What IS Midrasha? A High Holiday Speech...

Note:  This is the text of a speech given by Devra Aarons, Contra Costa Midrasha Executive Director on Sept. 5, 2013 during Congregation B'nai Shalom's 2nd Day of Rosh Hashanah services.  Thanks to B'nai Shalom for having us as part of your services!

Thank you to B’nai Shalom for giving me and Contra Costa Midrasha – the time and space to share with you today a bit about Contra Costa Midrasha. And to all of you – thank you and Happy New Year.

My goal today is to give you a glimpse of what we do with the Jewish teens from our community. To help you understand why being on this campus on Wednesday nights is one of the great joys of my life and stands as a deep point of pride for B’nai Shalom, with 110 teens annually enrolled in our program.

Yesterday’s Haftarah tells the story of Hannah - of her desire to have a child. She prays, “if you will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life.” We read that her sincere piety and deeply heart-felt prayer was heard by G-d, so G-d granted her a child. After her son, Samuel is born, she tells her husband that Samuel will go with them to sacrifice at Shiloh only after he is weaned. Once this happens, Hannah “dedicates” him to the priests there, to become a priest himself.

To my mind, this is one of the earliest Jewish accounts of a parent dedicating their child to a life of Jewish learning and living. It was quite a large commitment that Hannah put upon Samuel.

Like Hannah, we as Jewish parents dedicate our children to Judaism, bringing them through Day School or Hebrew school to their b’nai mitzvah. Many of you have made the trek up the hill here – not only for the High Holidays and Shabbat but also for Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings – giving your children the values and knowledge of Judaism.

The story of Samuel doesn’t end there. It continues… It is told that Samuel sleeps in the same room where the Ark of the Convenant is housed. Late one dark night Samuel hears a voice, one he thinks belongs to Eli, the priest he serves. He hears this same voice three times. And it is only after Eli tells Samuel that this is the voice of G-d, does Samuel know to listen. It is like the moment, the day after a b’nai mitzvah when our children ask, “what now?” They go from being children to being teens. This is the moment where Samuel’s transformation begins. Hearing the voice of G-d, Samuel becomes a prophet. He must listen himself.

Imagine if all our teens could hear the voice of G-d the day after their b’nai mitzvah! What a miracle that would be? Maybe they can… “What now?” is easy, the “what now” is continuing their Jewish education and involvement at Contra Costa Midrasha.

Midrasha is the place where our teen’s sense of Judaism is transformed from a Judaism that is handed to them to a Judaism that they form and create for themselves. In a sense, it is a Judaism that they, like Samuel, hear with their own ears.

Midrasha challenges teens to find their own paths into Judaism. During the five years that they spend with us, from 8th – 12th grade, it is our goal to arm them with a toolbox of Jewish experiences that they can use well into their futures. Inside it are the “items” they’ve collected during their teen years at Midrasha. Some are real, physical objects. There is a Havdalah candle to commemorate the many starry nights spent together on retreats singing “la, la, la” (Havdalah tune). Like the Shabbat candles we give as a graduation gift, it’s a way to empower our teens to take on doing Jewish ritual themselves.

Other items in the box aren’t physical, but spiritual. As part of my preparations for today’s talk, I worked with one of this
year’s juniors, Talia Schaer, who is also a member of B’nai Shalom. She helped me to see the more powerful tools that
Midrasha imparts to its teens are:

  •  A personal belief excavator… As Talia says, “ To me Midrasha is more than a Jewish youth group; it is a place where I can be myself. It is where I have met some of my best friends and have learned so much about myself. I have learned about my own Jewish identity as well as what beliefs I have in general. In my three years so far at Midrasha I have learned about all aspects about Judaism and those that I agree and disagree with.”
  • Talia’s voice illustrates that in this box is a stronger set of critical thinking skills: “We are always allowed to ask questions to learn about a specific part of Israel or Judaism or something completely different all together. We always have a say in what we do in class to make sure we get the most out of the learning experience.”
  • Her perspective shows how Midrasha electives offer a variety of ways for teens to connect into the world around them – almost like a wall plug. “I have learned a lot about who I am as a person through the electives that are offered such as Teen Talk and meditation. These were classes where we could be free to talk about whatever we wanted to without judgment and in complete confidence. We were able to connect with the others our age by talking about our own lives and things we have encountered. Throughout meditation I was able to learn new ways to think about the world around me and how to connect with myself.”
  • And of course, a “friendship tool” is one of the most valuable resources we give to our Midrasha teens. “Going on retreats is one of my favorite parts of Midrasha. It has let me meet some of the coolest people and become very close with them. It was a way to meet other Jewish teens from around the bay.”

As you can hear, “Midrasha has given me the gift of finding my own Jewish identity and has given me a place to learn
about myself and who I want to be.” Thank you, Talia. We provide these tools – Jewish identity, critical thinking skills, Jewish beliefs, and Jewish friendships and community - to Midrasha teens through the weekly classes on this campus and through weekend retreats at Camp Newman. Together they create the framework of their new Jewish toolbox.

Now I’m not saying that every teen who attends Midrasha will become a prophet like Samuel. Rather, I am saying that a teen who graduates from Midrasha FINDS their own Jewish identity. They hear the small voice inside themselves.

Step onto this campus on any Wednesday night from September to May and you will hear raucous laughter. You will see teens giving big hugs and educators pushing each teen to think deeper. You may stumble on a shoe taken off so that yoga or meditation can happen in the sanctuary. You will taste donuts. You will witness change happening. Maybe, just maybe you will be party to the birth of a new prophet and the construction of a new Temple.

For me, Rosh Hashanah is not only a time of reflection and looking forward personally, but also communally. At Contra
Costa Midrasha we – myself, our Board, our educators, our teens, our parents and you - are just beginning our year. We are sharpening our tools, ready to arm our teens with what they will need to build their own Temple. I hope you will join us.

Thank you and shana tovah.