Renewal meets here to brainstorm ideas to inspire youth

Just as Jewish Renewal has tried to create more spontaneous and heart-felt worship services, its adherents are hoping to readjust the focus of religious schools.

Meeting in Berkeley last weekend at the Renewal movement's first education conference, a panel of educators advocated adding love, respect, compassion and God-talk to children's experiences in the classroom.

"Love them more than what you're teaching them," suggested Rabbi Pam Baugh of San Francisco's Or Shalom Jewish Community.

Instead of rewarding children who learn the V'ahavtah the fastest, Rabbi Michael Lerner added, religious school teachers could honor children who behave with the most sensitivity and caring.

Jewish education needs "a different bottom line," said Lerner, spiritual leader of San Francisco's Beyt Tikkun.

Panelists also focused on problems the movement faces, such as transmitting a passion for Judaism to youth and finding knowledgeable teachers who share Renewal values.

About 65 Jewish educators and others attended the conference sponsored by the Network of Jewish Renewal Communities. Participants came to Lehrhaus Judaica from eight states, including Alaska.

Organizers designed the conference to spread information about what's working in classrooms across the country and to figure out how to transfer this grassroots movement's values to the next generation.

Some of their issues are unique to the Renewal movement, such as avoiding complicated kabbalistic terms when working with children. Other topics are common to all Jewish movements, such as dealing with parents who do nothing Jewish at home but want their children to become b'nai mitzvah.

Focusing on the future of Jewish Renewal includes letting go of the past, asserted Rabbi Daniel Siegel during his keynote address.

"We need to drop our anger about our parents' and grandparents' generation of Judaism," said Siegel, executive director of Philadelphia-based ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Instead, Siegel wants adult Jews to focus on building the kind of Judaism they want.

At the same time, he acknowledged that children will eventually rebel and separate from their parents — regardless of what they're taught.

Thus, he said, Jewish education should act as the "preparation for that moment later…when they rediscover their connection." When they hit their 20s and 30s, he said, well-educated Jews will have the foundation to create their own form of Judaism.

Among the most important ingredients in keeping children interested in Judaism is the classroom environment, several panelists concurred.

Pella Schafer, director of the Berkeley-based Jewish Youth for Community Action, said one of the most painful memories of her religious-school education was the cruelty of the children.

Teachers should model love and respect, she said. But they should also have "zero tolerance" for put-downs or cliques among youths.

She suggested that teachers celebrate their students' strong points, instead of punishing the weak ones. Teachers can also increase students' involvement, letting them choose what they want to study and create their own behavior rules.

"If people feel good, they come back."

At the same time, Schafer suggested that Renewal adherents have been great at getting "spiritually high." But they also need to ground themselves "in the physical plane," such as arriving on time or performing acts of social justice. "Let's learn about something and then go do it," she said.

Baugh's congregation focuses on an even more fundamental element in education.

"Parents may not force their children to come to religious school," she said. That policy, Baugh maintained, requires parents to come to terms with their own anger, resistance and resentment of Judaism.

Victor Gross, co-spiritual leader at Berkeley's Aquarian Minyan, said he's concerned that the current generation of Renewal adherents cannot transmit its intense feelings for Judaism.

"Our passion may not be catch-able. It's not a virus," he said.

Of all the panel members, Lerner said he was the least optimistic about Renewal education. Finding teachers, who are both knowledgeable and share Renewal's values is difficult, he said.

Passing on Jewish values isn't a piece of honey cake either.

Those values include cultivating a sense of "awe, wonder and amazement at the universe," knowing that "little folk" and not just heroes or tzaddikim (righteous ones) change the world, and understanding God as a "healing and transformative" force.

Parents also need to let their children know that Jewish values won't be rewarded by society and "may make you look square," Lerner said.

"You're up against the mainstream culture…What we're teaching is not common sense to this culture."