My first short-lived job out of college I worked for a small weekly newspaper in a rural county in New Jersey. So rural that the grounds for the county fair, complete with livestock competitions with pigs and cows, was right out the back door of the newsroom.
That weekend, the staff worked a booth to promote the paper and increase circulation. I was in charge of blowing up helium balloons and handing them out to children who stopped by to visit.
With each child I gave a balloon, parents were sure to ask that child in a prodding manner:
“What do you say?”
It seems the thing you teach your kid to say, that kindest phrase, cannot be said enough in life.
Just saying thank you. Showing gratitude for every experience, some good, some not so good, but recognizing that each moment teaches and shapes you.
In addition to nurturing this practice in our children, for saying thank you for getting material things when they are younger, we hope that as our kids grow into adults, they keep saying it for the intangible things too.
So there I was, out at the Crofoot, a nightclub in Pontiac, Mich., trying to make eye contact with my 17-year-old son as he opened for touring folk-rock bands The Mountain Babies and The Cactus Blossoms, mouthing the words:
WHAT DO YOU SAY?
Now, I am not saying that he did not say thank you to his audience, or to the headlining band. But you just can’t say it enough.
This is the summer that my 17-year old son, soon to be a high school senior, truly hustled to get out his music as a solo guitarist and songwriter. The band that he and his mates tried so hard to get off the ground during sophomore and junior year never took off. There were too many conflicts. Too many SAT prep classes and cross-country meets. Too many mothers filling up weekends with family obligations.
This summer, he did not get a job at Kroger, or Old Navy, or a summer day camp. It was not from a lack of trying.
What he did get were a few paid gigs.
So I just want to say, thank you.
Thank you to the Teen Council of Detroit and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit for fostering creativity through your rap and songwriting workshops, your uncensored teen Open Mike nights.
Thank you to the Farmington Civic Theater for letting my son busk (yes, this is a verb that you learn when you know a starving up and coming musician) on a couple of Friday nights for dollar bills and pocket change, and a free drink and two movie tickets.
Thank you to Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak and all the tea sipping folks there who listened and cheered for my son on open mike nights.
Thank you to The Hopcat who, though he was underage, let my son open up your open mike night a little early at your upstairs bar before he had to get thrown out. And, of course, thank you for Crack Fries.
And all along the way, I am thankful for the friends here, people I did not have in my life only three short years ago since moving to Detroit, who not only have come out to hear him play, but who ask me when he is playing next.
So, my son, I know you are never more comfortable than when you are up on stage playing, but when you are up there, you know what to say, and you cannot say it enough. Plug the band for whom you are opening. Give praise to your audience. You just cannot do it enough.
While I’m at it, I would be humbly thankful if you check out my son’s music here.
This winter, the headlines have been filled with two bleak stories coming out of Michigan: The Flint water crisis and the crisis in Detroit Public Schools.
At the center of both stories, the ones hurt the most are kids. Our kids.
In the sick-outs of Detroit, teachers have rightly refused to teach in buildings with overcrowded classrooms, schools that have no heat, or mold, or infested with rodents. They are doing this not for selfishness but they believe that their students deserve better.
This winter, Michigan made international news because of Flint. There is now confirmation that state workers purchased gallon after gallon of purified water to drink iin their offices as recently as January 2015 as they assured Flint residents that the water coming out of their own tap was safe to drink. It is a pretty safe bet that every child in Flint will have some degree of lead poisoning – poisoining that will forever alter their ability to learn and develop normally.
These two stories scream out injustice towards the poorest and powerless population in our state: black kids and their families.
Is it any wonder that we then hear the cries of injustice and the charges of systematic environmental racism? It is hard to turn a blind eye or ear to injustices put upon our children.
You may say: “Wait a minute, not my kid. Those are someone else’s kids. We live somewhere with great schools and wouldn’t you know it, but we can actually drink and brush our teeth and bathe with the water coming out of our tap.”
But these kids indeed are our kids. They live right up the road in the same state.
This year, my suburban kid is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah. His Torah reading has one of the most significant lines in the whole Torah: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice you shall pursue.
Justice. So important it had to be said not once but twice. How do you pursue it? How can one person, one kid, living in a nice suburban cul de sac world, face down injustices that have gone on for decades? What can really one person do?
Sitting pretty here in suburban Detroit, it is pretty easy get comfortable in our isolation, our separateness or “otherness” from those living in our urban cores. I have come to know something after living in the Detroit ‘burbs for almost three years: the disconnect between urban and suburban, between the haves and have nots is palpable.
Sitting pretty here in suburbia can make one feel powerless to turn the injustices around. And downright angry. But sitting around will do nothing. We may not be able to solve everything, but we have to contribute and try something.
There are bridges we can build, and one, in fact, is built right in with PeerCorps Detroit. PeerCorps is a year-long mentorship program inviting Jewish teens, b’nai mitzvah students and their families from all denominations to build deep relationships with one another and perform community-based work in Detroit.
Last year, my son participated in one Track of Peer Corps’ community building work in Detroit. Every other week, he would trek with a van full of other middle schoolers and their high-school aged mentors to the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit. There, he helped out with the younger kids in after-school care, played with them, read to them and most of all, got to know different kids in a different part of the city and to realize they all like to do the same things together.
This year, as he studies for his Bar Mitzvah reading which concentrates on pursuing justice, he will be tutoring elementary-age kids with Mission:City.
These are just two areas in where Peer Corps is building bridges into Detroit and doing what we can to let people living in the city know that someone cares and, however seemingly small a step we are making, we are trying to make it a step in the right direction.
To learn more about Peer Corps, come to Gesher Day at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue on Sunday, Feb. 28 to find out here how you and your middle-schooler can be a bridge between urban and suburban Detroit.
The Future is Bright for Detroit’s Conservative Jews. Motor City Youth Group is “Chapter of the Year”
When I taught Hebrew school and looked at the sweet yet glazed-over faces of my students, I would gently yet firmly reassure them: “KIds, please. I get it. Hebrew school may not be your thing. But don’t ever let your feelings about Hebrew school cloud your love for being Jewish. There is a better Jewish life after Hebrew school and it is youth group.”
Personally, I owe my life to United Synagogue Youth’s high school and middle school programming. Whether it was learning how to do The Time Warp or Rock Lobster at a dance, or finally mastering the WHOLE Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) while singing it with hundreds of my closest friends, It taught me how to life Jewishly joyfully. Kudos to the Motor City Chapter of USY for winning for the second year in a row Chapter of the Year for the organization’s Central region.
This ran in the May 21, 2015 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Please subscribe.
Motor City USY wins honor for second year running
| Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Recently recognized by the Central Region of United Synagogue Youth for membership growth and inter-generational religious programming such as “McKabbalat Shabbat,” members of Detroit’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth recently arrived home from their regional spring convention in Cleveland bleary-eyed yet happy to have clinched the “Chapter of the Year” award for the second year running.
Motor City USY, affectionately known as “MCUSY,” is witnessing a resurgence in membership growth and dynamic programming designed to engage and energize the youngest members of Metro Detroit’s Conservative Jewish movement.
The chapter has attracted about 65 official members in grades 6-12, and a little over 100 individuals have attended at least one USY or Kadima program in the past year, according to adviser David Lerner. Highlights of the year included a Purim limousine scavenger hunt, monthly volunteering at bingo games with adults with developmental disabilities in cooperation with JARC, and an “Iron Chef ” kosher cooking contest for students in the middle school grades.
The Conservative movement in Detroit has invested much in its youth engagement and informal education in the last several years with its Ramah Fellowship and by hiring a full-time USY adviser. For the past two years, this post was filled by David Lerner. Lerner is stepping down from his post, and this summer will begin his rabbinical studies at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I have been so inspired working with the teens and witnessing their passion and ability to form a community around Jewish life and values,” Lerner, 32, said.
“I have merely served as the facilitator and supporter to all their passion and great ideas. They have worked hard through their frustrations to create so many positive outcomes over the past two years.”
Lerner hopes the organization will choose a new adviser who has an established relationship with the organization and can continue its upward direction.
In the last two years, Lerner said he focused on growing and strengthening programming and outreach at the high school level. In coming years, he said the focus should be on growing the organization’s Kadima group for grades 6-8 and Junior Kadima for grades 3-5.
Local area Conservative rabbis also place a high value on the way USY blends social and religious aspects to get teens enthused about Judaism.
Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills attributes the chapter’s recent success to collaboration across all of Detroit’s Conservative synagogues and professional staff who are connected and invested in the teens.
Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield — where Lerner also worked as director of youth and young adult programming — echoed this sentiment of working together to create meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and fostering friendships for teens.
“As Conservative Jews, we are committed to developing passionate, educated young adults devoted to finding spirituality within Jewish ritual, meaning within Jewish life, and a commitment to repairing our broken world,” Starr said.
“Most of all, the teens who are part of MCUSY are exceptional leaders and, in them, I see a bright future for the Jewish people.”
With an astute understanding of the power of delivering a smile, Lindsey Zousmer, a fifth-grader at West Hills Middle School, has got “magic” to do for disabled children receiving physical therapy at local hospitals.
Last month, she started a community service project called “Projects 4 Smiles” and is asking other kids her age to create small craft projects, such as bookmarks, bracelets or pins to give as gifts of encouragement.
To kick off Project 4 Smiles, Zousmer invited WHMS classmates in the fourth and fifth grades to come to school on Jan. 16 wearing funny hats and donating a dollar for supplies. Commun ity members may also donate any extra craft supplies they may have at home: decorative duct tape, buttons, extra scrapbooking supplies, glitter, beads, glue, markers, cardstock or string will do the trick. Drop off these supplies at the office at West Hills Middle School, 2601 Lone Pine Road in West Bloomfield, where a special Project 4 Smiles box has been set aside.
The idea came to Zousmer after shadowing her mother Stacy Agree Zousmer, a pediatric physical therapist, at work at Beaumont Hospitals on days she had no school. It was there that she watched children with disabilities struggle to accomplish simple tasks that most children her age can do with ease.
“My mom explained to me how some of these kids can be very successful even with the disabilities and/or the conditions they have,” Lindsey wrote in a letter to the entire West Hills Middle School community. “We want to encourage them and make them aware that they are just as capable as we are.”
Ultimately, she wants to collect enough crafted gifts and then video or photograph the expression of joy on the children’s faces to show her classmates back at school “just how happy they can make others when they give a small gift.”
The project is a product of Bloomfield Schools’ Primary Years Programme (PYP), which engages children in the district’s primary grades to be socially aware and responsible through action. Kathy Janelle, the district’s PYP coordinator, explained “education must extend beyond the intellectual to include not only socially responsible attitudes, but also thoughtful and appropriate action.”
Stacy Agree Zousmer saw how important it was for her own children to meet her patients and also to volunteer at the Friendship Circle.
Lindsey’s family extends many generations in Detroit. She is a descendant of the founders of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, who established the congregation on the principles of social consciousness. She attends religious school at Temple Israel, where she learned about the Jewish obligation to help those in need through g’milut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. In her letter, she said her mom serves as her biggest example for caring for others.
“Not only is Lindsey a natural caretaker, but she also finds common interests with these kids because they are her peers,” her mom says. “She loves to help them realize their potential and feel good about themselves. At the young age of 10, Lindsey is truly beginning to understand what it means to pay it forward.”
Got a Sweet Tooth and a Big Heart: Attend Camp Mak-A-Dream Benefit Oct 16 at the Somerset Collection
Was honored to write this piece that appeared in the October 9, 2014 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. I hope I did right by the young lady featured in this story, who, attended Camp Mak-A-Dream for three summers. Catherine is now a student at Arizona State. who has become a champion for speaking out and speaking for coping with living with brain cancer.
When Catherine Blotner of West Bloomfield was 17, she underwent a risky brain surgery procedure to remove a benign yet deep and invasive brain tumor that for years was causing seizures and threatened her vision and hearing. The doctors said the surgery could cause permanent speech and cognitive loss, and even the loss of her ability to walk.
Now, Blotner is 19 and a student at Arizona State University studying family and human development. Not only did she keep her ability to speak, she is a blogger and founder of #btsm (brain tumor social media), a monthly Twitter chat open to anyone seeking resources on treating brain tumors. Neurologists and healthcare professionals seek her out for speaking engagements and conferences focused on people coping with brain illnesses. On the back of her business card: her twitter handle – @cblotner, plus a photo of an MRI of her brain.
Her mother, Ann Blotner, attributes her daughter’s confidence, coping strength, and leadership qualities in part to the summers she spent as a camper at Camp Mak-A-Dream – a free camp under the big skies of Montana for children and young adults with cancer. She has been both a camper and a counselor there, including the weeks leading up to her life- altering surgery.
“Through Camp Mak-a-Dream, Catherine has become confident and connected into a supportive network of healthcare professionals as well as a peer group who are going through similar health challenges that have changed their lives,” said Ann.
The Michigan Chapter of FRIENDS OF CAMP MAK-A-DREAM hosts its “sweet” 16th annual “Cookies n’ Dreams” fundraiser 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16 at the Somerset Collection in Troy. Food, beverages, entertainment and activities for all ages will be provided throughout the evening. Admission for adults is $60; children under 17 pay their age and children 3 and under are free. For more information go to Camp Mak-A-Dream
According to Peter Grimes, the organization’s executive director, the long-standing event has attracted “eager sponsors” and area bakers donating hundreds of cookies as well as their confectionary time and expertise to the family-friendly event. The bake-off expects to draw 600 attendees and raise at least $130,000. Funds raised in Michigan pay for the camping and transportation costs for 70 children from Michigan. Grimes added that former campers like Blotner come back to volunteer as young adults and offer support to the campers through talks and workshops.
The camp was founded by Sylvia and the late Harry Granader of Beverly Hills, Mich. Granader owned several McDonald’s restaurants and founded several Michigan-area Ronald McDonald houses. He donated 87 acres of Montana ranch land to build a camp especially created for children and young adults facing life-threatening diseases such as cancer and brain tumors. The camp welcomed its first campers in 1995. Since then it has hosted more than 6000 children and young adults, offering typical camping activities such as swimming, a ropes course, archery, hiking, arts & crafts as well as a state of the art medical center, staff and volunteers to allow the campers to get cancer treatment while they are at camp.
Hadar Granader of Bloomfield Hills wishes to carry on his brother’s legacy of granting sick children a summer out in nature where “no child will feel embarrassed or laughed at because of their illness.”
“Life is especially hard for kids with cancer because they become cut off from everyday life and healthy kids have a hard time relating to them,” Granader said. “At Camp-Mak-a-Dream, children with cancer get to bond and share memories and friendships that help sustain them long after the summer is over.”
The other night, we had a family outing to a very large fair. The kids rode on typical fair rides that spin you around and hurl you upside down into the air after eating typical fair fare like corn dogs and fried dough.
I am not a big ride person. At all. But I do like to people watch at carnivals and fairs. I like to see what people are wearing, or what they are not wearing enough of so everyone can see the writings or etchings that cover their arms and legs in the form of a tattoo.
At least, under those summer carnival lights, there is still somewhere left on earth for self-expression.
Today, my 5th grader came home from school. His shirt was inside out.
Did I miss the note that today in school was inside out day? It’s late May. I’m kind of done with checking homework, checking notes.
No. A teacher in school made him turn it inside out.
The shirt was “too religious.”
The shirt in question said: “I rocked out at xxxxxx’s Bar Mitzvah” It was black and had a guitar emblem on it hand designed by my daughter artist-in-residence. You would think that an art teacher would have admired the shirt for its individuality. But no, she in front of the whole class made my son wear his shirt inside out for the rest of the day. No one had paid any mind to my son’s shirt until he was asked to turn it inside out.
The shirt was leftover from his brother’s Bar Mitzvah.
From three years ago.
You can blame me, teach, because he has so many of that shirt in his drawers and there was probably no other shirts left because I’m a bit behind on the laundry.
Initially, I became furious that my son could not wear anything “religious.” Would a Christian kid be asked to remove a cross? A Muslim kid remove her hajib? God in heaven, I hope not.
So I called the school with my concern and calmly (okay, NOT calmly) explained the situation.
“Oh yes, kids are not supposed to wear shirts they get from Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. It makes other kids feel …. bad.”
Sorry, but I guess I never got that memo either. Because my son, and his brother and sisters, have tons of T-shirts from Bar Mitzvahs. And sports teams. And youth group weekend retreats.
In fact, if it weren’t for all those shirts they received when they worked the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit, why, they may have not had any clothing that school year at all!
Giving out T-shirts, or for those high-end B’nei Mitzvah parties, sweatshirts (!) has been the popular party favor for decades.
The school’s rationale is that these types of Bar/Bat mitzvah T-shirts distract the student from their academics. The school’s rationale is that this rule is there to protect the uninvited from feeling excluded.
Let’s examine how other items of clothing, or any other actions we do, may make people feel excluded. If we are really going to take inclusiveness to the highest level, perhaps school boards should consider banning the following items of apparel:
Sports or athletic clothing: Lots of kids wear varsity clothing and some may even have varsity letters. This may make the non-athletes around them feel sad or unsatisfied with themselves.
Concert T-Shirts – I remember in high school the kids who spent all their money, or got money from their parents to go the hottest tours and they would wear their T-shirts that they bought from that concert that very next day. I remember thinking how much I too would have loved to see that band and then …. I got over it.
Vacation T-Shirts: When kids from families who can afford plane tickets during peak vacation time return from Florida or their time share in the Caribbean, it makes the white, pale pasty kids who didn’t escape to somewhere warm feel very excluded.
Designer clothing – My son speaks of a classmate who he swears gets a new pair of $200 sneakers every other week. That could make anyone -ANYONE – who is not a Joneses – feel excluded.
I presented these ideas to the principal when he called me back. I asked him if, during the months of October through December, if he could make sure that there would be no showing of anything red and green, or that no one in school wears Christmas lights or ornaments as necklaces or earrings, or that no one be allowed after Christmas to wear any sweaters with reindeer or candy canes or snowflakes or fir trees on them.
Absurd? Well, it might – MIGHT – make a tiny part of the school population feel – excluded.
I asked him how much longer he wanted to continue this ridiculous conversation with me. But if the ridiculous rule were not there, we would not be having this ridiculous conversation.
Want to see the dress code rules? Here they are. Please see if you see any mention of Bar/Bat Mitzvah or any party swag in here:
14. STUDENT DRESS
District students are expected to dress, groom, and attire themselves in a manner that is not
potentially dangerous, does not distract others or disrupt education, and does not convey a
message contrary to District policy. The following are examples of dress, grooming, and attire
that may violate District policy. This should not be considered an exclusive list.
Potentially Dangerous Items:
Chains, pointed rings, metal spikes, clothing or attire restricting physical movement,
Distracting or Disruptive Items:
Clothing that exposes or draws unusual attention to breasts, buttocks, or
genitals; styles that expose undergarments; bizarre clothing, grooming or attire that
focuses attention on a student or group of students at the expense of learning, such as
nightwear or beachwear, etc. Students must wear shoes.
Contrary to District Policy:
Clothing that advertises or promotes smoking, alcohol, or the illegal use of drugs;
clothing reasonably likely to be perceived as promoting racial, ethnic, or religious
discrimination or intolerance; clothing reasonably likely to be perceived as advertising
or promoting illegal behavior; clothing reasonably likely to be perceived as obscene,
lewd, vulgar, or plainly offensive, etc.
What are we doing when we have rules that go to the extremes to coddle the middle schoolers feelings?
We do our kids no favors by not teaching them to start developing a tough skin and not to feel disappointment. Yes, have a tender heart, but start thickening that skin by age 12 or 13. So it won’t hurt so badly the first time you get rejected. By a college. Or a boy. Or a job. With that tough skin, you know it will hurt for a little. And then, you’ll go on.
Know now, starting in middle school, that even the most seemingly popular kids are frightfully insecure, and all you need in life is a few good true friends.
You don’t need everyone to be your friend. But you need to find that bunch of friends who will include you for YOU. Not because you are going to have the fanciest Bar Mitzvah in town and give out the best T-shirts.
Better to learn in middle school, that no, you won’t get invited to every party. You may or may not go to prom. But you’ll know the kids who did, because guess what, in HIGH SCHOOL, along with that expensive prom ticket, guess what you get to wear Monday in school?
A sweatshirt. Saying you went to prom.
Yes, it’s been ages since I have written a post. But this blog post will be merely a placeholder to say, come back, I promise, I will have something to say of what my life has been like over the past few weeks.
Most of what has been occupying my family’s time is the college search for our oldest child.
This spring “break,” the family took a most unusual road trip. It did not involve going back to our hometowns. It did not involve sleeping in our childhood bedrooms and seeing extended families.
It was all about visiting colleges.
In the next few blog posts, I will be sharing our experiences of our visits to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and in Pittsburgh, the contrasts between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. And, because we live in southeast Michigan, this series would not be complete without our visit to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In the next few blog posts, I will be discussing my impressions of the presentations given by each schools’ admission departments, what you can learn on an official college tour, and what you can further learn from taking a real-live student to lunch. I will also write about the “vibe” of each campus and the surrounding cultural aspects of each town.
I will also be writing about the issue of early admission, and how the Ivies and other prestigious universities continue to become even more selective in their admission process.
At that post, I would like hear from you, dear readers on the worth of a college education received at an Ivy League or other prestigious schools. Is it worth the high cost of tuition if it will open up doors for the student at the onset of graduation? Is it better to get an undergraduate education at a good public state college and then gain the prestige of attending an Ivy League for graduate school? These questions are in hot contention right now and I would love for you to chime off on that post.
So, stay tuned right here, and I promise I’ll be cranking these posts out in the days to come. And, if you are also in this stage of life with your children, feel free to comment on each post on your college searches.
On these snowy days I admit I have done way too much trolling on my Facebook news feed. One alarming video clip that came across my newsfeed was a very disturbing video of Fascists in France waving a red swastika flag, shouting Jews Out! Jews Out!
Do they have the right to march peacefully and express their views in a democratic society? Maybe. Have these French citizens forgotten the history of WWII when the Nazis themselves goose-stepped through the streets of Paris shouting the same hatred? Absolutely.
Today’s Germany would not stand for such hate marches, free speech or not. In fact, it is illegal to fly the Nazi Flag anywhere in Germany or have a Nazi rally.
I wonder, in this country which proposes to ban the wearing of any religious symbol or clothing, what they teach their children about religious tolerance.
A few weeks back, I had the honor of attending and covering a “Face to Faith” Journey to Judaism sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Greater Detroit. Sitting in the massive sanctuary of Temple Israel of West Bloomfield with 150 seventh graders, I felt right at home. And you know something, so did the kids. Even if they never set foot in a Jewish house of worship. Even if they never had a Jewish friend.
Cynics might wonder if such interfaith explorations organized by Detroit’s Interfaith Council really teach tolerance. But, after you watch the disturbing and disgusting video of Fascists marching down a street of what is supposed to be the world’s most civilized city shouting “Jews Out!” consider the alternatives.
Here is the article which ran in the Detroit Jewish News
What does a rabbi look like? To the uninitiated, a rabbi wears a long black coat, grows a long beard, and therefore must always be a man.
Temple Israel rabbis, teachers, and other volunteers at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield helped to dispel this and many other misconceptions about Judaism as they guided a diverse group of 150 seventh graders from six school districts through a “Jewish Religious Diversity Journey.” The trip was part of a series of explorations into different religions created by the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.
According to the council’s administrator Meredith Skowronski, Religious Diversity Journeys for the past 11 years has taken young leaders – 25 handpicked students from each school district – on six trips to a different house of worship to foster understanding and a celebration of cultural differences. Participating school districts include Berkeley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Clarkston, West Bloomfield, and Walled Lake.
Gail Katz, a retired Berkeley teacher and the director of Religious Diversity Journeys, explained that the program fits in perfectly with the World Religions unit of the seventh Grade curriculum.
“The Journey only extends what they are learning beyond the textbook and the classroom,” said Katz as she mingled with the students during a morning icebreaker. “We strive to increase respect and understanding among all students.”
Rabbi Josh Bennett – who is clean-shaven and does not wear a long black coat – kicked off the formal component of the day of learning in the temple’s large sanctuary. Students, impressed by the large golden ark on the bimah, learned about the three different branches of Judaism and the belief in one God, learning Torah and the connection to Israel, which unites Jews across every level of observance
Later in the morning, groups of students took turns touring the building and listening to Rabbi Ariana Gordon explain the cycle of Jewish holidays, the complexity of having a Hebrew calendar that is both lunar and solar, and the odd phenomena this year that was “Thanksgivingkah.”
The students also visited the building’s mikvah and viewed an open Torah Scroll with Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny.
“These trips are an invaluable lesson where kids get a hands-on learning experience and are made to feel welcome in different houses of worship,” said Kaluzny after teaching a group about how a Torah scroll is made and written.
Over a Mediterranean vegetarian lunch prepared by Mezza of West Bloomfield and sponsored by Temple Israel, students expressed their appreciation for the program, which allows them to explore other traditions and pose questions that would seem inappropriate or uncomfortable in a classroom setting.
Ben Johnston of West Hills Middle School came away from the program with a better understanding of the different branches of Judaism and the customs and holidays his Jewish friends celebrate.
“This program is important to me because we have a diverse society,” Johnston said. “We go to school with different kinds of kids, and as we get older, these are the people we’ll go to college and work with. We must have the knowledge of their backgrounds so we can be more tolerant and understanding.”
Ben Johnston, a student at West Hills Middle school, learns about the role of a mikvah in Jewish life during a Religious Diversity Journey.
Ashley Liles and Maddy Merritt, both of Sashabaw Middle School in Clarkston, do not go to school with many Jewish kids. The program allowed them to peer into a Siddur and not feel embarrassed to ask why it opens up backwards or why the letters look different than English.
The “journey” gave them a better perspective of the history and origins of the Jewish people. Not only did it widen their understanding of Jewish holidays beyond Chanukkah, but the lesson with Rabbi Gordon also gave them a broader understanding of a holiday they would otherwise only know as a “Jewish Christmas.”
Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, displays a Torah scroll to seventh graders on a Religious Diversity Journey with the help of parent volunteer Janet Cummins of Birmingham.