The blogospheres are filled with doomsday predictions. American Judaism will not survive this pandemic. Institutions will shutter, bank accounts will run dry. Jewish education will flounder. I hear the concern. Our institutions are indeed in uncharted and precipitous territory. But Yiddishkeit itself can and will continue, because there is one tried and true way to ensure the survival of our communities. This epiphany struck me this past Tuesday morning as I strapped my five year old and two year into the car, getting ready for camp.
The two year looked at me and said “Abba, I can’t put my mask on.” “Don’t worry,” her already-masked-brother said, “I’ll help you put it on.” She sat still as he looped it over her ears. “Look Abba,” she said excitedly. “It has unicorns on it!”
Kudos to my wife for getting fun masks.
But fun masks aside, three weeks ago, this entire story would have sounded fantastical. Impossible. Ridiculous. Mask wearing is uncomfortable. And children are notorious for being annoying about uncomfortable things. But it’s not just my kids wearing masks. Pulling up to the car pool line at Camp Ruach, you will find child after child, backpack in tow, happily wearing their masks. Their teachers and counselors have affirmed the same thing. Overall, and against all prior intuition, kids are wearing masks.
And so I wonder: Why are all these children wearing their masks? Why are they not throwing tantrums and yelling about their discomfort? Why are they so amenable? Most importantly what can this teach us about education. I think their are four reasons.
1: The adults in their lives are wearing masks. This is easy and obvious. Parents, teachers and counselors are all wearing masks. Not all of them. Not all the time. But the culture around them is clearly mask-wearing. Kids absorb culture. Kids instinctively know what their parents think is important. Adults are the ones who define “normal” or “new normal” in the lives of our children. If mask wearing is modeled, then mask wearing is imitated. But many good things are modeled, and kids fight them. Why is this working?
2: Mask wearing expectations are clear and consistent; but encouraged with empathy. Our kids know: You get in the car, you put on your mask. It’s a routine, it’s an expectation. If you don’t have it, you can’t go to camp. There are no negotiations, no exceptions. But what happens if you forgot your mask? Don’t worry, we have a spare right over here. There’s no moral judgement for forgetting it. We’re not yelling at them for misplacing it. We’re all working towards ensuring that all kids are wearing masks as much as possible. This enables kids to meet expectations with confidence and not fear failure.
3: They know why they’re doing it. Or at least they know, the stakes are high. No, our kids do not have advanced knowledge of epidemiology. But they know that there’s something called Coronavirus that makes people sick. And that it kept them inside for longer than they want to remember. They know that the virus is invisible, and that people can give it to each other without knowing. And they know that masks help. That’s all they know. But it’s more than enough. Most importantly, they know that they don’t understand everything about it. But the stakes are high.
4: Finally; your mask is important. Our kids understand that nothing in the whole world can replace their mask. They know: If you don’t wear one, the whole system is a little bit worse, a little bit weaker. And since you care about other people, this is your way of showing your concern, so that they don’t get sick.
All of this adds to saying that our children have Emuna. They believe that there is a virus that they cannot see. They believe that wearing a mask is helpful. And they believe that their mask wearing is important. And all of this is true despite the discomfort and annoyance of wearing it!
Now, think of the challenges that we face in raising committed, connected, passionate Jewish children: “My son doesn’t want to put on his tzitzis/tefillin. My kids don’t want to wake up to daven on a Sunday. My daughter doesn’t want to wear skirts. My teens are obsessed with their phones. They don’t want to come to night seder. Do you want me to force them? That’s gonna make them hate Yiddishkeit! I want them to love Torah! I want them to be inspired!”
Ok I hear you. But let’s consider: What do the adults in their life do? Are the expectations clear? Are they communicated with empathy and patience or with judgement and frustration? Do our kids have any idea why Mitzvos are important? Do they know that their mitzvah is important for the Jewish people?
Note: None of this need to be 100% consistent (and that would be impossible). Nothing needs to be iron-clad. Sometimes even the best of role models mess up. Sometimes amazing teachers get frustrated and upset. Sometimes we just don’t know enough to explain the depths of reasoning of kashrus or tefillin or tzniyus. But my point is that in order for a this to work, you don’t need all of it all the time. Just most of it, most of the time. It doesn’t need to perfect. It needs to be real. And it doesn’t take that long to instill this basic Emuna! (So far, we’re only three weeks into camp, and they’ve got this down!)
So why don’t we treat Chinuch, Torah, Tefillah, Tzniyus etc... like mask wearing at camp?
I have a hunch. Perhaps it’s becuase mask wearing is new. We’re not coming at it with years of preprogrammed guilt and baggage and narishkeit, and weird voices of our own parents, teachers and rabbeim in our heads. We don’t feel guilty about the “not doing it when we were teenagers so how can I expect it of my kids...” We don’t rationalize “I figured it our when I was in college, so they will as well...” We know that it’s important, and that it’s difficult and uncomfortable. And we’re gonna do it.
Imagine if we treated Torah and Mitzvos that way. With that level of commitment, forgiveness and empathy. Then when we would speak about about inspiration, we’d be talking about infusing meaning into a world that exists, not simply willing something from nothing.
Perhaps another nation-wide shutdown is imminent. Perhaps our schools and shuls will close again. Perhaps some of our institutions will not survive this pandemic. But Yiddishkeit will survive if we let go of our own baggage and show our children how to take Judaism seriously, with love, empathy and responsibility.
On the 17th of Tamuz the Luchos were shattered. The letters flew upwards, and the tablets fell to the ground. If we want those letters back in our lives, then our job, right now, and always, is to hew new tablets of stone. That is to say: carve out rock solid commitments to the importance of Torah, Mitzvos and Klal Yisrael. And Hashem should inspire us, our children, and our communities with the letters of His Torah that once flew to the sky.