22 September 2010

When It's Cool

The kid got one of her Bat Mitzvah presents in the mail today--a donation made to the Birthright Israel Foundation in honor of this milestone achievement of her life.  As she opened the envelope I could see her mind churning behind her bright eyes, wondering what she'd find.  And as she read it, her eyes widened.  Since turning 10, the kid has spent three summers in Israel; Israeli music and food are regular staples in our home; and several of her mentors and close family friends are Israeli, meaning that the kid's life is circumscribed by a deep and developing relationship with the Jewish state.  Pesak Zman, Bamba, and Limo-nana are greater tropes of her guilty pleasures than any American brand junk food and that's all by design on our part--making the engagement, even when we're distant, sweet.

She held the card in her hand and formulated her thought.  "So let me understand," she began.  "This card means that someone is going to go to Israel for free because I became a Bat Mitzvah?"  I nodded affirmatively.

The smile that swept across her face was immediate and radiant.  "That is so cool," she said softly, and then ran off to grab her haftarah, to go meet the cantor, to put in a few more minutes of practice.  She's a diligent kid, has her priorities in order, and really knows how to appreciate a moment.  She's always been that way.  Israel has been a gift for her over and over again.  That she somehow enables it be a gift for another--even for one she may never know--makes it all the more special.

My grandparents went to Israel in 1964 and toured the country, including a pilgrimage to a deeply divided Jerusalem.  I hang their keepsake--a moderately cheesy manifestation of Judaica, the Climbing Mount Zion certificate--in my davenning corner at home.  My dad never went to Israel, despite his vast travels during the Second World War; and it was my grandma, not my father, who assiduously conveyed certain mythic tropes of her own youth:  Golda Meir's Milwaukee roots; her father's Mizrachi activism; a rumored correspondence between my great grandfather and Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann (total goose egg on that score courtesy of the Weizmann Archive in Rehovot--I researched that one years ago.)  When I look back on my own life I remember and marvel at how my grandma's stories lit that spark in me, now passed down to another generation, and though my grandparents are gone and Dad's gone now, the kid bears my grandma's Hebrew name as her middle name--and has learned to "name" or recognize the connections on her own.

Yesterday we started another year of Hebrew School, which at CBE we call Yachad, meaning together, because at its core is a Family Learning component each Shabbat.  In addition however, we are now launching an Israeli After-School Program, Keshet, and have more than 25 families signed up.  The vibrancy of the modern Hebrew language and Israeliness permeate much of what we're trying to convey to the kids.  We're very proud of this work.

Anyway, yesterday I sat with my new 7th grade class, a group of really good students that I'll be meeting with on Tuesday afternoons for the rest of the year.  One from the group is heading off to Israel for a family bar mitzvah in Jerusalem and so as he prepared to leave yesterday, I taught the class the lesson of sending people to Israel as agents for tzedakah, giving him a dollar from my wallet and telling him that his agency was particularly important because he was going to perform the mitzvah of giving tzedakah but was also enabling me to do that as well--a kind of double portion of good.  "Who should I give it to?" he asked.  "Anyone you see whom you think needs it," I said.  "Jews, Muslims, Christians all live in Jerusalem.  You'll see someone who needs a dollar.  You decide."  Again, those eyes of youth brightened.

"That is so cool," he said quietly, and tucked the dollar away for safe keeping.

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