Calling Birth, Calling Death, and Embracing Jewish Education

By Mark S. Young

At 33, I no longer feel like a kid. I did at 30, a little less at 31, when my wife and I moved to the suburbs and bought a home – with a mortgage.

I stopped being a kid at 31 and a half, when my beautiful daughter, Noah Sadie, was born in front of my eyes. I called the time, 5:33 a.m.

And my youth ended absolutely just after my 33rd birthday, when my amazing mother, Rosalie, passed away, in front of my eyes. I called the time, 6:32 p.m.

Up until these two moments, the Jewish life-cycle events to me were mostly about fanfare. Yes, there is rich growth and learning in the events of consecration, bar mitzvah, confirmation, and wedding. I love that each is about the celebration and one’s emerging Jewish life. This is great; our growth and learning as Jews and people should all be about the social and emotional growth we obtain through these accomplishments and celebrations. Truly, each of these milestones can be meaningful and profound for the participants and the supporting community.

They are not, though, nearly as profound and emotionally overwhelming and draining as when you see your child arrive into this world, or when you see your parent depart from it. The feelings in both cases are simply not able to be explained in words. In both cases there is anxiety and fear; in both cases there is also love and appreciation; in both cases there is also wonder, prayer, and faith. In both cases there is the need for a social and emotional intelligence and grounding to make sense of it all and to move forward with clarity, calm, and resolve.

In part because, as one life event may be the highest of highs and the other the lowest of lows, there is in both, I think, an experience of the divine. Call it God, call it what you want, there is no denying that with these larger-than-this-world moments, even though they occur on earth, other dimensions are involved.

Thank those dimensions for Jewish education. The learning and community found in a moral and spiritual tradition enables us mere humans the opportunity to grow and nurture our social and emotional intelligence. Jewish education gives us the capacity to navigate these intense experiences personally in a manner of peace and wholeness, and communally with an enormous demonstration of support, nurturing, and love that is beyond compare, at least for me. Jewish education, be it in a camp, home, synagogue, school, youth-group or Hillel, enriches us with the values and rituals, traditions and obligations that enable us to know how, when and for what purpose to truly be present as part of a warm, compassionate community and help meet the needs of an individual or family in their most vulnerable moments.

My daughter was born and the outpouring of happiness felt immeasurable. Folks wanted to prepare food for me and my family, they wanted to celebrate with me as a community in a baby naming, they wanted to buy my daughter clothes and diapers, they wanted to pray for me, say the sheheheyanu with me. I and they had grown up in a world of Jewish education, which taught me and them-us-what to do in these moments, and it all made sense for us now.

My mother died and the outpouring of support for me in my grief feels, also, unfathomable. Folks from all sectors of my life wanted to give me a hug, send me a card, prepare food for me and my family; they wanted to celebrate as a community the life of my loved one at the funeral or shivah, the first part of the Jewish mourning process. They wanted to buy a tree in Israel in remembrance or donate to tzedakah, charity. They wanted to pray for me, say Minhah, the afternoon prayer service, with me so I could say kaddish, a prayer recited by mourners. Those who live and breathe Jewish education, life, and community-learning and growing with these traditions, care, and rituals-act, and it all makes sense for us now.

My mother was a Jewish educator, an extraordinarily talented and passionate one at that. I was her assistant at age six when she taught 4th graders at North Shore Jewish Center in Stony Brook, New York. She loved text; she studied, embraced, and cherished Midrash; she loved hearing about the sermon the rabbi gave at services on Shabbat.

My daughter loves Judaism, and displays that as much as is possible for a toddler approaching her second birthday. She comes to temple with my wife, who, as the rabbi, leads, while Noah hangs with me. She dances at the songs and prayers, she loves to eat challah, she loves to count the mezuzahs in our house before I put her to bed singing Hashkivenu.

During times of euphoria and melancholy, sleep deprivation, and massive life change, such as a parent experiences in the first days of a child’s life, or as a son experiences in the first days after his mother’s death (I am in sheloshim as I draft this piece), the importance, impetus, and impact of Jewish education and Jewish community on one’s personal, social, emotional, and communal growth becomes so crystal clear. Thank the dimensions for it. Thank our tradition for it. Thank life for it. Jewish education is the essential ingredient to make sense of our crazy lives and navigate through the dark tunnels that lead us to the light at the end. I’m calling it.

Mark S. Young has been, since 2010, the program coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. In that position, he has been at the forefront of the design and implementation of The Davidson School’s master’s degree concentration in Jewish Experiential Education. That concentration has since been integrated into course work and out-of-class experience provided to all MA students. He also directs The Jewish Experiential Leadership Institute (JELI), The Davidson School’s professional development and career-growth training program for midlevel professionals at Jewish Community Centers across North America. Mr. Young earned a BS in Psychology and Economics from McGill University in Montreal, and an MPA in Nonprofit Management and MA in Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University.

This article was originally published in GLEANINGS – an ejournal of dialogue in Jewish Education published by The Davidson School of JTS; reprinted with permission.