There are very few things that I enjoy more than being a counselor for the youth group at my church, but last night was the best meeting I’ve attended so far. Not that the others are far behind it, but this one was truly amazing. The kids were engaged, and asked more questions than you can possibly imagine. I am glad that whatever negative feelings I had over not getting the youth director job myself melted into a mentor/student relationship with Susannah, the actual youth pastor, because she is teaching me a new way of moving about the world. Her style is completely different than mine, because she is always watching and waiting for the kids to respond, whereas I have a much more active style that sometimes lends itself to more control than the kids really need. I don’t want to make them afraid to speak out, and at the same time, there has to be a balance between discipline and freedom. For instance, if we’re doing something serious, everyone has to put their phones in a box at the front of the room, even Susannah and me. We all signed the “constitution of youth group,” and one of those tenets was to be present in an absolute way. It’s hard to open up to your peers and check your Facebook page all at once. I know me. I’ve seen me do it.
But what was different about last night was that a Jewish youth group came to visit and taught us about all kinds of culture. Our church would be the equivalent of Reform Judaism, the most liberal of liberal Christians. Theirs was quite different, representing Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform all at the same time. I couldn’t imagine a youth group that incorporated everyone from the Church of Christ to the United Church of Christ, which seem similar in name but are at opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of belief. If these kids can do it without clashing with each other, surely so can we… Someday. We shall see what we shall see. I have been approached by the nominating committee about joining Christian Ed, which does not exclusively deal with teenagers, but Susannah attends the meetings, so at least it is some sort of umbrella. I’ve also started putting a lot more money than normal in the offering plate, and am considering a tithe because our budget shortfall is to the point where we are considering cutting positions just to save money. It would be easy for me considering I don’t have any utility bills except my mobile phone and my car insurance, and any money I put in the offering plate or pledge in in essence, feeding my youth group as well, so we can offer programs just like this.
For instance, the Orthodox boy put on his Tefillin, wrapping the leather straps around his arm, and pretty much everyone in the room dropped their jaws with wide-eyed interest. He said that it was a reminder that he was in prayer, to keep him focused on the task at hand. He also said that he has special prayers in Hebrew that go with it, but if there’s something he has to tell God, he just says it. The practice is not limited to the prayers already set forth. The kids asked all sorts of important questions, like whether you could take the scrolls out of the boxes and look at them. He said no, because to touch them is to possibly wear them out faster, but that he does take his in to a professional every five to seven years to make sure that the scrolls aren’t damaged.
They also took turns describing the Jewish life cycle- that for boys, the circumcisions and naming ceremony have to be done within roughly a week after birth, and for girls, the naming ceremony has to take place roughly two weeks afterward.
Then, they asked for volunteers, and married two of our kids under a cloth Chuppah, explaining what goes on during a Jewish wedding. One of the things I learned is that the breaking of the glass when stepped on is not about supporting the marriage, but remembering the sadness of not having a temple anymore… that the Western Wall is the only thing left.
Lastly, they talked about death, and how the body must be buried as soon as possible, and that there is a special group of people tasked with preparing the body for burial in its plain wooden box, no adornments for the Jessica Mitford classic “beautiful memory picture” that funeral homes are so adept at selling. One of the most meaningful things to me is that a man is supposed to be buried in the same clothes in which he got married, completing the life cycle. Also, the body is never left alone. I quipped to Pastor Mark, “did they have to start that before or after Jesus?” I am guessing it was a thousand years before, but at the same time, it was hilarious to me that the people might have to sit with the body to make sure they don’t get away. Obviously, it’s been done.
One of the questions that Pastor Mark asked that I thought was poignant and relevant was during the Q&A afterward… “is there anything you’d like to know about us? I was amazed at how much information our kids were able to pass on, considering that as a youth minister, you never know what’s going to stick and what’s not. We talked about the difference between commercial Christmas and religious Christmas, and I think we opened some eyes that way. You mean it’s not all about Santa?
They also wanted to know if we had special prayers before and after meals, in the morning, etc. Great questions, and truly insightful.
One of the girls was named Arial (pronounced ARE-e-el), and I told her to look up whom I consider “my Rabbi,” because her congregation rented space in Bridgeport and I loved going to schul on Friday nights. In their congregations, they do it a bit differently. At sunset, they have prayers and dinner with their families, and go to schul on Saturday mornings. “My synagogue” did schul on Friday nights and Torah/Talmud study on Saturday. It was an interesting thing to learn that not all synagogues do it the same way. The other thing I learned is that the bar/bat mitzvah readings are not based on each kid, but the portion of the Pentateuch that is being read that Friday/Saturday.
The hardest part for me was when they read the Kaddish in Hebrew, because there is so much sadness in my life right now… relationships that dig deep into my soul because they are deaths of a sort. The people didn’t die, but their relationships to me did.
And then we switched topics to learning the alefbet, and being able to write our names in Hebrew. It was just an amazing evening, and even the adults were blown away by the kids’ poise in talking about their faiths. It reminded me of the documentary Trembling Before Hashem, where gay Jews talk about their faiths and the way they’ve been rejected by their communities. Of course, Reform Judaism is completely fine with the gays, but Orthodox is not. It is just as frightening to come out as a gay Orthodox Jew as it is to come out as a gay Southern Baptist… but at the same time, it teaches all kinds of Judaic beliefs in the process. It was a documentary that I would have liked to recommend, but I couldn’t remember if it was kid-friendly or not. I think it is, but I wasn’t going to recommend it if I didn’t remember clearly.
The point was to learn from each other, and it worked masterfully well. We decided that this was just the beginning of the conversation, and we’d be meeting again later. Youth group does not meet in the summer, so perhaps when we start up in the fall. It gave me a lot to think about, and for that, I am extremely grateful. The one joke I didn’t make is that perhaps they should read a bit of the New Testament just for fun, because the sequel is just as good.
When I study scripture, I have a Jewish annotated version of the New Testament, and it has been invaluable to me in terms of commentary and learning the Hebrew words for things that Jesus would have used, being a Jew himself.
I also think that we need to invite a group of Muslim kids to visit as well, because even Jesus used the word “Aalah” in reference to the Abramic god. In Islam, it is spelled “Allah,” but that is just a translation from the Aramaic. Interfaith dialogue is just indispensable, both for me and the generation of Christians I’m trying to shape. It is so much more satisfying to focus on everything that we have in common, rather than the things that blow us apart. We all come from the same point in time, when God chose Abraham as the father of both Judaism and Islam, and later on, when Jesus’ new church emerged as a sect of Judaism and slowly created a revolution of its own.
The revolution was not televised, and yet, here we are, quoting Jesus thousands of years later. Quoting the same prophets that Jesus himself would have read. I imagine him as a young boy asking the four questions at Passover, and possibly opening the door for Elijah. I remember when I did it. We had a seder at our church in Naples, and for some reason, I was deathly scared that someone was actually at the door. Oh, the things that little kids think…….
And after last night, I realized that I thought I knew, but I really didn’t know anything… a teachable moment from those younger and wiser.