One of my favorite times of the week to which parents are always invited is the Sunday morning informal service with the kids. Part of the experience is exploring what the prayers mean and how they apply in our lives. As the children participate in the discussion, their insights are often fresh and inspiring. They see things adults often do not. I will never forget a comment I heard many years ago from a child responding to why it is the custom for a right-handed person to wrap tefillin, (the special straps and boxes containing core prayers that are wrapped around the arm and head for a daily traditional service) on the left arm and for a left handed person to do so on the right arm. The insight shared was simple but one I had never heard, and made the most sense! The child said, “You wrap the tefillin around the opposite arm to add strength to the weaker arm”, i.e. spiritual strength! As we meet on these Sunday mornings to explore life meaning, CBI children add delight to the experience with their enthusiasm and participation.
One important premise in Judaism is that what enriches spiritual life is in bringing childlike qualities to the process: to see each moment, as many times as you may have seen it, as a first time, which is what it is, and is more likely the case for a child who has experienced less in life. As “children” of God, all of us are mandated to approach life with childlike wonder, and do what we can to generate trust in our relationships, a quality that comes naturally to children (even as we unfortunately have to teach them to not always trust, given this world we live in!).
In my earlier years at Kol Shofar, I recall that one of the families most integrally involved in programming and leadership came initially to the synagogue because their two young girls requested that they learn about being Jewish. The children literally led that family into Jewish life; to the parents’ credit, they always acknowledged that their involvement and commitment to the synagogue was thanks to their children’s push in that direction.
So, fortuitously, as I write these words, our country seems to be headed, after countless failed attempts, in a direction of sanity in addressing the proliferation of weapons that have made us the nation with the most gun violence in the world. That is in thanks to the children of Parkland who have left “school business as usual” behind to call the adults out for not having taken steps to assure the safety of children in American schools. And, unlike adults who follow their rules of engagement and excuse making and other patterns that have left each violent act with the response of “heartful thoughts and prayers”, these young people are leaving childhood behind to become involved in the process of awakening the nation to this unacceptable behavior that has allowed our places of gathering to become increasingly at risk.
Schools, churches, synagogues, malls and entertainment venues should be sanctuaries and gathering places where people can non-self-consciously live their lives in safety and satisfaction. That is no longer the case as all participants in CBI have become increasingly aware with the added necessary security measures we have taken to protect members and attendees.
It is “telling” that our tradition teaches that God gave us the Torah for the sake of and on the warranty of our children. On one hand the message has been to remind us that what we learn and how we practice our teachings is with the purpose of raising a next generation of healthy members and leaders of society. On the other hand, the teaching also implies respect for that upcoming generation, that with the tools we provide they can be assured of becoming wise leaders and providing inspiration to the elders; a society’s greatest strength is manifest in the interchange of lessons and values between multiple generations.
As it turns out, the adults at this time have become mired in politics and power games that have left us all vulnerable and particularly so for our children and teachers in schools. Judaism inherently respects the participation of people as young as 13 given that being the age of “adulthood” as symbolized by the bat/bar mitzvah celebration.
The Passover Seder is predicated on an interchange between adults and children with the kids leading off the discussion with the recitation of the 4 Questions. What makes the Seder meaningful and fruitful is in the degree that elders and youth are respected and made comfortable with feelings of being included in the conversation. Together, they are encouraged to explore values of freedom and the development of a society born out of the Exodus from enslavement to hurtful behavior generated by adults abusing their powers.
Hopefully this time progress will be made in dealing with safety from guns in our society. My optimism, and that of so many adults, is grounded in appreciation that for the first time in the conversation, some of the most passionate and vocal leaders, our youth, people who will not accept the status quo nor be silenced by thoughts and prayers, are now part of the process. However adults treat one another, they have to be careful with how they respond to the “innocence of youth”, whose innocence has been stolen from them, with the necessity of their becoming the adult in the room, given that their parents’ generation has allowed so much destructiveness to rob them of their childhood.
The last time young people forced the adult world to rethink its behavior happened so long ago that the youngsters of that era are now senior citizens, reminded of their stepping up, so many years ago, to the wrongs of a war lacking meaning or justification, that was only ended after the kids put themselves on the line.
May this generation of youngsters grow in strength as they show the way for the rest of us in these troubled times.