Lessons I have learned from the children and teenagers at our synagogue

Everything I know, I’ve learned from our youth

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The focal point of tefillah (prayer) on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. This poem teaches us that three things can avert the severity of a bad decree for our coming year: teshuvah , repentance; tefillah , prayer; and tzedakah , charity, or righteousness.

I want to share three lessons that I have learned from the children and teenagers at our synagogue because it is the youth in our community who have taught me that despite whatever lies before us in life, we can make other people's lives, and our world, better, through teshuvah , tefillah , and tzedakah .

Lesson #1: Teshuvah-To say sorry, and actually mean it.

Every couple of weeks, I try to go outside during recess and play sports with our day school students. And 99% of the time, the games are played with kindness, sportsmanship, and sensitivity-unlike most games that I ever play with adults. But when one student feels like they are treated unfairly, the students will, before recess' end, apologize to each other, and move on as friends.

Kids are not necessarily better at saying sorry. But real teshuvah is not only about the apology itself. It's about moving on after the apology. Adults may be better at saying the words, 'I'm sorry.' But children are better at meaning their apology through its most genuine expression: moving on. How often do we see them, five minutes later, playing together without holding a grudge? Something that I know is difficult for me, and I'm sure for any of you.

Lesson #2: Tefillah-To pray, and to love it.

For the past few years, we've held a special Simchat Torah service and reading for kids. The first year, in preparation, we did a practice of the hakafot (circling) on Shabbat, singing, and dancing as we took out the Torah. There was the palpable excitement in the room as kids sang at the top of their lungs.

Then came a moment where I learned something from our children. After eating Kiddush lunch as quickly as possible, a group of them ran into the coatroom, pulled out the plush Torah scrolls, and sang the songs and hakafot again, on their own. These kids were not playing around-they wanted to keep davening , to keep praying, to keep singing, because they felt passion, spirit, and love of Torah. As adults, we either don't feel that same passion, or are too afraid to exhibit it.

Every one of us can learn from our students' example. That prayer is not meant to be a passive exercise, but an outpouring of the soul. And that it should be like that not only during the service itself, but in places as random as coatrooms.

Lesson #3: Tzedakah-To help out, even when it's not your job.

At a regional United Synagogue Youth convention, our teenagers were sitting at a Shabbat meal. Afterward, the staff told the students that they had free time. Most people ran out of the cafeteria.

But our teenagers noticed that the eating area was a mess, and they decided that this was not okay. They stayed behind, and for almost half of their free time, they bonded, they enjoyed hanging out with each other, while cleaning up other people's messes. Without complaining, they decided that they could make the world better by cleaning up, one plate at a time.

Our children have so much to teach us. And while it is my job to teach and guide students, I find that often, they are teaching and guiding me.

We don't know what lies ahead in the coming year. We all hope for blessing, health, sweetness, happiness. But no matter what we face, what are we going to do to make our lives, and the lives of others, better?

This year, can we, like our children, say sorry, and actually mean it?

This year, can we, like our children, pray, and love it?

This year, can we, like our children, help out, even when it's not our job?

This is our great task-and may we support each other, every step of the way.

Shanah tovah .

Rabbi David Russo came to Anshe Emet Synagogue in 2011, where he strives to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere for the Chicago community within the context of meaningful, traditional, and inspiring Jewish practice.


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