A Lingering Question: Why are Students Uninspired?

By Rabbi Aharon Assaraf

I am going to attempt to answer a lingering question I have had for many years in Jewish Education: Why are our students uninspired? I can now safely say the answer is simple, “buy in.”

Recently, Hebrew Academy (RASG) in Miami Beach embarked on a unique adventure. We sent our entire High School to New York for a Shabbaton weekend at Camp Seneca Lake. When the Shabbaton was first announced, students gave administration a standing ovation. I asked myself if could this be a tipping point for the school culture and overall image? But I reminded myself, it’s early to celebrate, let’s wait until all is done and the feedback is in.

As I arrived at the airport, I witnessed a sea of students and I said to myself, “Oh my, this is gonna be wild!” I was not worried about the capabilities of our staff, I was stunned that we made it to this moment. As we boarded the plane, the JetBlue staff commented, “We didn’t realize this is practically a chartered flight!” It was that kind of a scene.

We ate lunch on Central Avenue in the Five Towns, visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and ate dinner at Tribeca Synagogue. We boarded busses at 8:00 pm, and drove upstate into “no cell phone service.” The roads were dark and narrow, deer were lingering by the dark roads, and suddenly we arrived at Camp Seneca Lake. The students were pointed to the camp dining room by Director, Ross Zuckerman, and found a freshly grilled BBQ dinner, great background music, and good vibes. First impressions do count and that midnight arrival set the tone.

The next day students played sports, swam, and bonded with their friends without cell phones. The sun started to set, music played over the loudspeakers, students prepared for Shabbat, and made their way to the Shul for Kabbalat Shabbat in good spirits. As our musical guest Noah Solomon (Soul Farm) began the traditional Yedid Nefesh melody, I scanned the room, and that’s when I knew this weekend was special. Students began to hum along, siddurim in hand, and many closed their eyes while singing. I recalled the message I gave students earlier, “Let’s use this time while disconnected from our regular lives, to form new connections.” The entire Shabbat was filled with moments of genuine conversations, healthy socializing, meaningful singing, and praying. The disconnection fulfilled its purpose.

Late Friday night offered a Tisch/Oneg where students were thrilled to see an endless candy buffet. We handed out song sheets, and we could have gone through many more, as the students and staff refused to stop singing. Where was this ruach coming from? The standing ovation of last year reminded me, this is something the students wanted.

As we prepared for Havdallah, the students stood in a large circle, arms around one another, and waited patiently. They were not in a rush. On a typical Saturday night, many of us rush through Havdallah and grab our phones and see what “we’ve missed.” Instead, on Motzei Shabbat there was positive energy and dancing. You know those groups of people who never want to enter the dancing circle, or stand on the sidelines watching others dance? Well, those people didn’t exist. Everyone was dancing. Song after song, chant after chant.

I asked Irv Bader, legendary educator and the camp owner and founder, to share some words with our group. He could have repeated stories from his last 45 years in camp, instead, he chose to speak about how lucky the Jewish people are to have Shabbat. As Irv spoke, the students were zoned in. He said it over and over again, “It’s up to your generation to preserve Shabbat, and keep it special, it is what saved the Jewish community.”

I believe inspiring Jewish youth requires buy in. The students were excited about the idea of going to New York, and that started the buy in. Lack of cell phone service forced more direct communication, and this led to more buy in. When Irv Bader reiterated the point of “valuing” Shabbat, this led to even more buy in. Seeing your fellow schoolmate praying/singing/laughing/dancing, naturally encourages buy in. The spark is always there, but it is our responsibility and challenge to try keep it lit at all times. This Shabbaton showed me how awesome a community can be when everyone buys in. Inspiration can only come when we establish the right environment, and then work on the buy in.

Take it from one of our Tenth Grade students, Esther Nahon, who felt compelled to let us know her experience: “On Saturday night when we were all standing together saying Havdallah, tears welled my eyes because I have never experienced something so beautiful. This trip has created memories and a type of unity-achdut, like no other. Our trip to New York and Camp Seneca Lake has been the highlight of my high school career and I cannot explain how thankful I am to all of you for allowing me to be a part of it.”

We as Jewish parents should demand more experiences and opportunities like this. If we can pull off an event and get close to 100% buy in, and close to 100% positive feedback, and get 100% soul from each of our students, we should give a standing ovation to our amazing students who stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park. They all bought in and inspired one another. Jewish education is all about camaraderie and connecting to our Jewish identity, both were accomplished. Here’s to future moments of inspiration, growth, and of course more buy in.

Rabbi Aharon Assaraf is Assistant Principal, Hebrew Academy (RASG), Miami Beach.