By Rabbi P.J. Schwartz
One of my closest friends, Sam, is 5-years-old. On most weekdays at about 3 o’clock, he comes into my office, puts his Spiderman backpack and lunchbox on the floor, takes a seat, and begins our conversation.
“Rabbi PJs, let me tell you about my day.”
Sometimes, Sam brings his favorite toys for us to play with, tells me about something he learned that day, or whether he liked the story I read during our preschool Shabbat. Recently, he invited me to his birthday party, and I’ve had Shabbat dinner at his home. He’s been to my house for dinner as well.
Although I know some might argue that I have broken the cardinal rule of being a rabbi – never play favorites – there is something about my relationship with Sam that goes beyond any kind of favoritism. From the moment we met, we had an instant connection that has grown stronger with time.
Sam has asked me to promise to officiate at his bar mitzvah, and has given me his blessing to officiate his older sister’s bat mitzvah. I think he genuinely understands that becoming a bar mitzvah is an important moment in a Jewish person’s life. During our chats, Sam has asked me about God, why we light Shabbat candles, and frequently corrects me when I incorrectly sing the lyrics to some of our Shabbat songs.
Thanks to Sam, I have allies in his parents, whom I can count on to volunteer in our congregation and act as a sounding board for some of my crazy ideas. I also have developed a relationship with Sam’s older sister, who has declared me to be “the biggest rabbi kid she has ever met, who just happens to be an adult.”
Although I don’t think Sam realizes it, our friendship informs my own philosophy of early childhood and young family engagement in my congregation. These are some of the important lessons I’ve learned from him (which can be valuable to anyone with young children in their lives):
- Affirm children’s creativity and imagination: Allow children to lead you into their world of make believe and you will experience awe and wonder through their eyes. As Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus says, “Get messy and make mistakes.” When you play with children and let them lead you in play, you not only get to embrace your inner child, you also can get a good sense of how children process information, and what excites and disappoints them.
- Encourage children to verbalize their feelings: When children are sad or angry, help them verbalize and explain their feelings. Children are easily discouraged when they don’t feel they are being heard, so active listening is a crucial skill for adults who interact with children.
- Adapt parenting strategies to help you interact with children: When possible, find opportunities to observe how children’s parents engage with them and mirror those techniques that seem to be effective. Parents appreciate when you complement their own parenting styles.
- Learn children’s likes and dislikes, their strengths and areas for growth: As in any friendship, knowing and caring about the other person not only strengthens the relationship, but also allows you to help facilitate how children and their families interact in group settings.
- Ensure children feel a sense of belonging: Families want their children to feel a sense of belonging and community throughout their lives. Although it’s not possible to know precisely what this means for each family or each child, it’s important to make sure that families’ concerns, interests, ideas, and more are heard and, when necessary, to have the community respond to needs and concerns.
- Begin building Jewish connections with children as soon as possible: Providing meaningful Jewish experiences that foster personal, physical, cognitive, and spiritual development of children from the get-go, means that children (and their families) are more likely to feel connected to their Jewish community throughout their lives – from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood.
As Sam and I know well, a true friendship is one in which both people learn and grow together. I’m grateful to Sam for being my friend and for helping me learn and grow every day. As always, I’m looking forward to seeing him tomorrow at around 3 o’clock.
Rabbi P.J. Schwartz is the rabbi educator at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, CA. He is married to his college sweetheart, Michelle, a special education teacher.
Cross-posted from the blog of ReformJudaism.org.