Sunday, November 6, 2011

Raise the Bar (Mitzvah Age)?

Some of the feedback I am hearing from educators is that a significant factor that compounds the pedagogy to teach davening is the sense of "obligation" and point to this as a pressure and barrier to developing a desire to pray.  I'd like to offer a different approach to this problem:

David M. Bader - in his master treatise, Haikus for Jews, published the following poem:

                               Today I am a man -
                                    tomorrow I return
                                        to the seventh grade.

Once upon a time - in a galaxy (read shtetl) not that far away - Jewish boys and girls lived in separated spheres of influence and responsibility.  Upon coming of age, young people were expected to 'earn their keep' and take on responsibilities in the farm or business, to maintain house or study.  The Rabbis determined maturity mainly based on physical development and thus chose a different age for girls and boys.

I think, and fear, that this gauge for maturity is no longer valid today and the irony of Bader's Haiku rings true at least for me.  For a variety of factors, young people are more coddled (and educated) to at least age 18 and only begin to be active decision makers and take on greater responsibilities when they leave their parents home.  This fact is reflected in the significant rise in students spending a gap year after high school and before college studying (perhaps in Israel) or working.   I am sure that I am not the only person who senses a sting of falseness in the expectations put upon today's bar and bat mitzvahs in their description as leaders and active members of their community when they can't even drive until their 16, vote until they are 18, consume alcoholic beverages for non-ritual purposes until 21, and rent a car until age 25!

While I don't think there is really much that can change the bar/bat mitzvah pageant season (because again, this is about being physically mature, i.e. puberty), much can be done to change the mindset of charging our young people with the expectation to behave responsible and take ownership if their Jewish identity. I believe that educators need to find new benchmarks to ease these tweenagers into a more mature sense of identity that works in not just with their physical and cognitive development, but with their socialization as well, and thereby guide them to a proper sensitivity to express a spiritual yearning.  Judaism obligates many things - to be a good person, to give charity, to honor one's parents - how an obligation is framed will give a student a solid base or potentially retard their future development.

While davening needs to become a more serious endeavor with older teenagers, the general approach needs to be appropriate for different stages of life and not lose the dynamism that often sparks younger children to wonder.

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