It’s a Sunday morning and I’m standing in my usual spot in the front of my seventh-grade synagogue classroom, ready to commence the mundane task of taking attendance. The bell rings and I glance around the room.
My eyes fall on a newly vacant seat. I already know without even asking the unfortunate fate of the missing resident of the chair. To confirm my hunch, I turn to the class and ask with trepidation, “How was so-and-so’s Bar Mitzvah yesterday?”
The remaining students, draped in hoodies and sweatpants bearing the name of their absent peer, excitedly share details of the theme, dessert buffet delectables, and who was chosen first for the Snowball Dance. I sadly forced a smile on the outside, mourning my broken heart on the inside. Another student becomes a b’nei mitzvah, entering Jewish adulthood but exiting their formal Jewish education.
How many of us have said to our children, “when you hit b’nei mitzvah you can stop going to Sunday school?” Even in my own household, I’ve overheard my own husband say it to my own three children.
How many of us are pulling our hair out because somehow this message has become the silent norm in our formal Jewish educational settings, even though it has never been even quietly whispered out loud by our Jewish educators?
As I find myself on the ground another Saturday night, on my hands and knees begging at least one of my three post-b’nei mitzvah kids to wake up on a Sunday morning to go to Sunday School I say to myself, there must be a better way. As a parent, how do I help make the synagogue a place my children want to be?
The answer? Find a different way to show up. Consider the extracurricular opportunities offered by your synagogue to supplement the supplementary school experience. Here are some suggestions:
- Money talks. At some of our local synagogues you can be classroom assistants (Madrichim) or babysit on Shabbat starting at age 14 for a wage. My daughter started in 8th grade earning a paycheck. And the payoff for parents is it’s a requirement to attend the weekly Hebrew High School class if you want to work in the school. That’s how I got my daughter back into the building.
- Add (not replace) the fun services to your calendar. For Yom Kippur we sit quietly, starving, deep in our thoughts of sin. Also carve out time for Simchat Torah when we dance, sing and eat caramel apples.
- Volunteer opportunities. Does your synagogue have a garden to tend? Do they need people to run a booth at the Purim carnival? When you see a volunteer opportunity in the synagogue newsletter ask if you can come with your teen to help. This past December, my teen and I made latkes with the Brotherhood in the synagogue kitchen for their Hanukkah party (which by the way, my daughter then wanted to attend to eat the latkes she made).
- Little-known opportunities. Take advantage of little-known opportunities. My guess is your synagogue like mine opens its sukkah to anyone who wants to eat in it during Sukkot. A favorite thing of my children’s (which they have told me more than once) is when we take our dinner there as many nights as we can and eat as a family. And bonus – this doubles as great bonding time.
- Friends. Encourage your teen to bring a friend to a synagogue event or text a friend ahead of time to see who is going. And I preemptively behind the scenes reach out to my friends with teens to light some fires.
- Use the synagogue library.
- Dollars to donuts, there is a rotating collection bin in the lobby for a b’nei mitzvah project or holiday drive. Go shopping together and drop off a donation. Let your teen pick out the purchases.
- Make sure the clergy know your teen’s first name. Rabbi Berkson and Rabbi Herber are rock stars in my house because they say hi to my children, including their first names in their greeting. Such smiles on my children’s faces when they are acknowledged by the VIP of the synagogue. How to make this happen? Whenever you are at the synagogue and see the rabbi even from a distance, walk up and say hi with your teen in tow. They usually turn to your children and return the hello. Do this enough times and they will remember your children.
- Most importantly, role model for your kiddo. We all know for better or worse they watch our every move. Show up with your teen.
There is no substitute for formal learning in the synagogue classroom. So I work hard at supplementing my children’s synagogue classroom experience, in the hopes of creating a feeling of excitement, a place they want to be. I want to remind my children b’nei mitzvah is not the finish line on their Jewish educational journey, but a milestone moment during their transition into Jewish adulthood. The commitment to getting our teens through the front door of the synagogue will hopefully make it a little easier for them to open the door of their Hebrew High School classroom.