It is no secret that Jewish communities in Australia and around the world are grappling with questions around cultivating a sense of Jewish identity in youth. Extensive resources are directed towards assessing and explaining current trends and searching for solutions to what is considered a universal challenge of our times – Jewish continuity.
I do not propose to explore the complexities of the Jewish continuity conversation in this article, but rather, consider whether we may be overlooking the simple lessons that can be learnt from the quiet successes already in existence in our community.
I never expected a Shabbat shul service to surprise me, let alone provide me with sudden clarity around Jewish engagement. A few weeks ago, I was amazed and inspired in a most beautiful and yet, unexpected way.
Some honest background. My husband and I have raised our children to be very Zionistic, traditional Jews, not shomrei Shabbat and definitely not big shul goers. Our family can be broadly and sensitively described as ‘traditional/secular’ Jews.
So I was somewhat bemused when my two teenage kids requested that our Shabbat dinners at home start later in order to allow them to go to shul on Friday nights. Of course I agreed to their request, as I was certainly not going to discourage this virtuous activity.
I wondered whether the novelty would wear off after a short time. I was wrong. Week after week over the last few years, kids meet at our house to walk to shul together.
I couldn’t quite understand this phenomenon until I was invited to join my children in shul on “family week”.
Sitting next to my daughters I looked around the room in awe at approximately two hundred Mount Scopus students and their parents, most of who are from families not particularly religious, participating in a Friday night Shabbat service in shul.
Unlike many shuls say, on Rosh Hashanah morning, everyone was singing rather than talking. The boys and the girls were singing every prayer and harmonizing with each other. According to my kids, this week was not even the best example of vocal musicality. Often, they say, the spontaneous harmonies are even more beautiful and complex than what I heard that night.
As a Scopus graduate, I was familiar with some of the tunes, but certainly not the entire repertoire. I listened carefully and I curiously observed that there was noticeably less of the ‘Scopus mumble’ that I recall from my school days. ‘Scopus mumble’ refers to when prayers are sung by pronouncing words only approximately, because no one knows the correct words. Astonishingly, current Scopus students appear to actually know each word of every prayer.
Half way through the service, there was a break for dancing and ‘schmoozing.’ Was I at a barmitzvah? When it was time to return to the service, there was a little delay, but not due to any lack of enthusiasm but rather, caused by the time it took to carefully squeeze everyone back into the overcrowded space.
The sense of fun, warmth and genuine engagement in the room was truly incredible. ‘Secular’ students voluntarily turning up every Friday night, excited to be there, participating in and actually enjoying the shul service. Was this really happening?
I was intrigued as to what motivates the students to turn up to shul every week, voluntarily. Why do they enjoy it so much?
I asked a few students, past and current, why they attend the service. Some answers focused on the social aspects, a chance to catch up with friends – they love the sense of community and inclusivity. Others enjoy the singing and the fact that everyone joins in. Others said simply ‘its fun’. The students also mentioned that they feel a sense of ownership of the service – it was their Shabbat service – they organize and lead it. They choose whether or not they will attend each week.
The success is likely the result of a combination of all the above factors.
Whilst a few hundred students from a single Jewish day school represents only a very small snapshot of Melbourne’s Jewish community, like a well kept secret, the lessons which can be gleaned are powerful by virtue of their simplicity.
Judaism becomes more attractive to students when it is accessible, understandable and inclusive. Our kids want to learn about religion and culture in a genuinely experiential way. Importantly, they need to be empowered to own the process through which they can develop their personal sense of Jewish identity and have fun on their individual journeys.
The combination of freedom to explore on the one hand, and responsibility to lead on the other, not only engages the students but also helps them to develop leadership skills so valuable for ongoing community building beyond their school years.
And as everyone seems to be living in their virtual worlds with their heads perennially buried in their phones, when given the right opportunity, our teens value inclusivity and real life community more than ever.
Sitting in shul on that Friday night, listening to the harmonies of our youth, I realized that we should celebrate this enthusiastic engagement and be inspired to replicate it more broadly in varying formats. Indeed, the key to securing Jewish continuity and Jewish identity suddenly appeared to be a little less complicated than I had previously thought.
What Jewish experience or program engages you or your kids?