A fearful farewell to the dragon of childhood

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys” is a line from Peter, Paul and Mary’s song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Here I am, three days before I turn 18, saddened by these lyrics. 

I can’t help but compare myself to Holden Caulfield, my favorite antihero. “The Catcher in the Rye” is the only book north of 50 pages that I have read more than once. Holden informed so much of who I am today, and as I’m in his position, I can’t help but mentally compare myself to him. 

My troubles come at what should be a more lax part of my high school career. Last night, my parents set a curfew for me — the first time this has occurred in high school. In my second semester of my senior year, three days before I turn 18, two months before I graduate, my parents imposed a curfew on me. 

After a long argument with my dad, I left the house in frustration, not understanding the sudden and, in my opinion, untimely rationale behind this. Although my dad said it was because he felt I was partying too much with my friends, I think he’s trying to cling to what little childhood I still have left. “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” 

Senior year can be a joyous time for many, full of celebration; for others, it can be disappointing and discouraging. It’s second semester of senior year, I should be taking school lightly — which I am — and be locked into a college — which I’m not. 

The college acceptance process didn’t work out for me as well as I had hoped it would. They say it’s random, but I have no one to blame but myself. My options are consequences of my own actions. Those nights I chose to go bowling instead of studying, or to watch another episode on Netflix instead of going to sleep finally caught up with me. 

I guess after my fight with my dad the other night, I really started to realize that. I kept on telling him that he has two more months of parenting, and then he is done forever. (I’m the youngest.) I am working at a special needs camp in New York this summer. Then in early September, I head off to yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. After that, who knows what lies ahead?

 I guess what I’m really getting at is I have no idea what I’m doing with my life. I’ve accomplished a lot in my high school career. To be immodest for a moment, I started a minyan at my school that is the largest student-led minyan in the country. I wrote an article about a major contemporary halachic issue, which received more than 25,000 hits on my school newspaper’s website. Today, a junior told me his class discussed how I was the epitome of the leader they wanted and needed, a compliment I do not take lightly. Yet as I sit at Shabbat meals and talk with family and friends, I do my best to avoid the subject of what I’m doing for college. 

Again I think about that line, “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” I don’t even know if I fully understand it, but it forces one troubling thought into my mind: My childhood is coming to an end, whether I want it to or not. 

It feels ironic to me. Somehow the fantasized fire-breathing dragon I pictured while listening to this song as a child is the part of my youth that continues to live on, while my actual young and innocent self is leaving forever. The Noah who used to spend Shabbat playing wizards and jedis with his cousin Avi has been outgrown. The priceless memories live on, and I get to share them with those around me, but I don’t get to play the game anymore. 

Holden Caulfield knows this, too. He’s the one who first showed this to me. I know why Holden wants to stand at the edge of a cliff as a protector and make sure that not only the “dragon” lives forever, but so, too, little boys. 

And yet, the little boy in me is soon to be no more, plain and simple. The “dragon” of childhood will live on elsewhere, and it will no longer be my place or turn to access it. It feels like 18 years of childhood is being pushed over a cliff. Eighteen years of good times and bad times are soon to be sealed. 

One of the scariest parts is I feel as though everything is happening to me, like fate, like it’s not me controlling my life. Whether I like it or not, and as scary as it is, I have to move on. I don’t have a choice.

I am no longer a little boy. Never again will I get to experience being a child, and the unknown of what is to come terrifies me. 

NOAH ROTHMAN has just graduated from Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. A version of this article previously appeared in The Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s student newspaper.

Teens should follow in footsteps of volunteerism

As I watch the first of my six granddaughters prepare to become a bat mitzvah this spring, I am filled with pride. She and young Jews like her around the world are following in the footsteps of generations of youth who came before them, affirming to their communities that they are prepared to take on the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.

Every society has a way of marking significant stages in our lives when we celebrate our transitions and mark phases of maturing.

Moments of tremendous learning and growth, these “rites of passage” — often transformative experiences — are forever imprinted in our memories. Like rites of passage in other societies, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies have become nearly universal experiences in the Jewish community. While many children of bar mitzvah age are unable to grasp all that their newfound responsibilities entail, each one recognizes the occasion as an important turning point in their lives as Jews.

The bar mitzvah epitomizes obligation to our religious and cultural ideals.

But should the bar mitzvah be the only demonstration of a young person’s communal allegiance? There are so many values that the Jewish community embraces — values that are truly universal in nature — for which we have no outward tradition of affirming with the gravity of a bar or bat mitzvah. We say we are a people committed to chesed, or lovingkindness; tzedek, or justice; and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but oftentimes we fail to see our engagement in such activities as an expression of who we are as Jews. As a people, we need to develop a new rite of passage devoted to these pillars of Jewish action.

These Jewish values were instilled in me at an early age. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of my father involve the time I spent with him visiting and helping care for people I remember calling the “little old ladies” — women who were probably no older than I am today. My father never talked in terms of charity. He spoke only of improving lives and, in turn, making the world a better place for us all. Time and again he would say, “Each of us is worth only what we are willing to give to others.”

Through our frequent volunteering I came to see that tzedakah, or giving money, is not enough — it must be coupled with its sister tzedek, bringing us closer to the people who benefit from our giving, and impressing upon us the importance of getting our hands dirty for the sake of others. The physical aspect of service is much more transformative than writing a check.

Schools and universities are catching on, adding service to standard classroom work. Service leaders in the United States also believe that they can ignite a fire in young generations who, through service work, come to think of themselves as responsible citizens, dedicated to their civic identities and to the ideals of democracy. Just as these American leaders hope to leverage service to benefit American society, so too can the Jewish community utilize service to touch both those who serve and those who are served.

We cannot underestimate the profound impact Jewish service has on its participants. First, service adds another rich layer to the lives of those already committed to Judaism. It is a channel for young Jews to expand their Jewish identities, to think about Judaism as a holistic living experience.

At the same time, service also reaches out to the Jewishly uninspired. Many young people today speak the language of universalism, choosing to view the world from that vantage point and inadvertently turning away from the particulars of Judaism.

Accordingly, Jewish service can give universalists a chance to live out their broader values in a Jewish context, to learn that they can be both Jews and humans.

Thinking about all this as a philanthropist, I began to tackle the question of how I could encourage more young Jews to engage in service. How could my philanthropy help to make service a universal Jewish experience?

Our Center for Leadership Initiatives, a new operating foundation that I helped establish in 2006, sponsored 550 young adults’ participation in service projects in northern Israel this winter, to assist the region after this past summer’s war. More than 3,000 young people from around the world applied to our Leading Up North program, and this incredible number alone shows how much this generation is eager to be involved.

When the volunteers we took to Israel finished their days fixing bomb shelters and preparing charred forests for replanting, they spent their evenings in discussion with young Israelis who have chosen to live in the socio-economically challenged regions of the country in order to bring about change. They met with Israelis and other Jews from around the world who are deeply engaged in service, working with non-Jewish as well as Jewish communities.

It was incredibly moving for me to spend time with them in Israel, hearing their impassioned words and responses. With more opportunities, they will come to see service as their unique contribution and as their duty.

In response, our foundation has not stopped with Leading Up North. We continue to support Jewish service in many ways, including J-Serve, a national Jewish teen day of service, and an online networking site and follow-up programming for alumni of Jewish service programs.

Whether you call it volunteerism, community service, tzedek, social action or something else altogether, an intense service experience must become a rite of passage for all young Jews. When it does, our community will be living the values, invested in positive change — both within the Jewish community and the general society — planting the seeds for their children to flourish, and returning the favor in a never-ending cycle.

And so I challenge all of us to step it up. Let’s step up the number of young Jews doing service. Let’s step up support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs, significantly expanding their reach. Let’s step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam. Let’s unite our community with a sincere, shared obligation to Jewish service. Let’s make service universal.

This column courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Lynn Schusterman is chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Youth services give kids a break — from their parents

When Nancy Steiner sits in the pews at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, she expects her daughters, ages 12, 15 and 19, to be by her side.
“I’m sure there might be moment where they’d like to be elsewhere, but we have always set a firm example and said this is an obligation,” Steiner said.

At what age kids should sit in the main sanctuary is a question that synagogues grapple with yearly, as they shuffle an everchanging set of services — from childcare to youth minyans to family services to main sanctuary traditional.

The question is straightforward: Are High Holidays a family time, when kids should be seated by their parents? Or should kids be able to attend services geared specifically toward their developmental and spiritual realities?
If the question is straightforward, the answers are anything but, with shuls of all denominations devising schedules that reflect widely varying philosophies.

The breakdown doesn’t line up according to denominational lines or shul size –everyone seems to have a different take on whether or not the main sanctuary is an “adults-only zone.”

Despite differences, nearly all shuls provide programs for kids 12 and under, give or take a year. Most shuls are somewhat flexible, so that families can sit together in the main sanctuary even if youth services are available, and older kids are sometimes allowed to “help out” with the younger kids when no services are available specifically for teens.

At Steiner’s B’nai Tzedek, a Reform congregation, kids 11 and under have special programs. After that, they sit with their parents, and Steiner likes it that way.

“They get a sense of community. To have hundreds and hundreds of people singing at the same time is very powerful,” she said. “And I think when you know you have met an obligation, there is sense of self-pride that comes with that.”
B’nai Tzedek’s Rabbi Stephen Einstein says it’s all about consistency in the message teens are getting.

“It seems to me if we say a bar or bat mitzvah means you are an adult, it’s time to treat them as adults, and not to give them pablum,” Einstein said. “They really need to deal with issues as emerging adults.”
So much so, that Einstein gives the kids their own pledge cards for the Yom Kippur appeal.

Many agree that the formative memories of High Holidays can take kids far as adults, with tunes and themes stretching far back into their consciousness.
At University Synagogue in Brentwood, kids aged 10 and above are expected to be in services.

“We encourage families to be together for the Yamim Noraim,” said Rabbi Morley Feinstein, who leads the Reform congregation. He wants children to see their parents model behaviors such as praying, or discussing the rabbi’s sermon, and becoming part of the life of the shul.

“What we are really trying to say to families is that we love having you in the synagogue, we love having your children in the synagogue, and we want it to be a warm and welcoming place,” he said. “At the same time, we recognize that the nature of the High Holiday experience can be daunting for young children.”

So daunting, in fact, that many synagogues make options available for older kids as well. The impetus is twofold: to give kids a positive High Holiday experience, and to give parents a spiritual space free of fidgety dress shoes and constant requests for drinks or bathroom breaks.

“There is a culture of play in the community, and kids aren’t accustomed to sitting in shul,” acknowledges Rabbi Joshua Hoffman of Valley Beth Shalom, which offers youth services for kids up through their teens. “We aim to present active learning experiences interspersed with some prayers, so the young people feel like they can participate in something meaningful during the holidays.”

At Beth Jacob, an Orthodox congregation in Beverly Hills, teens have their own minyan for all of the High Holidays services, including Kol Nidre and Neilah. Allowing kids to be separate from the parents for the High Holidays met with some opposition when it was introduced last year, but has picked up many supporters. Enrollment has doubled from last year.

“We have a shorter minyan and a lively chazzan, and we also explain the prayers,” said Rabbi Uri Pilichowski, Beth Jacob’s assistant rabbi who leads the teen minyan.

Pilichowski rejects the argument that teens need to be in the main sanctuary to learn the tunes and traditions.

“When they get older, what is more valuable, familiarity with tunes, or understanding what they are saying to their Creator?” he asks.
Temple Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue on the Westside, takes a similar approach, offering not only services geared toward specific age groups, but a special needs service as well.

About 300 kids are served by Beth Am on the High Holidays, and Rabbi Mitch Malkus, Beth Am’s day school director who also oversees Shabbat and Holiday youth programming, believes it is an important part of the year-round process.
“We felt that it was important that what children experience is developmentally appropriate for them and able to give them a sense of the awe that surrounds these days,” he said.

Teens participate by leading prayers or reading from the Torah, both in the youth services and the main services.

Getting kids to participate is a good way to get them involved, said Cantor Evan Kent of Temple Isaiah, a Westside Reform congregation. Some bar or bat mitzvah-age kids — and even two pre-bar mitzvah age kids — will blow shofar this year, and the post- bar and bat mitzvah kids will chant haftarah and part of the liturgy.

“There is a real multi-generational feel to the service,” Kent said.
In between the two ends of youth services vs. main sanctuary, there are combination approaches.

New Hope for HIBM Cure

Soroya Nazarian learned about hereditary inclusion body myopathy (HIBM), an uncommon muscular disorder that affects the Persian Jewish community, while in Israel on a Hadassah mission about five years ago. There, she met professor Zohar Argov, from the department of neurology at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, the researcher who first discovered the rare disease in 1984. Although Nazarian did not know anyone personally affected with HIBM, the self-described “professional volunteer” knew her involvement with Hadassah Southern California put her in a unique position to increase awareness and raise funds for the condition that seemed to unfairly target her community.

Michael Banyan had a more personal reason for adopting HIBM as his cause. About a decade ago, the CEO and founder of an industrial alloy manufacturing company learned that he had the disease.

HIBM, typically strikes in early adulthood, slowly weakening the muscles of the limbs and eventually leading to total disability within one to two decades. Persian Jews are disproportionately stricken by the disease. They have a 5 to 10 percent chance of carrying the gene mutation responsible for HIBM. If both parents are carriers, their children have a 25 percent chance of being affected.

Nazarian and Banyan have become a dynamic duo of the HIBM cause, working jointly and independently to raise funds for research on the disease. The two helped mobilize Hadassah’s six Persian groups to collectively raise close to $350,000 for Hadassah Hospital research on HIBM.

As chair of Hadassah Southern California from 1997 to 1999, Nazarian was also instrumental in bringing the issue to the attention of the national organization. Banyan helped form a chapter of the Iranian American Jewish Federation dedicated to raising funds for HIBM research with the support of Solomon Rastegar, the organization’s president at that time.

These efforts are beginning to pay off. In September, researchers in Israel announced that they had identified the gene that causes HIBM. Dr. Stella Mitrani-Rosenbaum, a scientist at Hadassah-University Hospital on Mt. Scopus and a colleague of Argov’s, was one of the principal researchers to make the discovery. Mitrani-Rosenbaum says the findings give hope for the development of a therapy for the disease.

In the meantime, her laboratory has developed a genetic test to identify those who carry or are affected by the gene, and is working on a test to screen for it during pregnancy. (Those wishing to be tested must do so through a physician or genetic counselor.)

“Without the moral support and the most generous financial help of the Persian community … through Hadassah, it would have taken us significantly more time to achieve our aim,” says Mitrani-Rosenbaum.

HIBM does not solely affect the Persian community. Cases have been detected in Jews from Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, its toll on Persian Jews initially caused Nazarian and others to fear that young Persians might marry outside the community out of fear of passing on the disease. She says this concern has declined now that people understand that the disease is not fatal, and that both parents need to be carriers in order to pass the condition along.

Nazarian commends those who have been willing to make their condition public. Like Banyan, Drs. Daniel and Boback Darvish, brothers who both have HIBM, have also spoken at Hadassah events and were part of the Iranian American Jewish Federation chapter dedicated to HIBM. “They’ve dedicated their lives to educating the community about this disease,” she says.

Banyan, meanwhile, maintains a hectic pace not slowed by HIBM. He commutes from Beverly Hills to his office in Anaheim. Only a slight limp gives any hint of his disease. Although no treatment or cure currently exists, he remains optimistic.

“When we started raising funds for HIBM, research [on the disease] was minimal and genetic research was not nearly as advanced,” he says. “With the speed of technology nowadays, and new discoveries being made every day, development of a therapy for HIBM is not very far off.”