Democrats and Republicans may have done their best to get out the vote, but nothing quite does it like making it part of the school curriculum. At schools around the city this week, regular classes were suspended so that kids from elementary to high school could dip their young toes into the political waters.
On election day at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, the student council ran a polling place in the gym for pre-first- through eighth-graders, complete with official booths and "I voted" stickers. In the weeks leading up to the elections, kids as young as 5 learned to identify the major candidates and older kids learned about the electoral process (something about "electoral universities" sixth-grader Rebecca Asch said) and the issues at stake in this election.
All that came into play last week when seventh- and eighth-graders participated in mock debates before the rest of the school.
Students who had prepared position papers as part of an assignment for Hal Steinberg's history class presented ideas on health care, taxes, the war in Iraq and social security. They delivered impromptu responses to their peers' offerings, and were able to be a little more forthright than the actual candidates. Here, Sen. John Kerry (Simha Haddad) said President George W. Bush's ego and his need to finish his father's war drove him to make unwise decisions. Bush (Daniel Lazar) said it wasn't fair to tax rich people for money they worked hard for.
"It was interesting because we could see both sides of the issues, which are difficult, in ways we could understand," seventh-grader Benny Gelbart said.
And lest we think this is just some quaint academic exercise, Steinberg sees it otherwise.
"Some of these kids will be voting in just six years," he said. "This gives them a chance to see that every vote is important."
For several years now synagogues have been scheduling adult education classes on Sunday mornings in a sometimes successful attempt to challenge the parental ritual of dropping the kids off at Hebrew school and then killing two hours at Starbucks or the gym.
This year, National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) -- the people who brought us Shabbat Across America and Read Hebrew America -- is taking that a step further, introducing the Great Jewish Parenting Challenge. NJOP has collaborated with shuls nationwide to offer its signature crash courses in Hebrew, Judaism, Jewish history and the holidays on Sunday mornings.
"There are a lot of congregations within this one congregation, so we offer things when people are available," said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, which is participating in the Sunday morning Parenting Challenge.
The five-week Hebrew reading course, which will kick off the program at Beth Shir Shalom, is also being offered at dozens of Los Angeles-area shuls at different times during the week. So parents who are loathe to give up those two hours of freedom on Sunday morning can opt to schlep out on a Wednesday evening instead.
The first part of Beth Shir Shalom's Great Jewish Parenting Challenge goes from now to Dec. 5, and students can join midcourse. Call (310) 453-3361 for more information. For other locations, call (800) 444-3273 or visit www.njop.org.
'Tis the Season ...
...to worry about church-state separation. With December just around the corner and Chanukah coming quite a bit earlier than Christmas this year, the wink and nod behind the generic "holiday" celebrations becomes even more disingenuous, especially in public schools and other government settings. The Anti-Defamation League has some balanced and detailed information on its Web site on what exactly constitutes breaches of the church-state wall, and which public decorations and celebrations are and aren't allowed. An example: Singing Handel's "Messiah" -- good. Singing 23 Christmas carols without so much as one dreidel made out of clay -- not so good. Hanging a wreath on the teacher's lounge door -- joyous and welcome. Hanging a crucifix with "Jesus Loves Me" on the third-grade bulletin board -- try again.
For more information, look under the "Religious Freedom" menu on the left-hand side of the home page at www.adl.org.
Just as in any other profession, parenting requires the input and knowledge of experts and the group networking and support a good conference can provide. Recognizing that need, the Orthodox Union, with funding from The Jewish Federation, is holding its third annual Positive Parenting Conference on Nov. 14.
"There may be challenges to our parenting where our own resources, based upon our experiences and our own education, may not give us enough to be able to effectively deal with issues," said Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, dean of the Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center, which is hosting and co-sponsoring the event.
Experts will address issues such as helping children deal with anger; the consequences of overindulging children; monitoring Internet access, friends and afterschool activities; dealing with religious differences within a family; and the emotional and academic issues linked to learning disabilities.
The conference will be held Sunday, Nov. 14, 8:45 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center, 15365 Magnolia Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Admission is $10 in advance (via mail) and $15 at the door. For reservations and information, call (310) 229-9000, ext. 6.
You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at firstname.lastname@example.org or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.