Author Archives: Rachel Stern

Rachel Stern

About Rachel Stern

Rachel Stern is the Director of Education at the ISJL.

Jewish Camp Scholarships: Are We Being Mensches?

Like many Jewish children, my kids live for camp! They count down every day of the year until it’s time for camp to begin. It’s the highlight of their year. They come by this camp obsession naturally, because I was the same exact way. Camp was and is still a profound experience in my Jewish life. For many of us, the moment we arrived at camp we were forever changed.

And yet.ben and komerofskys at green shabbat

My husband and I share four kids, and with a price tag of about $4,000 per child, that means it will cost us roughly $16,000 to send our kids to summer camp. Yes, you read that right: sixteen thousand dollars.

I know the three-and-a-half-weeks my kids spend at camp are priceless. I also know that with $16,000, I could pay a full year’s tuition at a state college.

For almost 20 years, I have worked in the field of Jewish education. I am not destitute, but I do not have $16,000-a-summer kind of money. Camp isn’t the only expensive Jewish experience for our children – there’s religious school tuition, youth group events, retreats, and let’s not even talk about Israel trips.

Especially in the South, and small communities anywhere – we can’t afford to make these opportunities anything other than amazing and accessible for our Jewish children and families. The question is – are we? Specifically, do Jewish organizations provide Jewish financial assistance in a way that honors and displays the values of Judaism?

Judaism teaches us time and time again the importance of tzedakah and how it is our obligation, not choice, to help others. (That’s why it’s great to see lots of new camp scholarship opportunities, like BunkConnect—though it’s for first-time campers only.) We need to give assistance, and just importantly, we must give it the right way.

We don’t make this process very easy. As an educator, I have helped countless families find aid because they had no idea where to look. If you don’t know the system, you can get overwhelmed fast. Then, once you find an opportunity, you start on the paperwork. Oh, the paperwork! I have had to provide less financial paperwork to buy a car than to receive a $500 camp scholarship. This paperwork is to be filled out each and every year, despite the fact that most people’s financial situations do not change drastically from one year to the next.

Because of my public role in the Jewish community, I am very open about the fact that I get scholarship money to send my kids to camp. If people know that I do, perhaps they will feel more comfortable asking me about it and doing the same. I actually try to model that asking for Jewish dollars to send Jewish kids to Jewish camps is a good thing.

However, going public with that information is my personal choice. Many people who need assistance do not want everyone to know their circumstances. Yet last year, my synagogue listed all of the children by name that received financial assistance for camp in our monthly congregational bulletin. When I called to ask why they felt the need to do this, I was told that it “could encourage others to ask for money.” I thought just the opposite. If people knew that they would publicly be categorized as needing help, many would be less likely than ever to ask for it. Nowhere did it say on the forms that if your family received aid, your child’s name would be publicly listed. My complaints resulted in yet a new question on the application; now you check a box if you DON’T want your child’s name listed. I would wager that 100% of families check the NO box. Yet the question remains.

I know that funding agencies do need to know some information to determine who needs aid and who doesn’t, but this could be a far less invasive process. This year I saw a new question on the paperwork. I was asked to calculate my family’s food expenses for the year. I was stunned. Why would anyone need to know this? This question brings up so much that is wrong in our society and I was saddened that the Jewish community was so insensitive and uninformed. It is a fact that healthy, fresh food such as produce and proteins cost more than processed and packaged food.

Why would the scholarship committee want to know what I spend on food? Will I be penalized for feeding my family healthy, more expensive food? What if I spent a lot of money on food because I fed others, as an act of tzedakah—or what if I invited people to my home when they needed somewhere to celebrate the Jewish holidays? What if someone in my family had a food allergy that necessitated us to follow a specific and more expensive diet? Why am I second-guessing what I feed my family as I am asking for help sending my Jewish children to Jewish summer camp? I remain stunned.

This has been on my mind for some time. I have spoken with some of the heads of these funding agencies as well as those who serve on the committees. These are people who are committed to helping others and who are engaged in doing good work for the Jewish community. I am certain of this and yet we have a lot to fix in this process. I am charging all of us to do better and to be guided by the principles of Judaism that somehow always lead us in the right direction.

It starts with each of us. My husband and I talk about how we will spend our money when our kids are grown and when we have a little more to give, and our top choice is always to give back to the places that helped us send our kids to camp. We want to support those important scholarships— and we want the funding to require little to no paperwork, bring absolutely no stigma, and instead just make access to life-changing camp experiences more affordable for all families.

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Posted on February 24, 2014

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“Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish…”

Three Jewish women walked into a nail salon….

This is not a joke, just what I did with two of my friends last weekend. These tired working moms needed a pedicure, stat! I have been to this salon countless times and am always my usual talkative friendly self to the unlucky soldier charged with trying to make my runner’s feet look presentable.

stern_pullen

Me with my husband. Do we look Jewish?

The nail technician that I am paired up with the most is Daniel, a young African American man who is married to one of the other workers, who happens to be Vietnamese. Daniel and I have chatted for hours over the time I have known him, about nothing and everything. I usually come in with a friend or two, and you can tell that he finds our banter amusing. We might even be on the list of his favorite customers.

On our last visit, my girlfriends and I relaxed and started chatting about something, and we must have mentioned something Jewish. At this, Daniel’s eyes grew big and he said, “Are you Jewish? I had no idea. You don’t look Jewish.”

There it was, the comment that no matter how many times you hear it is just puzzling. You don’t look Jewish.

This notion of “looking Jewish” perpetuates so many Jewish stereotypes and yet also seems harmless enough when asked by sincerely uninformed and curious people. My friends waited for my answer, and I playfully responded that I actually do look pretty darn Jewish (as long as we are talking about stereotypes).

Daniel continued, “No, seriously. Tell me… how I would know if someone was Jewish? What do Jews look like?”

It was such an innocent question and yet so powerful, as it reminded me that there are still many people who know nothing about Judaism and have never met a Jew (even though San Antonio has over 9,000 Jews). Those of us living in southern small towns know this scenario well, and are often the token Jew of our classroom, or school, and almost every group of which we are a part. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s like being signed up to be a group’s representative without being asked if you wanted the job. Some of us readily accept the charge of being the face of the Jewish community, while others are extremely uncomfortable.

While Daniel’s question was innocent, many of the questions that face us lonely Jews can be quite unpleasant. We are repeatedly asked questions such as: Why did the Jews kill Jesus? Are you OK knowing that you are going to hell? and even, Don’t Jews have horns on their heads? Sometimes these questions are like Daniel’s, from a combination of ignorance and interest, and other times they have a hurtful agenda attached.

To complicate matters, Judaism is something that is not always visible to others. I can conceal my Jewish identity if I want to, which perpetuates the situation of people not knowing many Jews. The more this happens, the more people are uninformed about Jews and the more uncomfortable I may feel exposing my Judaism to others in the future. It’s a cycle that can only change with non Jews educating themselves and with Jews being proud of being Jewish even when its not easy. These are both tall orders, and yet we have to start somewhere.

So I took a deep breath, and asked Daniel what else he wanted to know about Jews.

Have you been in a situation like this? What would you say?

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Posted on December 20, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Bully on the Bimah: Bar Mitzvah, No Matter What?

Picture this: a really mean kid.

A kid who spends each day at school calling others names, like fat and loser. He chooses specific targets to publicly humiliate. He excludes people from the lunch table where their own friends sit, getting other kids to “vote out” someone who was once their friend, which they all do for fear of becoming the next target. His behavior is documented, but his parents take no responsibility, and the school needs more concrete evidence before they can suspend him. He faces no consequences, despite behavior that is hurtful, harmful and unacceptable.

In fact, that same year, he stands on the bimah and is welcomed with open arms as an adult in the Jewish community. His bullying is known to many, but he is given another title: Bar Mitzvah.

bar_mitzvah_torah

In most congregations, to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, there are many requirements to fulfill. A students must attend x number of services, master the prayers, learn Torah and haftarah portions, and write a speech about what he/she has learned during this process. We ask that students adhere to the guidelines that Judaism provides for living a moral and ethical life. But what about the children who go against what the Torah instructs us to do? If a student is a known bully, do we ignore that as long as his prayers are memorized and his speech pays lip service to kindness and being a good Jewish adult?

Judaism instructs us clearly that it is a sin to shame another person. Many Jewish children’s first lesson is the Golden Rule: love your neighbor as yourself.  And if you do something wrong, you HAVE to make it right. The Jewish system of teshuvah, repentance, provides explicit guidelines instructing us how to make right our wrongs.  The essential step of teshuvah is taking responsibility and saying sorry for your actions.

When someone converts to Judaism we conduct a Beit Din (mini jury) as part of the conversion ceremony, to determine if the candidate for conversion is ready and that her intentions are good ones. What would it look like if we had a similar vetting for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah student? What if our clergy and tutors interviewed and even convened a Beit Din with their B’nai Mitzvah students before they began working with them? What would that look like? Would it involve other children – the peers of the bully?

Perhaps part of Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation should be letters of recommendation, in which the recommenders needed to answer some pointed questions about the student’s behavior and character. These recommendations could come from teachers, peers, community members.  We could ask the Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates to answer questions in an essay that describes their character and intentions.

Does it seem extreme? Consider this story.

No-Bullying-circle

Recently, a high school coach from Utah suspended his entire football team because he caught wind that some of the players were involved in cyber-bullying. Those of us in the South know that you DON’T mess with football – but this coach did. His brave gesture was so against the norm that it made national news.  This coach made examples of his players, showing that being a good person is the main requirement for any life experience and if this requirement is not met, then additional experiences and privileges are taken away. The football players could earn back their spot on the team through participation in community service.

This act not only had a direct consequence on the players but also offered a public message to the students that had been mistreated that they mattered, and that people were there to help them.

If a coach can do it, why can’t a rabbi? Or a teacher? We’re the ones who have the chance to show all kids they matter, and maybe even through teshuvah and attention, turn a bully into a mensch. What a mitzvah that could be.

Do you think bullies should be allowed on the bimah? Should a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student’s treatment of others be considered?

Posted on November 6, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy