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Thoughts on Education

Too Young for Teshuva?

 Question: 

I am wondering how you plan to talk about Yom Kippur in Hebrew School next week. 

I went through Hebrew School myself as a child and I remember clearly being taught that the day is a one of repentance and introspection, and a time to request that we should be forgiven for our misdeeds. 

Sheila is seven years old, and while her emotions sometimes get the better of her and she acts in a way that might be hurtful to others, I know that at her core she is not a cruel or bad person.

I am curious to know how you are going to address teshuvah—forgiveness and repentance—with our children?

Yom Kippur is an intense day, dedicated to our personal and collective self-reflection. It’s a time when we as adults review the past years’ actions, and we need to be honest with ourselves and see when and where we erred, and how we can correct our wrongs. Teshuvah requires us to express our regret and apologize to others and G-d; in the process, we expose our vulnerabilities and realign our priorities. 

So what relevance can a seven-year-old girl find with these ideas?

What do we do when we discover that our child bullied others? Gossiped about a friend? Got involved in a fight? Took something that did not belong to them? Cheated on a test? 

Recognizing that our child has hurt another person or behaved poorly is not an easy thing for us to deal with, and we are often at a loss on how to respond and guide them to correct the wrong.

In Failing Forward, John Maxwell asks us to view failure not as mistakes that need to be endured but as learning opportunities. When you fail, you learn that the method you tried didn’t work, so it’s time to attempt something different. Failure humbles us; it allows us to see ourselves as fallible; to learn that there are times we can’t do it on our own and we need to ask for guidance. When we learn from failure, it becomes transformed and serves as a stepping stone on the path to success.

Our kids have been exposed to this idea of utilizing failure as a growth opportunity in school and on the soccer field. So why not as a path of self-correction when they do something that hurts another person or do something wrong? 

Teshuvah follows this model of using our failures as stepping stones to forgiveness, and Yom Kippur is a wonderful time for us to teach our children how the teshuvah process works. 

The halachic structure of teshuvah consists of three steps on our part: recognizing and identifying the wrong, expressing remorse, and resolving not to repeat the behavior again. 

We can walk our children through the steps by encouraging them to identify their behavior as wrong or hurtful, and create a corrective plan of action that includes apologizing if necessary, repairing the damage, and deciding how they will avoid repeating their behavior when challenged or tempted to do it again.

During Hebrew School last year, a creative second grader used a sharpie marker to write a naughty but thankfully misspelled word on a wooden classroom door. I caught him in the act and told him he needed to clean it off the door.

He tried to wipe it off with a dry paper towel, and then a wet one with soap, but it didn’t fade the dark marks. There’s a life hack that teachers know that is useful when kids get creative with permanent markers: When you color over the permanent marker with a dry erase marker on a laminated surface, both markers can be wiped off with a dry tissue. I told our resident artist about this trick and he was eager to try it. Using the dry erase marker, he scribbled over his original artwork and wiped it clean. While most of his writing was gone, there was still a trace of gray and the word was still legible. I took out a cleanser with bleach, and I told him that there was a chance that the bleach might remove the gray. To his amazement, when I sprayed the last vestiges of his writing, it erased completely.

I asked him, “What happened when we used the dry erase marker over the permanent marker?” He described how it almost erased his writing. “What happens when we do something we are not supposed to do—how do we fix the mistake?” Having done this teshuvah exercise before with me, he replied, “I am sorry that I wrote on the door and I won’t do it again.” I asked him, “How would you know that you wouldn’t do it again? At some point see a Sharpie and be tempted to write on the wall or a door?” He stayed quiet, so I asked: “What did the bleach do that the dry erase marker couldn’t do?” I told him to look closely at the door. He noticed that there was a mark where the lamination was stripped by the caustic chemical. I told him, “When you really regret what you’ve done, it will leave a such a strong impression on you so not only won’t you do it again, but when you see someone else doing it you will stop them as well.” He thought for a minute and said, “I am going to tell my little sister about this and make sure that she doesn’t write on the furniture anymore.” 

This exchange became a relevant lesson on teshuvah that evolved from my decision not to discipline him for destroying school property, but walk him through the teshuvah process. I engaged him in a conversation that let him see how his corrective action was actually an analogy for what happens when we regret what we’ve done and make the decision not to repeat the same mistake again.

Teshuvah as a method of self correction is a great addition to the “lifeskills toolset” we want to give our children. It will help them navigate their relationships and foster responsibility. And it will provide them with tools to realign when they lose their bearings in life.


A Living, Thriving Judaism: How Our Personal and Global Impact Starts at Home

reprinted from lubavitch.com

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I recently took our day camp on a field trip to the New York Hall of Science in Queens. One of the highlights was the Connected Worlds exhibit, which immerses visitors in a beautifully animated world where our actions – gestures, movements, and decisions – impact how well the world is kept in balance. With a wave of a hand, visitors can make plants grow, creatures move or even cut down dead foliage. A giant animated book gave direction to how to to sustain the balance of life and how to use the water that flowed throughout the simulated reality. When the campers diverted water to one place, the trees and plants in other parts of the world started to wither, and it required constant work to maintain a healthy virtual world.

The exhibit reminded me that we are all part of a single organism; nothing in nature thrives in isolation; our actions today create the future; and all of creation is interconnected and reliant on each other.

If you can relate to the idea that our efforts to protect the environment can transform our personal lives, impact the world at large and also future generations to come, then you might be able to see the place for Judaism in your life and how it can help your family thrive. Living Jewishly is good for you, it’s good for your family right now, and it’s good for future generations as well.

The Torah begins with the creation story, and it is really a story lived by every human being, every day. Daily, we reenact the story of how G-d created the world and then gave it to us humans in partnership to continue to create, sustain and reveal His presence in this world, bringing His vision for the world to fruition. Being aware of this global mission and working towards it every day gives meaning and purpose to our daily lives.

Judaism places the emphasis on concrete, tangible deeds. When we introduce daily rituals and regular Mitzvot to our children, we demonstrate how change and transformation starts from us, through small, sustained actions. Like recycling, doing Mitzvot every day or every week as part our routine makes it a part of our lives and it reinforces the values and ideas of Judaism.

At the same time, we need to foster the feeling in our children that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, and that the deeds we do in impact the rest of the world in profound, cosmic ways that we might not see. This is echoed in Chassidic thought, which teaches us that every act of kindness we do towards others and every Mitzvah we observe uplifts us and makes us better people, and simultaneously, affects the world at large for good.

Here are some ways you can bring aspects of Jewish practice into your family routine that will bring these ideas to life:

  • Celebrate the Mitzvot you do! Find a mitzvah you love to do, and share your excitement and joy about performing it with your children. Encourage them to find and celebrate their own special Mitzvah. For example, you can establish the ritual of giving charity every day. Practiced mindfully, it reinforces the message that what we have is a gift from Above, and that sharing is a way of life. Let your children choose where to send the funds when the charity box is full!
  • We are a part of G-d’s Plan. Teaching children to look for the pattern of Divine Providence in our daily lives helps reinforce the idea that we are part of G-d’s plan. Recognizing G-d’s daily presence in our lives, in even the tiniest of ways, we orient our children to think about their place in G-d’s creation.
  • Learn together. Reviewing the weekly Parshah together as a family and reading Jewish stories to your children will foster an important bond to their Jewish identity through Torah. Encouraging their questions and seeking real-life application to what you are learning together will reinforce what you are doing Jewishly together as a family.
  • Nightly Reflection. Develop a bedtime routine with your children: Ask them to reflect on their day and share what went well, what didn't, and, what if anything they can do to correct it. Then sing the Shema with them as they cover their eyes and think about their relationship to G-d and their family and community.
  • Shabbat Together. As a family, take on a weekly ritual or tradition like baking Challah, eating Shabbat dinner or lighting candles, and do it consistently. Shabbat disrupts the week in a fantastic way, giving us a time and space for connection and reflection with our family. When we disconnect from technology for the 25 hours, it adds a deeper dimension to this time together. Like the nightly Shema, Shabbat can be a time to think about how we are doing in our part in creation.
  • Spread the light. For several years now, our daughters have been writing the Shabbat candle lighting times with colorful chalk, on the sidewalk outside our home. They hand out small Shabbat candle kits and homemade challah rolls to passerby. The chalked messages and images remind our neighbors about the coming Shabbat. People have told us they look forward to my daughters’ “Let’s Chalk Shabbat” routine. Help your children create an impact in their community by sharing Mitzvah opportunities with others.

While these are not earthshaking revelations, they are some simple ways we can help guide our children towards thriving in the true sense of the world: growing with a sense of purpose and a realization that they can change the world.

Sarah

“How can Judaism help us thrive?” is a question I’ve been asked to tackle as part of a think tank led by the Jewish Education Project. It is a national initiative, peopled with some incredible thought leaders and Jewish educators from across the spectrum of Jewish life, and is funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

I come to this by way of working on the Upper West Side with our Chabad Family Programs to create programs and experiences for children and their families that convey the joy, life and meaning that Torah and Mitzvot can inform our lives. In the process, we create community.

At our first meeting as part of the think tank, we spent a day in discussion around two questions: How does Judaism help us thrive? and how can we make Judaism thrive? Both of these questions are interconnected in profound ways, and reflect the need to focus on the particular/personal and the global/communal aspects of our lives.

Chabad representative of the West Side Family Programs, Sarah Alevsky is director of the Hebrew School and Kivun, a Jewish after-school program for children attending Harlem Hebrew.

 

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