by Zalman Velvel
Good evening. We hope you had a good time, an interesting time, a time you will remember and take home with you. At these prices, you deserve more than just a good meal.
As the last speaker tonight, I am going to entertain you with a short story. This story is about ten special Jewish children. These kids were special because they were on trial for their lives – they all were around 12 years old, and going to be bar and bat mitzvahed within the year. The haf- torah pressure was intense – maybe some of you remember it?
These children didn’t attend Chabad’s school – they were members of another synagogue. They entrusted me to do some of their teaching, and I took this responsibility seriously. Before the first class, I spent hours preparing what I thought was an exciting discussion on The Jewish Bible. As soon as I got up to teach, the kids started yawning – big huge cavernous yawns. Then they took turns going to the bathroom. Some went two or three times. If you asked them afterwards, "What was the best part of Mr. Silver’s class?", they would have said, "The 10 minute break."
I hoped the second class would be better – but it was worse. The kids ignored me altogether. I couldn’t take a third humiliation, so I asked every professional teacher I knew for advice. I distilled their advice down to three things: one – take control, two- listen as much as you talk, and three, show you care.
"Sit still and be quiet!" was how I started the third class. Then, I said, "Since I am obviously so boring compared to you, I want each of you to stand up and tell us what special things have happened in your lives since our last meeting."
Surprise of surprises, the kids loved this! They started by sharing little things, like winning at soccer, music awards, trips with their families to Disneyworld. As time went on, some of them shared painful experiences – problems with their parents’ divorce, a mother diagnosed with cancer, or a grandparent passing away.
I listened to them- really listened. You know, I forgot that when I was 12 years old, adults didn’t want to listen to ME. They walked into the classroom and yelled, "Sit still and be quiet!" and then demanded I listen to THEM.
Then the caring started. The kids tried to hide it, but I could see that they looked forward each week to sharing their lives. They still weren’t interested in learning about Judaism … but I fooled ‘em – because by learning to care about each other they were learning one of the best parts of Judaism.
And as I began to care, and grew to love them, I had an image of their futures. I saw them chanting their haf torahs, and doing well, because they were a smart and talented group. I saw their parents and grandparents kvelling at their bar and bat mitzvahs.
Then the image fast forwarded. I saw these wonderful Jewish kids graduating high school, going off to college, starting successful careers. I saw them moving closer and closer to the American dream, and moving further and further away from their Jewish roots. I saw them entering a society where 98 out of every 100 people they meet would not be Jewish. And because of this, and because their Jewish education and Jewish involvement was limited – you know how much time modern children spend on Judaism after their bar and bat mitzvahs – the statistics now say 70% will marry outside the Jewish religion. Seven out of ten will fall in love and marry someone who does not share their beliefs, or their heritage.
The image fast forwarded again until I saw THEIR children, or their grandchildren, NOT being bar mitzvahed, disappearing from the Jewish landscape.
I told the kids about the future that I saw. Their reaction was : "So what? What’s the big deal about being Jewish? … Mr. Silver? Mr. Silver? … HELLO!? Why are you so quiet? What are you thinking?"
What’s the big deal about being Jewish? I LOVE BEING JEWISH! That’s what I’m thinking … Yeah, like what, Mr. Silver? Well, I love Shabbos – seeing my wife and daughters light the candles… pouring wine in the kiddish cup… the smell of fresh challah … my family sitting around the Shabbos table laughing, having a great time … I love the farbregans after Saturday services with my friends at Chabad … What’s a farbregan Mr. Silver? … Well, you have a bunch of guys sitting around noshing … talking about Torah, and life … and somebody puts a bottle of Chivers Regal on the table… and you have a few l’chaims … to enhance the spirituality of the moment … BUT WAIT A MINUTE … THERE’S MUCH MORE …
I love the holidays … the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah .. the break fast after Yom Kipper with bagels and lox … watching children light the Chanukah menorah and sing the songs .. the hiding of the afikomin on Passover and the four questions … the dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah … the masquerade of Purim … Mr. Silver, I heard you dressed up as Superman one Purim, and got ripped. Is that true? … Well, I was supposed to be SuperJew – I had a Jewish star on my chest … and it’s a mitzvah to get ripped on Purim, and I take that mitzvah very seriously … but WAIT…THERE’S MORE!
I love how the Jewish life cycle in commemorated, starting with the bris … well, maybe I don’t love the bris, but it is important … then there’s Hebrew school … learning the aleph bet … your bar and bat mitzvah – you kids are so lucky – soon you will have a party that you will remember for the rest of your lives … you will get your own tallis … before you know it, there’s your wedding choopah and the breaking of the glass … then you will have children of your own… and then, Bizrat Hashem, your children have children, the sweetest blessing of all … then there is the parting of loved ones – like the death of my father … friends coming over for shiva … the saying of Kadish … Yiskadol vayiskadash … the prayer books donated in his memory … the memories.
It dawns on me, by answering that challenging question, "What’s the big deal about being Jewish?", that the kids taught me something important – that Judaism is not just a religion to be taught with lessons, once a week for an hour or so. It is not just eating bagels and lox … It is a way of life, to be experienced … how was I supposed to be a major provider of those experiences to those 12 year olds in such a short time, if they didn’t already receive them at home, and most of those kids did not? What could I do? What could I do?
Well, not knowing what else to do, I did what teachers are supposed to do – I gave them homework … "OH! I hate homework!" "Sit still and be quiet!" … "Now write down your homework assignment. Come on – get out your pens and pencils and write this down."
"Okay … I want you to ask your family to STAY home this Friday night and have a Shabbos meal together" … "Oh boy! Get a life, Mr. Silver!"
"Be quiet and keep writing! … I want you to ask Mom and the girls to light candles … have Dad drink a little wine and say a blessing … cut up a challah – you can buy them fresh at Publix – …. Here is a list of the prayers …. and then, during the meal, I want you to go around the table and have each member of your family talk about what was special during their week .. just like we did in class … listen to each other …. slow down and find time for each other … have a party together, celebrate life … that is what Shabbos is all about …"
"Do you have that written down? Are you finished?" … Oh, by the way, you should try to do it every Friday" … "Gimme a break, Mr. Silver!" "Look, it may seem inconvenient, but watch … good things will begin to happen … after a while, you will find yourself looking forward to sharing your lives with your family… like you found yourselves looking forward to standing up in our class … because there is nothing, repeat nothing, more important than each other…."
"Mr. Silver? Mr. Silver … are you all right?" … "Yes … I just have something caught in my eye."
No, there’s nothing in my eye. I really have another image caught in my mind I can’t get rid of … I see the faces of my departed relatives … and your departed relatives … some are standing beside concentration camps … some are bleeding in battlefields in Israel … they all have tears of disappointment running down their faces as they watch our children losing their Jewish souls… they look at me and ask "How could you let this happen, after all we’ve sacrificed?" … and I promise them that we will stop this from happening on our shift … and we will start with Shabbos, because Shabbos blessed and renewed my family, and I know it works.
So go home now … take your homework assignment with you … learn to enjoy Shabbos. If you need help, call Rabbi Itchy, and he’ll give you private lessons. He has a 6th degree black belt in Shabbos given by the Lubavicher Rebbe. Then, after you start enjoying shabbos, he’ll show you the next step – enhancing your family’s Jewish education.
In closing, I want to thank you for coming and showing your support for Chabad. Chabad is here to help us learn, and by learning, strengthen our Jewish souls. You did something good by coming out tonight and supporting this fine organization.
I hope somewhere in this short story, I gave you something to remember and take home with you. If you are wondering, "Wait a minute, how does this story end?" – I left the ending out, for us to write, together.
Thank you, and good night. All Rights Reserved.
How did you feel about the story? Please send me your thoughts, feedback and comments. Also, would you like me to give this presentation to your audience? Please let me know as well … Thank you!
You may print this story for yourself, but you may not copy it without permission from the author.
Copyright 2002-2009 by Zalman Velvel, Inc.