back to it and learn more as adults.
As adults, we can more fully appreciate the nuances of our tradition. We can separate fact from fiction – and realize that the mythology of our past is important, but so is the historical unpacking of those legends.
This year, my colleague Robert Barr and I did just this as we created a three minute YouTube video for Passover – separating fact from fiction. We talk about how the Exodus didn’t really happen, how the Easter egg and Passover egg are similar, how Passover was originally a very different holiday, and more. Check it out here.
Learning about Passover and other aspects of Judaism as a child is not enough. If you attended Religious School as a kid and were turned off and don’t want to relive that experience, know that the experience you can have as an adult learner of Judaism is deeper and more profound. As adults, we can appreciate the creativity of the past while respecting our own ability to be creative, to think, and to reason.
I just got back from a weekend “family camp” retreat. One of the most remarkable aspects of the experience was that not one of my three children, over the course of 72 plus hours, asked to watch tv or play on my iphone. It wasn’t because the camp’s programming was so stellar; in fact, rain and frigid weather reduced the planned programming substantially. What occupied my children’s attention was far simpler: the sheer joy of being around a bunch of other children their age. It didn’t seem to matter whether the context was meals, playing sports, or just hanging out. They simply reveled in being together all the time.
Jewish children, like many American children today, lead lives that are highly programmed. From sports to academics to religious school, our children often have extra-curricular commitments every day of the week. The medical academy has made it clear by now that we are harming our children’s development by reducing free play in favor of all this extra-curricular programming. But I wonder, as I look out at dwindling religious school attendance and vastly reduced affiliation rates, if we are missing the boat in our outreach efforts as Jewish institutions by not providing enough contexts for some type of Jewish social free play. The Conservative synagogues (including my own) that I know about tend to prioritize teaching our students Hebrew and some basic Jewish literacy in the limited time we have with our students. But maybe, instead of having religious school become one of several week-long extra-curricular activities, what we need to do is figure out how to bring the Jewish camp ethos into our religious schools and other institutions of outreach. Or, to put it somewhat more controversially, what if USY, Bnai Brith, NIFTY, and other Jewish youth organizations are more important than our religious schools altogether? Maybe, instead of focusing on getting our children into synagogue, we should concentrate on getting them together with other local Jewish youths and just letting them hang out within the context of some general Jewish program or context?
I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am curious to hear your thoughts about how we might be able to develop a camp-like culture within our Jewish institutions the other 10 months of the year. Family camp and summer camp are great, but they are only the tip of the iceberg of what we might be able to accomplish when it comes to developing positive Jewish identity. The glee on my children’s faces this past weekend is something I hope and pray we can replicate on a community-wide level, transforming Jewish education from a (bi)weekly chore into a true opportunity for engagement and excitement.