by David Gutbezahl –

The Jewish People are an ancient one. For many of our students, living in the modern day,  it can be challenging to connect their day to day lives with a culture that has existed for so many generations. The world has changed over time, after all, and while what it means to be Jewish has also changed over time, the meaning and relevance behind cultural behaviors, values and rituals can easily get lost in translation as the society around them society progresses forward. And while we may teach them how to “live Jewishly” and even go through the motions of Jewish life, understanding why they live in such a way, often requires life experience and seeking further knowledge. For many young Jews, the search for meaning and relevance behind their Jewish identity is a common journey. But what do we as Jewish educators do, when our students ask why they should live Jewishly when they don’t understand why it is relevant to their lives? For this tricky question, Shavuot is the perfect time to explore possible answers.

While there is no standard or even correct answer that will work for every student, there are a number of questions and topics that I believe are helpful for educators to consider when they are encouraging their students to explore what it means for them to live rich Jewish lives. During Shavuot, the Jews received the Torah from God, and thus a nation with a special relationship to God was born. It’s the perfect time for us to ask what this relationship entails, and how it remains relevant some 3000 years later.

What does is mean to “Live Jewishly?”

First and foremost, we need to ask each other what does it means to “live Jewishly?” Depending on what kind of Jewish community the students come from, Jewish life could mean many different things. Does it mean keeping kosher? Does it mean celebrating Jewish holidays and life cycle events? Does it mean valuing traditional Jewish education? Is it mostly religious, cultural, or a mixture of those two things? Every Jewish community, family and individual may understand Jewish living in very different terms, which makes exploring the concept of tackling the how of living Jewishly, before understanding the why, even more nebulous and difficult to pin down.

As always, your students can provide a great deal of insight into the topic at hand when you tell them to look at their own lives and experiences, and ask them to try to define what it means to be Jewish for them. You will likely get a variety of answers, as well as some surprising and thoughtful ones. As always, these kinds of open-ended discussions should be conducted in a way that is respectful of differences of opinions.

Understanding the “how” before the “why”

After exploring what it means to be  living Jewishly with your students, you will probably come to find that the next plausible question to ask is why we live in such a way. While educators, rabbis, parents and community leaders may consistently struggle with instilling the importance of carrying on Jewish continuity into the minds of Jewish youth, it is understandable and very human that they would want to know why they are doing something before they do it. After all, if nothing else, it is reasonable to argue that Jewish life demands a certain level of mindfulness and intention built upon the actions that we take. If you are being mindful of an action that you don’t understand, it can be hard to connect to the act itself. If you cannot connect, it may be difficult to see the reason why you should make the effort to continue to act in such a way, which leads such behavior to fall to the wayside.

Our students are living in an era where many different lifestyles are vying for their attention and calling on them to explore who they are. Now more than ever, we live in a world where who we are and why we do what we do is called into question. The options for how we decide to live our lives are more varied than ever before. Questions asked by today’s youth are often, “who am I?” and “where am I going?” It is less common for them to ask “who will I be?” and “where did I come from?” Those questions can only be answered by time and experience, which doesn’t always offer up the most satisfying result that young people are looking for. It might be helpful to encourage students to think of themselves as a link in a long chain that stretches back to Mt. Sinai – they matter as individual Jewish souls, even though it is plausible that they have little in common with this first generation of Jews standing to receive revelation at Sinai. Still, each year during Shavuot, we receive the Torah again, even in our modern age, as modern people, who are a part of an ancient custom that renews itself each year with the Jewish life cycle. How we decide to act allows us to keep that connection going, from Sinai to the collective and personal Jewish future.

For many people, action creates meaning, especially when an action is repeated habitually and has roots in the lineage of people who came before. For example, it is possible that a student keeps kosher without understanding why they keep kosher, and if given the option to stop keeping kosher, a real internal struggle may follow. Why is that, we may ask? If they don’t understand why they are keeping kosher, and yet have kept kosher for all this time, why feel compelled to keep on doing so? Often times, behaviors shape habits, and habits can create meaning. They may also find ourselves asking why we keep kosher, only after keeping kosher since childhood. The action of keeping kosher, for that individual, is then “normal” behavior for them. They don’t know why they do it that way, it is just that they always have done it this way. That alone may be enough to spur forth further exploration into the “why” of it all. It is in essence exactly what the Jewish people do at Mt. Sinai when they say the famous words, “na’aseh v’nishma”/”we will do, and we will hear.”

Why ask why?

And yet still for others, the “why” is not all that important. It may simply be our reality, and that is all there is to it. For many, certain behaviors, especially ones that we were raised with, are nothing more than expressions of our lived realities. We, and our students, are products of our environment, after all. We live how we live because that is how we were taught to live! If we continue with the example of keeping kosher, for many, it could simply be that they don’t feel the need to examine eating habits any more than any other people or culture, who have their own eating habits.

But perhaps it is also enough for others to consider their actions and the purpose behind them as something that they do because there must be meaning to it, even if they do not yet understand the purpose behind it. It begs to be explored further. With Shavuot, as we get to receive the Torah again and again, we all get to explore these questions anew. Being able to explore with our students what it means to live Jewishly after we have lived another year of life is a tremendous gift – we get to explore the significance of our Jewish selves again and again.

Shavuot this year

For Shavuot this year, encourage your students to explore the significance of their behavior as Jews and as individuals, and what it all means to them. Ask them to compare their answers to how they would have answered in years past, and where they might see themselves heading for next year. No matter how your students respond to the question, getting them to discuss and explore is always a wonderful way to cultivate their Jewish identity on their own terms. There are many paths that you and your students can take when exploring these issues. No matter which way we go though, all paths seem to lead to Sinai, where we receive the Torah again and again, for all these generations.