May 10, 2007
Beyond ‘the day’
When I began my work as a b'nai mitzvah teacher almost 25 years ago, I believed that it was all about the day. Everything I taught, every prayer or Torah verse the student studied, every reminder or nudge to study from the parent -- it was all about the day.
In these last few years I've realized the folly of that belief. That's not to say that the day isn't important. It absolutely is. It will be remembered forever. Yes, the day is important, and hopefully it will be the beginning of the next stage of a young person's Jewish life and mark the continuation of Jewish education. But if we only see the months of preparation as an end goal, and we don't see all that those months have to offer our young people, then we are truly depriving them. It is during the journey to the bimah that we have the opportunity to help them become the adults we hope they will be.
It is an opportunity to teach or reinforce time management, self-discipline, responsibility, self-assessment, goal setting and the value of hard work. It is a time to teach the importance of communication -- about what is difficult, challenging, frustrating, exciting.
It's a time to teach the importance of asking for help (and how that can be a virtue rather than a sign of weakness). It's a time to teach coping skills -- how to deal with frustration, anxiety, "stage" fright. It's a time to teach and reinforce problem-solving strategies--strategies that can be called upon during life's journey.
And then, there are the most precious of the gifts.
The journey helps to build self-confidence, self-empowerment and belief in oneself. That is to say, the young person realizes (with our reminders) that because of hard work and determination, because of blood, sweat and perhaps an occasional tear, because of his or her efforts, a goal has been set and accomplished. With the support and guidance of teacher, clergy and parent, he or she will have achieved a goal, which for many (albeit not all) appeared insurmountable at first but because of his or her efforts that goal was achieved.
Along the way, it is our responsibility to remind the future Jewish adult to look back a week, a month or several months and say: "Look at how fluently you read that verse! Do you remember when you couldn't get that first word and were ready to give up?" It is then that the Torah verses become a chain of prideful accomplishments.
It is our job to mine the journey of all it offers to our young people -- to help them see its treasures -- and in the end to remind them that the end came because there was a beginning filled with trepidation, anxiety, fear, awe, excitement and wonder, and because there was a middle filled perhaps with challenge and determination.
And afterwards let them remember that just as they set a goal and achieved it on the day they each became a Jewish adult in the eyes of their community, likewise they can meet every challenge they set for themselves. This is the gift of learning to believe in oneself.
Two students exemplify this lesson.