There are many in the Jewish world that lament the steep drop off in engagement of young men and women after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. As a result, a lot of money and time has been spent trying to figure out how to keep these young Jews engaged in their teen years. What is interesting is that the solution can be found in a midrash (a teaching) from 2000 years ago:
R. Judah said in the name of Rav: The name of that man, Joshua ben Gamla, should always be mentioned on good occasions. But for him, the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel. Formerly, if a child had a father [living], his father taught him Torah; if he had no father, he did not learn Torah. By what verse did they guide themselves? By the verse "Ye shall teach them to your children" (Deut. 11:19), which they read, "Ye shall teach, even ye,14 [to your children], Then it was ordained that teachers of young children should be set up in Jerusalem. By what verse did they guide themselves? By the verse "The Torah shall go forth out of Zion" (Isa. 2:3). Even so, if a child had a father, the father would take him up to Jerusalem and have him taught; if he had no father, the child would not go up and study. Then it was ordained that teachers of youths be set up in each district and that youths enter school at the age of sixteen or seventeen. But when a teacher was annoyed with one of them, that one would rebel against the teacher and leave school. So Joshua ben Gamla came along and ordained that teachers of little children be set up in each district and in each town, and that children enter school at the age of six or seven.
The answer for how to engage Jews after they turn thirteen, is to engage them when they are young. To give them great teachers and great experiences increases the likelihood that they will stay connected to the community. As the midrash shows us, if you try and start when they are teenagers it is already too late.
As our year of teaching Religious School draws to an end I want to acknowledge and thank all of our teachers for committing to teaching the youngest in our community. Jodi Harris put together a team that engages our youngest learners so that they are excited to be here and look forward to coming back. Our teachers truly embody the saying by Maya Angelou, “More than what my teachers taught me, the thing I remember the most is how they made me feel”.
Thank you all on behalf of a grateful Rabbi and congregation.