One year we were having a mice problem at the synagogue, and we couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them. We tried traps, poison, cats, nothing was working. Then I came up with a brilliant idea. One Shabbat night after services were over, I placed a large round of cheese on top of the bimah. In the morning, I came into synagogue and found the all mice nibbling away on the bimah. I snuck up on them, threw a tallit over them, and said, “You’re Bar Mitzvahed!” – and we never saw them again!
It’s an old joke, but this scenario is something I think about often. Why is it that once kids become bar mitzvah, I rarely see them or their parents in the synagogue again?
And it’s not as if the MHJC Bar/Bat mitzvah is a torturous experience.
The families are usually “shepping nachas,” crying from joy at their child’s accomplishments: reading the Torah, leading the service, and saying a D’var Torah. The children themselves also have a great time. They’ve enjoyed the challenge of acquiring new skills, they’ve accomplished great things, and they’ve relished being the focus of everyone’s attention. So why don’t kids and families come back after such a satisfying event?
I think the issue has three basic components:
With regards to the first issue, we are working on making the services more compelling, but I could also use your help.
I’m reading a book called, “My Jesus Year” about an Orthodox man, Benyamin Cohen, the son of a rabbi who lived across the street from a church. Every Sunday as a child, he wondered what was drawing all of those people to keep coming every week.
But in the synagogue, with Judaism, it’s not so easy to make dramatic changes; change takes place slowly. Some people relish our traditional Shabbat morning services; it’s the equivalent of religious comfort food for them.
But if that’s not your cup of tea, on Friday night, especially when we have musical Shabbat, you’ll see some new melodies and interpretive prayers. Many times, I have received vociferous praise for this service. Please come and give it a chance.
Likewise, we offer alternative Shabbat morning services with newly composed melodies, meditations, and group study, with the service lasting for only one hour. I want to feel more elevated after a service than when I entered. That service does that for me, and I believe it could do it for you as well. And if you have suggestions to make the services more compelling, let me know, for this is your synagogue.
The second reason why many families aren’t joining us for Shabbat services is because they’re overwhelmed with 21st century family life. Most parents are busy taking their kids to baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, gymnastics, music practices and concert performances. I see many parents that are run ragged between full time work and full time chauffeuring of their kids to non-stop activities.
Now I understand the impetus behind these efforts. We want our children to be challenged, skilled, fulfilled, and appealing for college acceptances and scholarships.
Yet, and this leads me into my third point, with all this accomplishment and acquisition of skills, what about nurturing their souls? Are we doing enough to develop our children’s and grandchildren’s spirituality? What could we gain by giving this aspect of our lives more attention?
A few months ago, I attended a seminar by the Jewish Education Project in NYC called “The Science of Spirituality”. It was a lecture and discussion by the author of a new book, “The Spiritual Child: The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving” by Dr. Lisa Miller. Miller is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University and for the past 20 years has been researching the relationship between spirituality and emotional and psychological well-being.
In fact, for the past quarter century, scientific researchers like Dr. Miller have been investigating spirituality. To be brief, I’ll just name a few studies:
Peter Benson and his colleagues at the Search Institute in Minnesota conducted an international study based on interviews with 6,725 adolescents and young adults in eight countries. The team discovered that there was a tendency for spiritual engagement to surge in adolescence, no matter what country or religion.
At the University of Colorado at Boulder, Tanya Button studied 2,478 adolescent twins to assess the heritability of inner spirituality.
Kenneth Kendler, a genetic epidemiologist from VCU, investigated the distinction between inner personal spirituality, religious denomination, and style of religious observance from a twin study research perspective. Kendler and his team looked at 1,902 female twins, listed in the Virginia Twin Registry, who were about thirty years old at the time of the study.
Their conclusions: spirituality is indeed part of our natural endowment, just like our abilities to see, smell, and think. Spirituality is experienced through a biologically-based faculty, and we are born ready to use it; we enter the world prepared to have a spiritual life. Science also shows that while we are born inherently spiritual, this faculty can be sustained and cultivated or dulled by neglect.
What’s the scientific definition of spirituality?
“At the core of spirituality is the transcendent relationship, a dynamic sense of connection with a higher power or sacred presence. To feel transcendent is to know ourselves beyond the limits of the physical or ordinary self, as part of the greater universe.” I think many of us are here today because of this reason. It’s also: (2) spiritual relationships with other people based upon unconditional love, forgiveness, joy, and compassion, and (3) the awareness and perspective of our transcendent or higher self.
Miller then asked how spirituality is passed from one generation to the next.
The answer came to her one August Sunday morning, “I was going into the lab for a few hours, and joined the throng of workaholics, weekenders, and churchgoers waiting at the 86th Street subway platform for the No. 1 train. When the train stopped and the doors slid open, the car was jam-packed, so I was surprised as I stepped in to see the back half of the car almost empty.
Then I saw why: a dirty, disheveled man was at the very far end yelling and fuming, his fast-food lunch sack open and balanced precariously on his lap. His hands and chin smeared with grease, he brandished a piece of chicken at each passenger who boarded and yelled, “Hey! Do you want to sit with me? You want some of this lunch?” Everyone studiously ignored the man and hurried to join the other riders standing as far from him as they could get. They pressed together, hot and uncomfortable at the far end of the car. I stepped through the crowd and went to an empty seat across the aisle from the man and sat down.
The awkward scene continued for a few stops more, until the doors opened at the 125th Street station, where an eye-stopping couple boarded: an elegant older woman accompanied by a young girl about eight years old. They appeared to be a grandmother and her granddaughter. They wore fresh pastel dresses— the grandmother in green, the little girl in pink. Both wore gloves with lace trim, and the grandmother wore a pillbox hat with a small decorative veil. They stepped aboard, heads held high with a dignified bearing. They looked elegant in their Sunday finest— and shockingly out of place.
The commuters cringed as this lovely couple boarded, everyone anticipating the crazed man’s inevitable “offer” of chicken. And sure enough, he erupted right on cue, instantly accosting them as they crossed the door with his roar, “Hey! Do you want to sit with me?” Without even pausing, the grandmother and granddaughter looked at each other and nodded, then looked squarely at the man, and without hesitation walked over to sit down right next to him. “Thank you,” they said in unison to him. He was shocked. The other riders in the car were, too. Everyone stared with surprise and concern at the regal twosome.
The man then resumed waving his chicken in the air and bellowed at the two again, “Do you want some?” The grandmother and granddaughter looked squarely at him again and replied politely and in unison, “No, thank you,” and then nodded again to each other. The man, as if he couldn’t believe someone had responded to him, said again, this time loudly but somehow more contained, and without roaring, “Do you want some of my lunch?” Again, with a resolute nod to one another of shared purpose and understanding, the two answered kindly, “No, thank you.” This continued for several rounds until the man seemed calmed, and relaxed quietly into his bright orange plastic seat.
When a few stops later the train reached their destination and the couple departed, I realized that the grandmother and granddaughter had in their own way shown me the answer to my research question.
The nod, or what the nod represented, was the missing piece to the research puzzle. Greater than the spirituality of one or the other, the nod represented a shared sensibility, a shared spirituality.
Our Talmud says a very similar thing:
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי כל המלמד את בן בנו תורה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קבלה מהר סיני
“Whoever teaches their grandchild Torah, it’s as if the child received the Torah from Mount Sinai as it says in (give citation),”
שנאמר והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך וסמיך ליה יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלהיך בחורב
“And you shall make them know to your children and grandchildren”, and right afterwards the verse says, “The day you stood before Adonai Your God at Choreb (Sinai).” So, when a grandparent learns Torah with his/her grandchild, it as if the child heard the Torah from G-d at Sinai.
That’s why it’s so important to have grandparents and grandchildren together at Seders, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and other Jewish celebrations. It creates the nod from one generation to the next.
We need to pass on memorabilia as well: menorahs, candlesticks, shofars, siddurim from one generation to the next.
Researcher Marshall Duke and colleagues at Emory University have shown that children are more likely to thrive when they have a grasp of being an important part of a lineage, what they term the intergenerational self.
Miller herself recalls one moment of her childhood with particular clarity. She was 6 years, and on one Shabbat, “I was sitting in a pew, flanked by all four of my grandparents. At one point I glanced up and saw them, all four leaning over and smiling at me. As the cantor sang with deep emotion, I was so deeply moved with the soulful connection through body and spirit, I cried. My grandparents and the community of Temple B’nai Jeshurun: they were the carriers of Judaism for me.”
Miller then looked statistically for the “nod”, the passing of spiritual or religious sensibility, and how it would affect children and grandchildren emotionally and psychologically.
She writes, “There are few moments in science when the results are astonishing. These findings were the most amazing science I had ever seen.
In families suffering from clinical depression, “If the mother and her son or daughter both reported the same personal relationship with a religion, then there was a dramatic positive effect— shared spirituality was over 80 percent protective in a sample of families otherwise at very high risk for depression.
I reran the analysis, over and over. Statistically, a spiritually oriented mother alone or a spiritually oriented child alone showed only marginal protection against depression, but if the two shared being spiritually oriented, and the spirituality was something that had been shared during the child’s formative years, then there was a protective effect that dramatically lowered the incidence of depression by 80 percent. The spiritual nod was far more powerful than all of the family risk factors for depression combined— genes and socialization. Nothing radically lowered the risk for depression like a shared spirituality.”
What else can shared spirituality accomplish?
In Kendler’s study, spirituality measured as personal devotion in adults was associated with a 15 to 20 percent reduced risk for depression and substance abuse.
In fact, Miller was able to prove that spirituality is the most robust protective factor against the big three dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and risk taking.
In short, adolescents who have a personal sense of spirituality are 80 percent less likely to suffer from ongoing and recurrent depressions and 60 percent less likely to become heavy substance users or abusers (And we all know there’s an opioid epidemic raging through Long Island). Girls with a sense of personal spirituality are 70 percent less likely to have unprotected sex.
In the entire realm of human experience, there is no single factor that will protect your adolescent like a personal sense of spirituality.
And when is spirituality most acute in children? When they enter adolescence.
With physical puberty comes a biologically primed surge in natural spirituality. Teens are propelled like clockwork into an accentuated hunger for transcendence, a search for ultimate meaning and purpose, and the desire for unitive connection. The development of spirituality occurs in tandem with other forms of maturation, including sexual, cognitive, social, and emotional development.
Jewish tradition is therefore on the mark then by making the most significant religious event in a child’s life at age 13 and entering adolescence.
But we need to continue it. That nod at the Bar/Bat mitzvah needs to be fostered. Spiritual health has so many benefits, but it needs the time and effort to be developed just like baseball and music skills.
What is the message conveyed to our child if we put months of effort into a Bar/Bat mitzvah and then never show up again? On the other hand, what’s the spiritual/religious message if we come back?
There’s so much to gain from nurturing spirituality.
In addition to the lesser propensity for depression, addiction and risky sex, research has shown that irrespective of which faith tradition (or none at all), people with greater hunger and pursuit of spiritual transcendence were viewed by other people as more self-actualized, emotionally balanced, and delighted in living. They led lives that were driven by purpose, did much for other people, were less materialistic (irrespective of wealth), and felt fulfilled.
Isn’t this what we ultimately want for our children and grandchildren?
It comes from the nod, the succession of spirituality, religious commitment from one generation to the next. It means coming back to shul after the Bar/Bat mitzvah, it means seeing yourself as a link in the transmission of our faith.
And if you’re not moved by our regular services, but know of a Baptist choir that’ll join us for Adon Olam or have some other suggestions, let me know, because we’re here for you.
Wishing you and your children and grandchildren rich and fulfilling spiritual lives,