What you just heard from Dana, David and our teens – and from Deborah before them – is why I’ve been involved with Moving Traditions – why I value its approach to teens and to Judaism, why I’m standing here tonight. Some of you are here because you, too, know about Moving Traditions and value what they’ve brought to the field of teen Jewish education over the 10 plus years since its founding. Some of you are here because of me and don’t know very much about Moving Traditions – I am deeply thankful for that. I hope that you will come away with the beginning of an understanding of what’s so special about it, and why it’s important for our teens, particularly in the world we live in today.
To be a bit more explicit about why I’m here…My personal mission has been to raise the bar on the educational, religious and cultural programs and experiences that the Jewish community offers for young people, and frankly for all of us. For more Jews to be turned on, rather than turned off, to have the opportunity to see the relevance of Judaism’s texts, to understand and feel the power of its traditions, and the strength of its ideas to help guide us through the complexity of our world and to do good in it. Also, to see that Judaism doesn’t need to be separate from our lives – living only in a synagogue or prayer space – but can and should be integrated into it. Moving Traditions has done this for teens, and more, as you’ve heard.
This is not a simple achievement! It’s the result of smart, strategic leadership – in founding and current [CEO] Deborah Meyer – founding board chair Sally Gottesman; and current board chair Hope Suttin. It’s the result of a clear mission that is visible in everything it takes on. It’s the result of a commitment to excellence of program, that emerges from great educational professionals and that consults with experts, does research, in and beyond the Jewish community, evaluation, iteration, thinking outside the box. You get the idea.
But I digress a bit – my role tonight is to give you some insight into the new program that we are piloting for kids and their families who are approaching bar and bat mitzvah – really for pre-teens. And to give you an opportunity to experience it a bit yourselves, in the way that our kids might.
We are going to look at one session that sixth graders in 46 synagogues around the country have done this year. The session is called Center of Attention. It seemed perfect for tonight because, well, here I am, the center of attention. More than that, I chose it because it is a theme that resonated deeply for me. Part of being a public leader is being the center of attention. While I’ve been privileged to be in positions of leadership in the Jewish community over the course of my life, and have enjoyed many aspects of it, being the center of attention is not one of them. It’s not natural for me and I’ve had to work at being comfortable with it. I’m even bad at accepting compliments – just ask anyone in my family. And I’m an adult.
Yet, the challenge of being the center of attention is one that the Jewish community regularly foists on twelve and thirteen-year-olds at their b’nai mitzvah. And it’s not necessarily a focus of bar/bat mitzvah training, or what synagogues prepare young people for. The Moving Traditions B’nai Mitzvah curriculum does. The session starts by naming the challenge. You are in a vulnerable moment of your life when your body is changing and you might not like how you look, or how you sound, and now a crowd of people, both adults and peers, will have their eyes on you and listen to you chant, sing, teach Torah, dance the hora and be lifted in a chair. When I think back to this time in my life, I remember my physical self-consciousness vividly. I had round, gold, wire-rimmed glasses, silver braces, and hair that I wrestled with on an ongoing basis. I was taller than most of my peers and flat chested. On the positive side, no pimples! I’m guessing that today, with social media, I would have been even more sensitive to the gap between my adolescent self and the ideal teen.
Our goal is to help young people deal with this challenge and others that arise during the time of their b’nai mitzvah, challenges that will last well beyond it. So how does Moving Traditions do this? One way is by introducing young people to mechanisms for better understanding themselves and to give them time to reflect and share. As an example, In the Center of Attention session, they are introduced to the concept of introverts and extroverts. They do a short quiz to help them identify where they fall on this continuum of personality which can effect one’s comfort in front of large groups. Learning about introversion and extroversion can provide some key insights to young people on their path to self-discovery. We’ve included the quiz in your program. I’m sure that you’ve all thought about this, but I definitely don’t remember thinking about it so specifically and directly at the age of 13, nor had the opportunity to discuss strategies for dealing with it in a safe space. Not to out anyone, but I’m curious…by a show of hands, how many of you would consider yourselves extroverts? I’ll let the introverts remain hidden….
As Deborah said, Moving Traditions programs always include a chance to think through a gender lens about whatever issue is on the table, as well as to explore it through a Jewish values framework.
Some of the behaviors that gender norms dictate are good and helpful, but they can also be limiting and cause suffering. We have made some progress, for example, in understanding that a woman or girl can be the center of attention for her accomplishments not just for her looks. But now girls may feel that they are being judged on every aspect of their lives. They are encouraged to be perfect, to be beautiful, to excel in school and in every aspect of their lives and community involvements. Gender norms encourage boys to perform, be funny, to project an image of someone who doesn’t need help and doesn’t get nervous. We create spaces where kids of all genders can talk about these expectations, holding on to what works for them, getting rid of what doesn’t, and adding new options for how to be and explore all of who they are.
As I mentioned before, this B’nai Mitzvah program is also for parents. Parents are looking for guidance, too, as their child is becoming a teen. Our program includes 10 hours of family education that synagogues are using to engage parents of sixth and seventh graders in meaningful discussion on the topic. It’s important for the families to feel supported by the Jewish community at life cycle moments, and to see that their synagogue is providing something they actually need, something that’s relevant. The in-person program is also supplemented by a podcast that we’ve created for them that brings experts and research to bear on whatever topic is at hand.
But let’s get back to your participation this evening. The session acknowledges that part of preparing to be the center of attention is exactly that, preparing. Even people who have a lot of experience performing in front of a group of people—for instance, a pop star or actor, or in a Jewish context, a rabbi or a cantor—can experience nerves before getting in front of an audience. Some people find it helpful to perform a personal ritual or meditation or say a prayer prior to performing. In college, my then boyfriend, Dan, would play a psych up song, complete with air guitar before taking a final exam (see me later for the songs).
And here’s where the Jewish tradition comes in in the session. As you may know, there is a short prayer called the ‘Hineni,’ which cantors often recite on Yom Kippur before leading the Musaf part of the service. In it they share how scared they feel about standing before and leading the whole congregation and they ask for help from God. Rather than hiding their vulnerability, they share it, and by sharing it, in a sense they diffuse it. The prayer begins with the word hineni, which means “Here I am” and can be seen as a way of focusing on who you are, rather than being caught up in others’ expectations of who you are supposed to be in this important moment. It also shows that part of being up to the task of leading, is admitting the ways you feel not fully up to it. Participants in our programs at this point in the session have the option of creating their own hineni prayers or rituals.
So in a minute, I will ask you take some time to think about your own practices for getting up the courage to do hard things, take risks, and show leadership. What do you currently do? What has worked well for you?, What do you want to remember the next time you are facing a challenge? Create your Hineni, a short statement of something energizing and inspiring that you might do or say before you take a risk. Then share this or something you learned about yourself by doing it, with someone sitting next to you, or near you at your table. The actual Hineni prayer is on page 10 of your program; and there is space for you to write on page 11. So, let’s take 5 minutes now to do this and then we will reconvene.
I hope that you learned something about yourselves, each other and gained some insight into how Moving Traditions thinks and operates. Before concluding, I must also thank you for being here and being part of this celebration, for your amazing support and incredible generosity. I also want to thank the Moving Traditions staff – and in particular, Lisa Gersten – for her extraordinary efforts in making this evening so festive, meaningful and successful.
Lastly, I want to share my own Hineni prayer with you, at this moment of being honored by Moving Traditions. I suppose that I should have said it before beginning, but I didn’t – so I’ll say it now, before we close the night with some words from Sally, more festivities and dessert.
Hineni – I stand here in front of you all on this awesome night of celebration – singled out for honor as if I am “the one”. But I know this is not so – I am not alone here, but embraced by all of you, and elevated to my best self by this embrace. My dear family and friends, my teachers and colleagues, my history and tradition, you have nourished me, strengthened me and given me courage. May I always be worthy of, grateful for, and conscious of your embrace, return it to others and may it always inspire me to do good in the world.