What to Do When the Kid Just Says ‘No!’


While the majority of young people preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah might not skip merrily into every tutoring appointment and eagerly look forward to the hours upon hours of studying (iPod tuned to the haftarah blessings rather their favorite playlist), they at least recognize that the preparations are part of the expectation that parents, family and community have of them. And other than some parental nagging (“Did you go over your Torah portion today?”) or a call from the tutor suggesting that he or she may need to ramp things up, progress is made, preparations are on schedule and a pride-filled service takes place.

According to the Talmud, when a child is created there are three involved — the man, the woman and God. As we know, once a child is born, many forces come to shape the child. Some might say (and have) that it takes a village. As that child nears the age of adulthood and responsibility, and prepares to acknowledge this before his or her community through bar or bat mitzvah, there are three partners: the child, the parents and the rabbi/cantor/educator (representing in some ways the Jewish community). The effectiveness of this partnership may be most in evidence when everything does not go as planned.

Take the case of the defiant child — the boy or girl who, on the brink of becoming a Jewish adult, revolts against this very idea. This young person may stomp his feet or fold her arms, refusing or resisting the very idea of bar/bat mitzvah and saying, “I’m not going to do it.”

Looking at this defiance through the prism of those three partners may help better understand it.

The Young Person

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman could tell that Samantha (youth names have been changed), her student at a former congregation, didn’t want to be in her office for the first bat mitzvah appointment. When Scheinerman, who is now with Beth Shalom Congregation in Westminster, Md., asked Samantha how she felt about beginning the process, the student announced that it was all nonsense, there is no God, and therefore she wanted nothing to do with Judaism, the synagogue or becoming a bat mitzvah.

After more questions, the rabbi found out that Samantha’s conclusions resulted from her understanding of the Holocaust — if there were a God, then God would have intervened and her relatives and millions of others would not have perished.

Another student of Rabbi Scheinerman, Michael, also acted defiantly — he was uncooperative, sullen and a bit rude during their first meeting. After some questions, his demeanor transformed into sadness. Michael reported that he was struggling in algebra. This was taking a devastating toll on his self-esteem.

In both of these cases, as is often the case, the defiance was about something other than the bar/bat mitzvah — a struggle with belief in God or even something wholly unrelated.

In both of the situations Scheinerman faced, she was able to address and work through the defiance once she understood the true issue.

For Samantha, Scheinerman spent the first session exploring her questions and told her that bat mitzvah studies would begin only after she had worked through them. Samantha came back to the second lesson having thought of little else all week; she came to the conclusion that God was present during the Holocaust but that human decency was absent.

In the case of Michael, the rabbi helped him find new ways of approaching algebra, and she studied Torah with him, as well.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin, spiritual leader of Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles and a former bar mitzvah teacher, recalled a student of his in another city. Avi was the son of a rabbi. He was nice, but, according to Korobkin, his parents were not nurturing and were not engaged in his education. Looking back, Korobkin believes it’s likely he had some learning disabilities.

Avi approached the bar mitzvah experience defiantly, Korobkin said. He managed to accomplish the learning, but it took constant communication between the parents and Korobkin and lots of coaching.

Looking back, Korobkin suggested that in a less-pressured setting, Avi might have had a more positive bar mitzvah experience.

Korobkin believes that for some young people, particularly in the Orthodox community, there may be tremendous pressure from parents and peers to accomplish more than they can (e.g., chant the entire Torah portion, the entire haftarah, prepare and deliver the d’var Torah and often more). This is a lot of external or internalized pressure, particularly when a 12-year-old is not a stellar student.

Jonathan, a student of mine, in an initial meeting, along with his mother, began to tear up and all but crawl into his mother’s lap. It wasn’t hard to see that there was a problem.

He protested the idea of going through the bar mitzvah process. Jonathan didn’t want to become a bar mitzvah, and the list of reasons seemed to grow with the conversation. It became apparent that these were more like excuses, and there was something underneath the emotional defiance. After more questions it became clear that this defiance was more about his anxiety about the process and the service, rather than a deep philosophical, theological or emotional opposition to the idea of bar mitzvah. Once we got to the root of the problem and he felt he was heard, we were able to work together with his parents, knowing that he was struggling with anxiety. He would need support to walk through the process and receive as much information as we could give him about what each step would involve, including what it would be like on the day of his service.

The Parents

Matthew and his parents came into Rabbi Jerry Brown’s office to talk about how to handle the student’s defiant attitude. The parents explained that when Matthew refused to attend religious school or prepare to become a bar mitzvah, they made a deal with him: If he agreed to go to Jewish summer camp and continue with some of the confirmation classes, they would allow him to drop out of Hebrew class and they would cancel the bar mitzvah service. Matthew was delighted with the deal.

When summer approached, Matthew protested again, and they agreed that he could go for the shortest amount of time — a two-week session. A few days into camp, the parents got a call from the camp director. Matthew got on the phone and gushed about how great camp was and that he wanted to stay longer. Unfortunately, the director explained, there were no spaces available for the following sessions. Matthew became furious.

After recounting this to the rabbi, the parents pointed out that the reason Matthew could not stay longer in camp was because he had insisted on only attending for two weeks. Matthew then blurted out: “But you’re the parents. You’re supposed to know what’s best for me.”

Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, N.J., noted that he has been through defiance often and said, “I don’t know that I have ever seen a ‘defiant’ kid who was not in some way a product of defiant parents. When the parents have a good attitude, see that the kids get to lessons on time, make sure he or she practices at home, and so on, things work…. On the other hand, when I think about every kid that comes to mind who might fall into the category of ‘defiant,’ it’s because the parents, whether actively or passively, ‘allow’ him or her to be.”

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, believes that a contributing factor in defiant attitudes is when a family has a tenuous relationship to the synagogue community and the child gets the message that he or she is expected to hold values which the family does not hold. When the family is involved in synagogue life and is part of the community, the experience is organic and the child is less likely to feel that this is a burden and possibly rebel against it. He or she is less likely, then, to have a negative experience, which would possibly be associated with Judaism.

If the family is involved in the process, actively taking part in the service, perhaps by reading Torah or actively engaging in the learning, then the message will be more positive, Diamond said. By the same token, when the young person is given the message (in these words or more subtle ones): “Your grandfather became bar mitzvah, your father became bar mitzvah and now you can suffer through it as well,” then the take-home message for the child is clear.

Yavneh Hebrew Academy’s Korobkin agrees that such mixed messages — which can come from parents, a teacher or the community — can create a negative experience, leading the young person to wonder why he should go through all this work if it’s all just a big show.

The Rabbi (Cantor, Tutor, Jewish Community)

The Board of Rabbis’ Diamond believes that part of the solution lies in the approach that the rabbis, the tutors, the educators and the Jewish community as a whole take toward bar and bat mitzvah. He contends that part of the problem that sometimes manifests itself in defiant students is how the bar or bat mitzvah itself is approached. The staff and the community can send a positive message or a message of resignation. The way the experience is couched should not be one of “just suffer through the next seven months and you will be glad you did it when the day comes,” he said.

Diamond contends that because the bar or bat mitzvah can be the beginning of a serious, thoughtful Jewish education, the student is ripe for learning. A negative approach loses the bar or bat mitzvah student before this new developmental stage can benefit everyone. By not making it the big deal it has become, Diamond believes we can send the message that bar/bat mitzvah is not an end point but a beginning to a new stage of learning and Jewish identity and connection to community. The extravagant parties only contribute to an emphasis on the wrong aspect of the experience.

Instead, Diamond suggests using a student’s defiance to everyone’s advantage. When the defiance is about not believing in God or about struggling with the big questions, the rabbi or educator can study with the student and model that Judaism is about struggling with the big questions. The student can perhaps even include those challenging ideas in the d’var Torah.

Sometimes, a young person just isn’t ready to become bar or bat mitzvah at age 13 because of this defiance or resistance. Diamond suggests that forcing a young person to go through the experience may well lead to a negative experience and may very well not strengthen the young person’s Jewish identity. In that case it can become counterproductive.

Cantor Ellen Dreskin in New York agrees. “If you work too hard to convince someone that they should do this even if they don’t really mean it, because that’s what we do, then it sets up a very poor model for the deeper significance of all things Jewish in one’s future,” she said.

Rabbi Mickey Boyden of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel, said that he makes it clear when he has a defiant bar or bat mitzvah student that he is not in the business of coercion, that if the student wants to forgo this he or she can. One advantage to this approach, according to Boyden, is that the young person won’t see the rabbi as siding with the parents, and it keeps the relationship with the rabbi intact.

Rabbi Stephen Arnold, rabbi emeritus of Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in approaching these students, was clear that there is a difference between becoming a bar mitzvah, which happens automatically when one turns 13, and the public ceremony during which there is communal acknowledgement of this shift. He assured each student that if the young person’s concerns could not be addressed to his or her satisfaction, the rabbi would champion the child’s right to opt out of the public ceremony.

Arnold continued, though, by making the point that while this was negotiable, the continuation of Jewish study was non-negotiable. Often, the public ceremony was postponed until the young person felt ready for it. As an example, he recalled a student who decided that she was ready during her junior year of college, at which time she was called to the Torah “to the embarrassment of none and the joy of all concerned.”

One rabbi approaches the student who says “I don’t want to do it” by looking at whether the student originally made a commitment to follow through, in which case she couches the dilemma in the context of kibbud av v’em, honoring one’s parents by fulfilling the commitment. It is an opportunity, she said, to see commitment as an act of respect and a real-world lesson in needing to finish a task that may have lost its appeal.

Korobkin suggests that one solution lies in the assessment of the child’s learning ability and the young person’s ability to accomplish what is assigned. He cautions not to overpressure the young person, in order to avoid leaving a negative taste in his mouth. And he suggests that the teacher befriend the young person, develop a relationship, become a positive religious role model first, and then get into the preparation and studies. The teacher must manage the difficult position of being compassionate toward the student and being responsive to the students’ expectations.

The parents, child, rabbis and educators ultimately form a partnership, working together to bring the young person to the special day. The seeds are planted early on though — through the messages, the values and the relationships built prior to the day. l

Jeff Bernhardt is a b’nai mitzvah teacher, Jewish educator and freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Playing Favorites


When I was a kid, I was a very important person in shul. My dad was not at all prominent in the greater society — he merely worked for his brother, selling toys and stationery as a wholesaler in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, starting his workday at 7 a.m. and working through 7 p.m. every day, including Sunday. (Sabbath-observant, he got to leave midafternoon on Fridays.) But at shul, he was well liked, even loved, and was the vice president of the local Young Israel. He was very important there, and I got treated great.

Then he died — cut down by leukemia at age 45. At his funeral, everyone from shul attended and promised to love our family, to remain close. In time, though, the bonds loosened. There were fewer visits on Shabbat to our home; fewer invitations to others’ homes. And then it happened. One Shabbat, amid 20 talking boys, I was singled out to be chastised — to be quiet. That had never before happened to me.

Never when dad was alive. I suddenly learned that, if some kid had to be made an example, had to be chastised for the noise, it was best to sanction the orphans. Kids with living fathers were protected. Their dads paid dues.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we are warned so clearly to enact justice fairly: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — Pursue justice in heated pursuit. Do not pervert judgment. Do not play favorites in judgment by recognizing certain faces over others. Do not take bribes because bribes blind the eyes of even the wisest judges and pervert the integrity of the words of even the most righteous people. (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).

For many of us, these Torah mandates seem pretty easy to align with — forbidding bribery, requiring unperverted justice, commanding strict fairness in court. But howzabout us, in everyday life? Do we play by these rules?

When we meet someone wealthy, alongside someone of humble means, do we accord dignity to the modest as the rich guy pushes ahead of him? The modest man is telling of his daughter’s tragedy, her victimization at the hands of a man who has harassed her out of her Jewish religious faith and practice, but suddenly the rich guy pushes in to tell a joke. Who among us dares to say: “Excuse me, we were just speaking about this man’s — and his daughter’s — tragedy.”

Tevye sings it because we know it: “And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you’re rich, they think you really know.”

That indeed is what they think.

It is easy to overlook the orphan, the widow — or, in today’s society, the divorced and the young single in her 40s — because, well, they don’t fit into the “model of success.” If we hang around them, we might catch whatever they are carrying. In time, if not immunized, we might be renting a condo instead of owning a house.

Do we hear them? When they ask our help to find a match for life? When they ask for Shabbat home hospitality? Do we approach the boy and girl whose father or mother has died, or whose father is not Jewish, or the married man who merely works for his brother? I don’t think so. Not in my experience.

Listen to someone of modest means at a Shabbat hotel program lament a theft of $500 cash from his room, and who among us thinks of taking up a collection to salvage that family’s oneg? Instead, we have grist for a new mill — table conversation at lunch.

“Did you hear about the family that was robbed?”

“Yeah, it was $500, I heard.”

“Should we help them out?”

“Naaaah. They were stupid. They should have put their cash in the safe.”

Maybe that is why the Torah commands us in a strange, double command: Tzedek, tzedek — justice, justice shall you pursue. Because, amid a smug sense that no one can bribe me, that I am above being perverted in justice, that I surely would exact only pure justice if I were a judge of the Superior Court, the reality is that I — and the vast majority of us — never become clothed in the black judicial robes of the bench. But we do indeed sit in judgment of people every day of our lives. At work. At play. At home.

We legitimately encourage our kids to play with — and later to marry — approved kids from approved families. We legitimately protect them from bad elements in society. Yet we also cast our net of judgment wider, writing off so many good people, little people, the financially less successful, the children of the unimportant, just on the fringe of society’s excellence, qualified to enter yet desperately trying to gain admittance. The singles. The divorced. The boys and girls without a parent, whether missing one due to death, divorce or simple parental apathy.

Do you take bribes? Think about it.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California, is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School.

 

The Class of 2000


In this era of school violence and body piercing, teenagers, never the most applauded demographic segment of our society, have been getting some amazingly bad press. To hear the media tell it, adolescents who aren’t destroying themselves or others are just too lazy and apathetic to be bothered.And if Jewish teens aren’t filling up juvie hall, they’re not filling up the synagogues, either. After Bar and Bat Mitzvah, we’re led to believe, you never see them again. Why would Jewish kids hang out at shul when they can be cruising around in their parents’ Beemers, downloading porn from the Internet, turning their brains into Swiss cheese with drugs?

Are you scared yet?
Well, take a deep breath and relax. As the poet says, it ain’t necessarily so.Remember, bad news always drives out good; that’s why the evening news opens with murders and natural disasters. Hostile, alienated Jewish teenagers are much more fascinating than good, focused kids who do their homework, serve their communities, and go off to college, strong Jewish identities intact.The saving remnant is alive and well, and part of it is about to graduate from high school.

Concerned and committed
The 18-year-olds you’re going to read about are not Everykid, or even EveryJewishkid. They were contacted for interview through college counselors and the Hebrew high school programs run by the Conservative and Reform movements, so they skew toward youngsters who are bright, ambitious, bound for four-year colleges, and committed to Jewish learning and practice. But if you think of them as future Jewish leaders, well, we could do worse.

For one thing, they are not apathetic. The list of social and political issues that concern them includes racism, gun control, capital punishment, gay rights, homelessness and hunger, school prayer and human rights worldwide, to name just a few. “There are too many people walking around today who fail to care about anything, and it is not only degrading to them, but to the whole world,” said Millicent Marmer, a member of Milken Community High School’s chapter of the Junior Statesmen of America, a political debate club.

For most of the students, their interest is personal. “As a Jew growing up in a very Christian society, especially my area, I am very sensitive to the issue of church and state,” said Jackie Bliss, who is graduating from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach after organizing a Jewish Cultural Club at her school. “I do not believe that prayer of any kind belongs in a public classroom& and think that it is imperative that the separation be upheld.”

Beverly Hills senior Shelly Rosenfeld has a grandmother who lost her family in the Holocaust. Now Rosenfeld is a volunteer guide at the Museum of Tolerance. “I am driven by the awareness that the generation that can give a firsthand account of the Holocaust is diminishing in numbers and memory,” she said.

Rosenfeld sees her mission as larger than educating people about the Shoah, however. “Our society is a human kaleidoscope of color and culture,” she added. “The important factor is that one sees the differences as opportunities not to segregate others but as occasions to learn from one another.””There are many issues that concern me, but the ones that affect me the most are the shootings at schools, such as Columbine,” said Yevgeny Plotkin, a senior at Fairfax High School. “As a Jew I’ve been taught from birth the importance of trust and responsibility, and it hurts me to see how many teenagers have now lost this trust from parents, teachers, media, and others.”

No need to get a life – they’ve got them
The students also showed a high level of awareness about events in Israel and other Jewish issues. “Last summer, I went to Israel, which had a tremendous effect on me,” said Reina Slutske of Westlake High School. “My opinion is that my Bat Mitzvah never happened until I went to Israel.& I’m always concerned about Israel, because when I went, I adopted it as my home.”

“Israel does concern me in the way it is covered [by the media],” said Sam Rosenthal, who is graduating from Valley Torah High School, a yeshiva in North Hollywood. “I’m continually seeing Israel holding the red trident and & Palestinians repainted as downtrodden underdogs.”

“I think assimilation concerns me the most, because so many Jews have become High Holiday Jews, or they do not have any Jewish identity besides a Jewish mother,” said Melissa Orkin, a senior at Calabasas High School. Slutske concurs: “I think living in American culture makes you assimilated, and [you] forget who you are in the melting pot.”

These kids aren’t nerds. Many are involved in sports, from water polo to track to baseball. Jackie Bliss surfs, “although not as often as I would like.” Orkin has participated in the Maccabi Games. Jeremy Monosov, who is graduating from Calabasas High School, got his pilot’s license in December. “Flying, in my opinion, is the cure-all for anything from anxiety to depression to stress,” he said. “As you lift off the ground you leave all your problems on the ground for a couple short hours.”

Hanging out with friends and listening to music are also high on the list for these almost-graduates. “Almost all my friends whom I’ve grown up and gone to yeshiva with are into hard rock,” said Valley Torah senior Eli Julian.

Far from the stereotype of kids who don’t have two words to say to their parents, many of these teens expressed a close relationship with their folks. And they’re not rootless; most of them appeared to have lived in the same communities and gone through school with the same kids since way before high school.Maybe that’s why so many of them have mixed feelings about leaving high school and (as most of them are doing) leaving home to attend college. “Leaving school is an oxymoron: happy sadness,” said Plotkin, who was born in Belarus and plans to pursue a joint engineering program at Occidental College and Caltech. “Externally I’m excited, but inside I’m sad, because I’ll be leaving everything I worked so hard to get used to.”

“I worry that I won’t fit in or I won’t make friends or that I’ll shrink all my clothes and turn them pink,” Orkin said of her imminent shift to USC.

“I’m excited because I feel I have earned the opening of a new chapter in my life, and I can’t wait to see what I’m going to do with my life,” said Emily Rauch, a Harvard-Westlake senior who will attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C., this fall. “But I’m scared because the safety net – my house, my parents, my routine – won’t always be there.”

Ready to share their blessings
From all appearances, the teenagers who contributed their insights and opinions to this story (and the accompanying sidebars) are a lucky bunch of Angelenos. Few of them, in their comments, so much as hinted at trauma, grievous loss, or even serious disappointment. Blessed with brains, supportive families, and, for the most part, relative to absolute affluence, headed for some of the nation’s best universities, they have a leg up on the ladder of success. And many of them expect to be successful; no fewer than three mentioned that they’d like to be named to the Supreme Court.

Yet very few come off as spoiled, self-centered, or self-congratulatory. If they’re skittish about leaving home, it’s because they value their parents’ involvement in their lives. Many of them said they want to make the world a better place. There’s little sense of entitlement; they seem to understand how lucky they are. Their hopes for personal happiness and success are rooted in hard work, self-respect, and respect for other people.

They are Jewish kids with Jewish values, and they give every indication of carrying a conscious, active Jewishness into their adult lives. There’s a message here for parents of younger children: What do parents need to do for their kids to turn out like these kids, to have the same optimism, the same work ethic, the same tolerance for the rights and opinions of others, the same com
mitment to Judaism?

True, these teens may not be representative of all American Jewish adolescents, but they are not unique. There are many more like them in Southern California, west of the Mississippi, across the country. If they represent the best of our people’s future, we probably have a future.

Meanwhile, Solomon Mizrahi, graduating this month from Valley Torah, has summed up their anxieties, their dreams and their confidence. “Right now the world seems too big for me to leave a mark, let alone a difference,” he said. “I know, however, that the world conspires to help [people] in their endeavors, so whatever I choose to do, all I need do is work hard and work diligently, and I will succeed.”

Tribal Loyalties

Some Jewish teens are willing to interdate, but a Jewish home and Jewish kids are nonnegotiable.

With intermarriage rates a matter of paramount importance to American Jews concerned with Jewish continuity, Jewish leaders, parents and teens are trying to balance two conflicting dynamics: commitment to Judaism on the one hand and a universalist ethic of tolerance and respect for diversity on the other.Not surprisingly, interdating isn’t even a blip on the radar for Orthodox teens. “Dating a non-Jewish girl is something completely foreign to me,” one Valley Torah student said. “It saddens me to think that it is already so commonplace among Jewish teens that you would have to ask the question.”

Among the other 12th graders who contributed insights, attitudes toward interdating ranged from a firm stand against, at least for themselves, to a willingness to date people from all cultures, usually in the name of experimentation and commitment to multiculturalism – and because they don’t see the dating they do now as serious.

“Yes, I date non-Jews. I don’t think about it; I just do it,” said Milken senior Cynthia Glucksman. “I feel I can learn a lot from non-Jewish people.”

“It’s hard to be raised knowing that all races and religions are equal and simultaneously reject romantic relationships based on religion,” said her classmate, Millicent Marmer.

“I am currently dating a beautiful, sweet Jewish girl and have always dated Jewish girls,” said Jeremy Monosov, who grew up Conservative. “However, I am not against dating a non-Jew.& Our different backgrounds might add fire and substance to the relationship and would encourage my growth as an individual.”

Melissa Orkin says she’s never dated a non-Jew, in part because she’s in a Jewish environment – which includes her public school, Calabasas High – so much of the time. “I guess part of what attracts me to a guy is that he is Jewish,” she said. “It is one of the things that I look for. I’m not against other people interdating, but up to this point in my life, it has not been a possibility for me.”In an interesting twist, Reina Slutske, a graduating senior at Westlake High, said, “I believe that unless you are confident in your Jewish identity and in who you are and where you are going, you can’t date non-Jews, because it’s too strong of an influence and would possibly end up in intermarriage.”In fact, almost all the respondents, from the most to the least observant, said they want to marry Jews, and the majority ruled out intermarriage as an option. And for every single respondent who dealt with this question, the creation of a Jewish home and the rearing of Jewish children in the future was nonnegotiable, even if he or she could entertain the notion of a non-Jewish spouse.

“When you’re young you have to experience the world and all different kinds of people,” said Rebecca Lehrer of Harvard-Westlake, who dates gentiles now. “But I am going to marry a Jew. I just know that’s something important to me. I want to raise my kids Jewish, and I think having a Jewish spouse makes that a lot easier.”

“My religion and its continuity are important, so I would only make a life commitment to someone who understood the importance of my religion and the importance of raising any children we were to have as Jews,” Lehrer’s classmate, Eric Rosoff, said. “I think it is important to distinguish between someone who is Jewish and someone who understands the need to continue Judaism.”Jackie Bliss, a Mira Costa senior, grew up with a non-Jewish dad, and although he participated fully in the Jewish life of their home and finalized a conversion to Judaism last year, she doesn’t see herself following her mom’s path.

“I would love to say that you should marry whomever you fall in love with and you can overcome any problems,” Bliss said. “But if you truly want to raise a practicing Jewish family, you have to have a Jewish husband or wife. Some people are willing to take that risk, but I don’t think I will. My mom overcame a lot of obstacles to raise my sister and me with a strong Jewish background, and I don’t intend to end it with my family.”

Keeping Faith

Not all teens flee Jewish life after Bar and Bat Mitzvah.

In contrast to the conventional wisdom that most teens make a quick exit from Jewish life at age 13, almost all the students interviewed for this story have active Jewish lives, most of them on the institutional level. Even the respondents who aren’t temple-involved said being Jewish plays an important role in who they are.

Rebecca Lehrer, a Harvard-Westlake senior who will attend Columbia University, hasn’t spent much time in synagogue since her Bat Mitzvah at Temple Israel of Hollywood, but her extended family has Shabbat dinner together every Friday night. “Just because I didn’t go to Hess Kramer [summer camp] has nothing to do with my Jewish identity. I strongly identify with being Jewish, and I think my peers identify me that way too.” Like many of the students interviewed, she said she intends to get involved in a Jewish organization such as Hillel once she’s at college.For the students graduating from Orthodox schools, of course, traditional observance is a given. Many will move on to yeshivot in Israel or in U.S. cities. Sam Rosenthal, who will spend a year at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, said he’ll start a Chabad unit at whatever college he attends for his B.A. if there isn’t one there already.

One yeshiva student credits his school with putting him back on the right path. Reared “strictly Orthodox” in Brooklyn, he went through a rebellious spell starting in eighth grade and “decided that I didn’t like religion, not really because of any deep questions or the like, but because it just was a pain and I didn’t want to bother.”

After flunking most of his sophomore classes and getting thrown out of summer camp for smoking marijuana, he asked his father for a change of scene, and his dad arranged for him to live with his grandmother in L.A. “[My school] has been the best thing for me,” he said. “I’ve gotten back into religion, haven’t touched a cigarette or even thought about smoking a joint in two years. I understand much more about Judaism, which has allowed me to really want to be religious, instead of pushing it away.”A Valley Torah senior, Solomon Mizrahi, is bucking the trend by going straight to UC Irvine this fall, but he believes it’s the right choice for him. “Going to a university that doesn’t have the greatest Jewish social opportunities will not detract from my level of religiosity or spirituality,” he said. “My connection with the secular world is important. In some ways it helps me improve my spiritual devotion to God.”

Most of the non-Orthodox students mentioned participation in Jewish youth organizations, Jewish educational programs for senior high schoolers, and involvement opportunities in their synagogues. Lisa Feigenbaum, Harvard-Westlake’s valedictorian, has read Torah at Stephen S. Wise Temple’s High Holy Days services since her Bat Mitzvah. Her classmate, Eric Rosoff, is a madrich (teacher’s aide) at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, working with religious school students, while Judith Spiro, graduating from Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, plays a similar role at Temple
Isaiah in Rancho Park. Jackie Bliss works three days a week at her temple, Congregation Tifereth Jacob in Manhattan Beach.

“Becoming active in USY [United Synagogue Youth] was the best thing I ever did,” said Melissa Orkin, a regional board member and president of Temple Aliyah’s chapter, who also spent six summers at Camp Ramah. “By attending USY events I was able to keep in touch with friends from camp and to make new friends. Spending weekends with other Jewish teens like myself was a great experience.& USY enabled me to stay involved in the Jewish community religiously and socially.”

That doesn’t mean these kids never ask questions, of course. Santa Monica High senior Rachelle Neshkes, who grew up at Adat Shalom on the Westside and just graduated from L.A. Hebrew High School, has been a bit alienated of late. “The void in spirituality hit me much later than most because I was always the most observant, and the most into it growing up,” she said. “But seriously, I don’t know a single Jew who is completely strong in [his or her] faith.& The faith has just seemed to roll out from beneath us.

“Judaism would keep more Jews if only it didn’t project such a, shall we say, outdated image,” said Neshkes, who is interested in Jewish mysticism. “Can’t we keep the Hebrew, and our traditions, and our beliefs, without being 19th-century Poles?”

“I spend Shabbat with my family and friends, keep kosher and celebrate all of the holidays,” said Milken senior Millicent Marmer, who attends Stephen S. Wise Temple. “However, I am also constantly challenging and questioning Judaism, not in a rebellious manner, but simply so that I can practice with kavanah [spiritual intention].”

“Too many Jewish people are only Jewish by culture, and they know nothing about their religion,” Eric Rosoff said. “I have a Jewish soul, and I know this only because I learned about Judaism.”

It’s a Little Tricky


Once again we are faced with the annual dilemma of what to doabout Halloween. Should we let the kids “trick or treat” or not? Weknow that Halloween is not a Jewish holiday; that is not the problem.We celebrate Thanksgiving and Presidents Day, both American holidayswhich reflect good values. Halloween, on the other hand, does notreflect a value system that we would like to pass on to our children.It focuses on taking, greed and violence, not to mention theconsequences, a nasty trick, played on those who refuse to give.

My children attend a Jewish day-school where no attention is paidto the holiday. But we still experience the holiday in our suburbancommunity where party stores are transformed into haunted houses,street corners are dawned with pumpkin patches and everyone istalking about what they are going to be on Oct. 31.

In our home, where we believe the influence on values isstrongest, we play it down. No pumpkins or carving, no decorationsare displayed and very little attention is placed on costumes. Weeven relate the collecting of candy to the value of tzedakah(righteousness) by having the kids donate ten percent of their candyto a charity.

To counterbalance, we make a huge deal of all other Jewishholidays, particularly Purim. While we will spend money on a Purimcostume, anything laying around the house will have to do forHalloween. We give gifts, have lots of treats and host Purim parties.

Another subtle message is found in the garage. There, you can finda box designated for each Jewish holiday filled with paraphernalia.The boxes overflow; Passover and Hanukkah require two boxes each. Themessage is clear: we have a Purim box, but there is no box forHalloween.

And yet, we still struggle. I admit, although we move closer andcloser to our yiddishkeit, we are still assimilated.

This year presents us with something that can compete withHalloween — Shabbat! The perfect solution. The children loveShabbat. It’s our favorite time of the week — family, friends, goodfood, yummy desserts! What could be better? They’ll never missHalloween. So here is the plan: We are having a Shabbat Party. Theinvitation goes like this:

It’s a Shabbat Party

You’ll want to be there

But, regular clothes you mustn’t wear

Come dressed in a costume

be creative and fun

At the end of the dinner

We’ll pick the best one

The theme is of course JEWISH

be it hero, holiday, or food

Base your costume on your mood!

We’ll do the dinner, dessert,

treasure hunt, the whole thing

there’s just one thing you can bring —

A can for SOVA

will make us all smile

So come on October 31st

and party a while!!

At 5:30 p.m…

please knock on our door

We’ll light candles and a whole lot more.

Well, the response so far, a big hit! They can’t wait. My8-year-old daughter has announced she wants to dress as Hava, thedaughter in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Would this have been her firstchoice for a Halloween costume? It took Shabbat to help us through.

Risa Munitz-Gruberger is associate director of The WhizinInstitute.

+