Letting Jewish Youth Guide the Way

What would happen to the Jewish religious experience if we allowed our youth to shape the religious experience of adults, as opposed to the other way around?

In the coming weeks during the weekly sedra, Jews will read about the building of the mishkan (tabernacle), the portable Temple used by the Jewish people in the desert. Certainly, it stands to reason that God did not a mishkan to connect to the people. Why then, would God command the people to build one?

One plausible explanation is that the mitzvah of building the mishkan was God’s way of allowing the Israelites to experience the empowering feeling of creation first hand. Rabbinic literature is full of references that compare the building of the mishkan to God’s creation of the world due to the remarkably similar language and motifs present in both biblical narratives. The Torah teaches us that each individual Jew contributed to the building of the mishkan, and thus became a part of the process of its creation. And so according to this reasoning, God gave the people this mitzvah of building the mishkan not for Godself, but so that each Israelite could understand the feeling of creation, challenging each Jew to become God’s partner in impacting our world by being a part of the Jewish creative process and consciousness.

Earlier February, my community hosted over three-hundred Conservative Jewish youth and staff members from across the State of New Jersey for a United Synagogue Youth Convention. The group gathered to have fun, to pray, and to study ways to be more welcoming to Jews with disabilities. As the visiting teenagers created nearly every aspect of the synagogue experience - from structuring and leading religious services to coordinating and running educational sessions - one could not help but walk away from the weekend with a sense of optimism about the Jewish future.

Yet, as I began thinking about what had made this experience so much more powerful than an average Shabbat for both my community and the children present at the convention, I realized that it was because this too was connected to this very power of creation.

For usually, when Jews build a mishkan in a religious experience the process of creation is handled by a smaller group of adults who do most of the work. However, during the convention weekend, nearly every important ritual or educational role in our community was filled by three-hundred teenagers, a decision that in some ways, no was no less earth-shattering or impressive than the collaborative power that built the mishkan itself. The religious vice president who led our services was so poised and professional that I joked with one of my colleagues that we might soon be out of a job. The kids used profoundly outside the box techniques to teach Torah, and help shed new light on prayer and rituals. The result of having brought these teens into the creative process was in an intense ruach (spirit), and a contagious enthusiasm that allowed everyone present to be moved by the experience.

And so this begs the question: what would happen if this were the rule, rather than the exception? What would happen to the Jewish religious experience if we allowed our youth to shape the religious experience of adults, as opposed to the other way around?

Jewish adults ought to make more of a regular effort to bring kids into the creative religious process, because we must never forget that to truly build a mishkan that they need to be a part of the creative process. Someday we want this process to belong them, and empowering them to become leaders earlier and more prominently in our communities is the best way.

The Talmud reminds us that “the world only exists for the sake of breathe that comes from school age children” (Shabbat 119b), which like our explanation for the mitzvah of the tabernacle, links the very fabric of our universe and its creation to the active participation of our children in Judaism. As Jews, our sacred desire to become creators in the divine image has inspired us over the centuries to build two temples, invent new rituals, and to build a plethora of institutions for ourselves. However, to truly reach divine heights, we must strive for every Jew to become a part of the process, never forgetting the Talmud’s teaching that we plant not for ourselves, “but for our children,” (Taanit 23a), so that the very bricks and mortar of the mishkan that are now the result of our generation’s creative process will someday belong to the next one.

Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.

Buchenwald student conference - David Shechter - September 2011
David Shechter