Raising The Bar

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New curriculum for b’nai mitzvah students provides tools for mental well-being.

As Jewish children have prepared for Jewish adulthood throughout the decades, the clergy and educators in their lives traditionally equipped them with skills like leading prayers, making a speech and chanting Torah. Thanks to an emerging curriculum being developed by Jewish leaders in Metro Detroit called “Raise the Bar” (RTB), Jewish kids from as early as grades 3 or 4 will also be given tools such as effective communication, meditation and stress management. So, when it is time for them to finally be counted as a Jewish adult, they can approach it from a place of mental well-being.

Rabbi Rachel Shere

Rabbi Rachel Shere

“We want to give our adolescents skill sets that will prepare them to become the best mentsh they can be,” said Adat Shalom’s Rabbi Rachel Shere, who created and coined the name of the curriculum. “Kids need to not only be grounded in the wisdom of Jewish texts and prayers, but also given sound coping skills in mental health — caring for themselves first — so they can in turn give back as caring contributors to their Jewish community.”

Just like many other mental health initiatives and resources that have emerged this year, RTB was spurred on after the results of a 2016 Jewish Community Health and Social Welfare Needs Assessment confirmed the high rates of anxiety and stress among teens in the Jewish community, according to Todd Krieger of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

“Information that was gathered about the state of our youth’s mental health was both surprising and chilling,” Krieger said. “More than half of the youth who responded to the community survey indicated that they, or someone they know, struggle with anxiety.”

According to Shere, “In the years leading up to a child’s b’nai mitzvah, we have this perfect opportunity when parents spend a lot of time shuttling their children to synagogue, and they are getting lots of exposure to congregational life and their rabbis.

“This may be the last concentrated period in a child’s life when parents spend such a great deal of time with them before the teen years set in,” she added. “RTB will take advantage of these years and forge stronger bonds among parents, children and synagogues by teaching communication and coping skills and impressing the fact that the b’nai mitzvah learning process can and should be challenging, but it should not be excessively stressful. It is a holy opportunity that needs to be optimized.”

Shere added that the Jewish community must move away from idealizing the child during the b’nai mitzvah service. Instead, what would have a greater lasting impact upon the child and his or her involvement in Judaism is to show that in becoming a full-fledged Jewish adult, he or she is “part of something awesome and bigger than themselves and they have reached this day because, through coping skills, they have succeeded under pressure to stand poised and prepared before their congregation,” Shere said.

“Becoming a b’nai mitzvah should teach children that they are never alone,” Shere continued. “If the b’nai mitzvah feels that their clergy and synagogue have their back when they are 12 and 13, they will continue to return to synagogue and seek out that feeling of support and belonging when they face the challenges of being 16 and 17.”

Dr. Jeremy Baruch

Dr. Jeremy Baruch

Backed with a grant from the Hermelin-Davidson Center for Congregational Excellence, Shere and Krieger consulted with Dr. Jeremy Baruch, a rabbi and a child psychologist resident at the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry.

“Throughout the RTB program development process, updates and opportunities for feedback are provided to all clergy through Michigan Board of Rabbis meetings,” Krieger said. “Our hope is that each synagogue will adopt all, or portions, of the RTB curriculum.”

Baruch said over the generations, the b’nai mitzvah ceremony has been used as a placeholder of examining the values of the Jewish American family. From being civic minded to now concentrating on mindfulness, the desire to implement a curriculum such as this reflects how the story of the Jewish American is changing through the generations.

“For new immigrants, the values were about civics and becoming American. For generations after that, a value was placed on materialism and making it in America as Jewish Americans,” Baruch said.

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“Now, we are coming into a time when we are moving a bit away from materialism, and we are placing the values on health and mental well-being.

“As American Jews, we have proved over the generations that we can take care of ourselves. For this next generation, the challenge will be how to take advantage of all the opportunities of the 21st century without being overwhelmed and crushed by the process.”

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