When I was twelve, my father ordered some yarmulkes for my upcoming bar mitzvah. Inside the skullcap was a simple inscription “Daniel Mordecai Brenner – Now Available for Minyan.”
In some ways, I love this story as an example of how I was welcomed into Jewish community – the message I was receiving from my father, a regular weekday minyan-goer at our Conservative shul, was that I was now included in the quorum of men who gathered in a small room with weird gold wallpaper off the main hallway of our synagogue. I could be “counted” now – and I experienced this as an upgrade of my status in the community. As a thirteen-year-old boy, I was counted as equally as any of the men in the room and I knew that anywhere I travelled in the Jewish world I was of worth.
In our work at Moving Traditions, most of the middle schoolers we work with are not living with parents who are regular minyan-goers. In fact, many of the middle schoolers in Reform synagogues are not familiar with weekday minyan as a central feature of Jewish practice. For them to feel like they “belong” to the community, then, requires that they have some other group experience where they are seen as worthy, valuable, and equal.
In the last seven years I’ve had the pleasure of training three hundred men to form micro-communities of 8th and 9th grade boys as part of the Shevet program. One of the central messages that we attempt to convey to these mentors is that in a Shevet group there are no hierarchies or leadership positions – that every guy is given space and dignity and inherent worth. Community emerges from a formula – people spending informal time together, with basically the same group of non-family members, over a prolonged period of months. In almost all cases this formula also involves some eating and basic types of touching – fist-bumps, handshakes, and hugs.
I remember the first time that one of our mentors told me that he was proud of his group of guys. One of the guys, a ninth grader, had said that he never did his bar mitzvah because he struggled with dyslexia and couldn’t learn his parsha. He said that he was on a new medication now and he was focusing much better and that now he wanted to try to read from the Torah. The guys in his Shevet group decided to do a group aliyah so they could support him as he read from the Torah for the first time. Another story – one of the groups was meeting and they heard that their Cantor was sitting shiva because his mother had died. They decided as a group to attend the shiva before they started their session. The discussion they had after shiva opened up a conversation about mourning and grief – a topic these fourteen year-old-boys had never had before. A third story – a number of guys from an older Shevet group (10th and 11th graders) had been to a weekend party at a classmate’s apartment where a date rape had occurred. They used their Shevet time to discuss what they could have possibly done to prevent the attack from occurring.
Community is formed not simply by folks being together over time, but by watching how the group responds to changes, to the news, and to people who are in need. Teens rarely experience this form of community because their teachers change every year, they are in classes with different people, and often their friendship groups fluctuate.
By focusing on forming and sustaining micro-community over multiple years, I think that our work at Moving Traditions is speaking to the general lack of Jewish community that many teens (and adults) are feeling. At the end of the year, we ask teens in our programs to fill out a survey about the experience and one of our questions is whether they experienced a sense of Jewish community with other teens. Close to 80% have this experience.
Back to the yarmulke – as much as I admire the mentors who are leading our teens in these micro-communities in over a hundred local institutions, I am still worried that many of the teen in these groups will not find such communities when they go off to college and beyond. There are not Shevet and Rosh Hodesh groups beyond those in the U.S. and a handful in Israel that are run by our partners at Binah. But hopefully enough of these teens will have the DNA and life-experience to form such communities and value the role that small, ongoing groups play in giving us a sense of kehilla.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner was described by the New York Times as a “rabbi, storyteller, and aerobics instructor.” He is chief of education and program for Moving Traditions. He lives with his beloved Lisa and their three children in Montclair, New Jersey.