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What do you Say??

Nathanhopcat

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.

 

 

Justice Justice you Can Pursue, through PeerCorps

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.

 

 

Perfect Prom

How can it be? Prom season has come and gone. My kids’ included. I’ll be writing more about that in the near future, about prom, about when to let their kids stretch their independence, and when to step in and protect when it comes to the literal roads of life, and boy is it hard to distinguish the difference. 

In the meantime, for a little while longer, let them enjoy the innocence of being a kid and read a story of how some high school kids reached out to fellow students who never dreamed about going to prom and how they had the time of their lives.

It was a pleasure to write this one in the midst of making arrangements for my own child’s prom night. It was a pleasant surprise to find out it had made it to a cover story:

Perfect Prom

Posted on June 10, 2015, 12:29 PM . Filed in Uncategorized. Tagged . Be the first to comment!

A night to cherish —for students of all abilities

Spencer Cohn of West Bloomfield had his heart set on going to his prom to seal his lasting memories of high school with a fun night out on the town. He knew just whom he wanted to ask, and with the help of a teacher and supportive friends, he had a night to remember at West Bloomfield High School’s Senior Prom, held at the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle in Detroit.

Going to prom was also a dream come true for Spencer’s mom, Melanie Cohn. Like all parents raising kids with special needs, the thing she wanted most for her son was acceptance by his peers.

“When you have a child on the autism spectrum, you always feel like your kids are on the outside,” said Melanie, who is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Farmington Hills. “When I found out there was a way that Spencer could go to prom, I was so pleased. He went and felt accepted as part of a group of friends. Isn’t that how we all want to feel?”

Six couples show their prom spirit before heading off to the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle for the big dance.

This acceptance in part came from a course offered in several area high schools called LINK. Also known as Peer-to-Peer Support, LINK is a course where general education students assist students with learning disabilities in classroom and social settings. The course’s goals include improving social, independence and/or academic skills for students with disabilities as well as helping students in the general population develop an understanding of individuals with disabilities. Students who enroll in the course may eventually pursue careers in social work, teaching or psychology.

For about three years now, through LINK, WBHS seniors with special needs have been transported to prom in their own limousine bus, thanks to a generous anonymous donor in the Jewish community.

Spencer’s prom date was Dalia Rubenstein, 16, a WBHS junior who took the LINK course this spring semester. Volunteering with those with special developmental needs comes naturally for her. Ever since she could remember, she has accompanied her mother, Shoshana Rubenstein, ACSW, to help out at JARC events for adults.

Through LINK, Dalia gained experience with learning how to more patiently interact with teens on the Autism spectrum and not to “rush to judgment” when conversations do not go exactly as planned. For example, sarcasm does not go over very well to those with very literal minds.

“You have to watch what you say, especially if you want to joke around,” Dalia said. “Sarcasm doesn’t work so you have to say exactly what you mean.”

Harry Cohn adjusts his son’s tie before he heads off to the WBHS prom.

Though their families had been friends for many years, Dalia became better acquainted with Spencer through LINK.

“People dream about going to the prom because it is the highlight of high school,” Dalia said. So, when he asked me, I said, ‘Of course, I would love to go with you!’ Since then, he hasn’t stopped smiling and talking about the prom.”

After Spencer asked Dalia, she asked a few of her friends — some were part of LINK, others were not — if they would like to go to prom with other kids with special needs. Altogether, six couples dressed up, met in the school parking lot to have their parents kvell over them and take their photographs before they boarded the limo bus to prom.

Even though he prefers wearing shorts and a T-shirt most of the time, Spencer sported a tuxedo for the occasion. He said Dalia looked “great” in her navy blue prom dress. He gave her a white corsage. At his request, Dalia gave Spencer two picture frames: one to hold a picture of them at the prom and one saved for a graduation photo.

Dalia Rubenstein and Spencer Cohn

“It was pretty fancy at the yacht club and I loved the music,” Spencer said the day after prom. “I wanted to go to prom because I knew it was going to be a great memory to have forever from my senior year of high school.”

Accompanying them on the limo bus was Janis Schiffer, a school social worker and a coordinator of the LINK program. Schiffer said that these couples going to prom together is proof positive of how LINK bridges the gap between students of all abilities.

In the end, Schiffer knew her students with special needs were in good hands with their LINK buddies at the prom. She didn’t need to be with them at all times to be their “friend.” Instead, she was present at the prom just like any other adult chaperone, hanging in the background and watching the kids having fun.

“I was overjoyed to see them all having a wonderful time,” Schiffer said. “After a while, you really couldn’t tell which of the kids had special needs and which didn’t. It is just what one would expect from prom night.”

By: Stacy Gittleman, Contributing Writer

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.ironchef

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.
david-lerner
“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.”

Jacklawson MCUSYchapterofyear

West Hills Middle Schooler is all Smiles about helping Special Needs Children

lindseyWith 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

image 8Was 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.”

Conform or be cast inside out – – A rant on School dress codes

mitzvahswagThe 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.

Why?

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,
etc.

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.

 

 

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Rite of Passage: The college tour blog posts

Howdy, people!

 

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.

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Minding Those Manners on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Circuit

candleceremony

Izzy Randel, 12, Scott Katz, 11, both of Farmington Hills; Matthew Brown, 12, of Franklin; Jacob Kroll, 12, of West Bloomfield; and Jessica Gordon, 11, of Farmington Hills play the family blowing out the candles at a bar mitzvah.

Minding  Your Manners  Young people learn the rules for sharing  in their friends’ big day

Stacy Gittleman | Special to the Jewish News

PHOTOS BY JERRY ZOLYNSKY 

On a typical Shabbat in any Jewish American house of worship, there  is a young man or woman seated on the bimah. Dressed in a brand new suit or dress, these kids try to calm the butterflies in their stomachs before being called to the Torah for the very    First       time. You may think  they are the only one in the building going through a rite-of-passage ritual. However, their peers sitting in  the sanctuary are also enduring  their own coming-of-age test as  they navigate the bar/bat mitzvah  ceremony and party circuit. It may  be their first exposure to a formal  occasion in an increasingly informal  society.  Bar and bat mitzvah etiquette  starts with getting that invite in  the mail (and responding in a  prompt manner) and ends with  knowing whom to thank at the  end of the evening (the parents), and how many favors you are  allowed to take at the end of the party (hint: one per guest). Fortunately, there are businesses like Joe Cornell Entertainment in Southfield, co-owned by sister and brother team Steve Jasgur and Rebecca Schlussel, to help these young adults learn the  unwritten rules they are  expected to follow.
On a Wednesday  evening Hebrew school  session back in February,  around 35 sixth- and  seventh-graders at Adat Shalom  Synagogue in Farmington Hills  were treated to an afternoon  off from their regular studies  to a 90-minute Joe Cornell  Entertainment workshop.  The workshop, complete with  a candlelighting ceremony, cake  and dancing, was a highly condensed  sampling of a 12-week  course offered by the company  that teaches adolescents the fine  points of attending a dance or  other social occasion.  Schlussel has been offering  b’nai mitzvah etiquette for  many years. Having just planned  a December 2013 bar mitzvah  for her own son, she now spoke  through the lens of her personal  experience.  “When you get that invitation  in the mail, find the family  calendar.

As soon as you know  that date is clear, you respond  ‘yes’ and put the response card  in the mail, or email your reply,”  she instructed the students, seated  around a dance floor where they  would soon show off their best  moves. “Your friend really wants  you to come to their bar mitzvah,  and the parents really have to  know how much food to get —  and how many napkins to order  from the caterer.”    I must offer you full disclosure  here: In addition to being a  writer, I am also the sixth-grade  Hebrew school teacher at Adat  Shalom. Throughout the year, I’ve  watched my students mature from  an energetic bunch of little kids  into inquisitive, emerging young  adults who demonstrate that they  are prepared to do the work and  studying required to become a bar  or bat mitzvah.

As their teacher, I get an inside  track on the mindset of the preb’nai  mitzvah scene. At the start  of class, a student will enthusiastically  share the news with  me that they received their bar/bat mitzvah date and Torah portion.  Others will tell me how they  recently attended a bar/bat mitzvah  and to avoid getting “bored,”  they actually made an effort to  follow along with the service and  the Torah reading. Or look up their  Torah reading. This is music to a  Hebrew school teacher’s ears.  Continuing to focus on the ritual  aspect of the b’nai mitzvah, Rabbi  Rachel Shere led the students  through a question-and-answer  session of how to conduct oneself  at Shabbat services.

She advised the students to tell  their friends that it is acceptable  to arrive to synagogue an hour  later than indicated on the invitation.  It is not acceptable to use  any electronics in the building on  Shabbat, so students accustomed  to being constantly wired may  have to arrange pick-up times  with parents earlier or, at least,  use their phones outside the  building or in a quiet corner.

Matthew Berg, 11, of Farmington talks with Re-becca Schlussel of West Bloomfield about the proper way to say thank you after a bar mitzvah.

Matthew Berg, 11, of Farmington talks with Re-becca Schlussel of West
Bloomfield about the proper way to say thank you after a bar mitzvah.

“We know that cell phones are  a fact of life. But on Shabbat we  try to avoid these distractions as  much as possible so we can pray  with our community. If you must  use a cell phone to contact your  parents for a ride home, please be  discrete about it,” Shere said.  Shere added that options for  “boredom” during services include  taking a short break outside the  sanctuary in the synagogue’s  youth lounge, where there will be  snacks to fend off mid-morning  hunger. It is also expected of them  to be gracious guests.

“Always remember to introduce  yourself to the parents of your  friend and thank them for inviting  you to this very happy family  occasion,” she said.  After the more serious lessons,  it was time to have some fun.  Students played roles of the  “bar mitzvah family,” in a mock  candle ceremony and were then  taught the hora and other dance  moves.

According to Jasgur, dancing  at a b’nai mitzvah party is not  optional.  “Dancing for your friend is a fun  obligation that shows your friend  how happy you are to celebrate  with them on their big day,”  Jasgur said.

At Temple Israel in West  Bloomfield, Rabbi Marla Hornsten  said that Joe Cornell Entertainment  offered similar workshops to adolescents,  and proper dress and  behavior in the sanctuary are discussed  in the classroom.  “Most of all, I hope this is a  conversation parents are having  with their children long before  they are dropped off for the morning  service,” Hornsten said.  Andre Douville, executive director  of Temple Shir Shalom in West  Bloomfield, said the congregation  prepares the entire bar mitzvah  family for the occasion with a few  meetings with the clergy that start  18 months prior to the big day.  At these meetings, families are  encouraged to come to services in  the months leading up to the bar or bat mitzvah to become familiar  with services and to understand  what will be expected of them.

During these meetings, a family  may want to share some information  on the kinds of kids who are  coming to the temple for services.  If there will be a large amount of  non-Jewish kids, the families have  the option of inserting a one or  two-lined “synagogue primer” in  their invitation envelope about  behavior and dress expectations.

The temple has also adjusted  the start time of services on  Friday nights from 8 to 7:30 p.m.  to accommodate sleepy middle  schoolers who have been  waking up early all week  for school. Also, Shir  Shalom will “ramp up”  the number of ushers  depending on the number  of young guests.

“We know times are  different now. We expect  a level of decorum in  temple, such as no cell  phones and limited conversations.  But kids are kids, and  we know they are going to be  antsy. Sometimes, you have to be  a little forgiving,” Douville said.

So, to my young friends in the  bar/bat mitzvah circuit, and you  know who you are: Do yourself a  favor. Learn how to sit in services. Take the time to follow along with  your friends’ Torah reading to give  them your support — after all  that’s what you are there for.  There will be a bagel with your  name on it waiting for you at the  Kiddush as your reward for good  behavior.

 

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France Can Take A Lesson in Religious Tolerance from Detroit’s Interfaith Council

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.”

templeisrael 002

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.

templeisrael 008Maddy Merritt left, and Ashley Liles, right, seventh graders from Clarkston’s Sashabaw Middle school, examine Hebrew letters in the sanctuary at Temple Israel at during a Religious Diversity Journey.

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.”

templeisrael 012

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.

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