Monday, September 24, 2012

Being Internationally Spiritual

There is nothing quite like having to explain the concept of atonement to a bunch of older kids (or young teenagers, depending how you look at it) to make you really think about it. In Hebrew School class yesterday, talking about Yom Kippur, we defined atonement as repentance, leading to asking for forgiveness.  (Atonement as the main translation for the word kapara).

We talked about why it comes right after the New Year, and what a wonderful spiritual opportunity it is to do some soul-searching and accounting before a new year begins. We explained that in our tradition we talk about our relationship with G-d, with other people, and with ourselves, and how we understand that it is important to work on all of these relationships. I, liberal person that I am, emphasized the individual nature of this, and the fact that they all (but especially one's relationship with G-d) can mean something different for all of us.

My co-teacher is religious, and it's interesting to observe how differently we approach talking about things, especially anything related to faith. She sort of goes right ahead and says "the party line", whereas I'm a lot more hesitant, pluralistic and, well, secular. It may be because I understand who these children are and where they come from a little bit better, and I know that talking too much about religion will not go over well with certain parents. But really I think that she is much more comfortable talking about faith and G-d and stuff and for me it's hard. We don't really do that in the secular bubbles I consider myself a part of.

 We then had the kids write down (as practice for the Shorashim project they're all going to do this year) their resolutions or atonements, giving them an opportunity (which I later realized probably no one has given them before) to actually engage in this practice of thinking about how they want to start their new year. About half the group has had their bar/bat mitzvah, so in many ways I'm supposed to prepare them for Jewish adulthood, too.

I have to honestly admit that the depth of this exercise eluded me when I first thought of it. My original goal had been to get them writing something personal, something to get their juices flowing in thinking about themselves. I realized the impact of it when they all sat, in rapture, listening to me explain something I, in all honesty, understand very little about.

But if there's one thing I've learned teaching Hebrew School across the world (aside from the fact that it's so wonderful to be in a position to get kids to want to come when they initially really don't): you gotta plough through sometimes, and in an elegant way explain that neither you nor anyone else has all the answers. You gotta explain these massive questions of the human existence (thank G-d I've had Hannah Arendt to prepare me for this) in a way that is relatable, real, and accessible. Humility, at this point, is the best tool at your disposal. Humility, and the ability to make things fun.

I left class thinking I should probably do some soul-searching myself this season.

Recently I've been dealing with how professional my Jewish practice has become. I have to go to services, to the various communities, because people will ask me where I've been (and why I wasn’t with them). I usually take a few people with me to different services, as there's always someone new and it's nice to be able to help out – one of the benefits of staying somewhere longer than a year.

There's also an element of fragmentation to my High Holidays experience. This is my second year in Shanghai. Before here I was in India for two years (one year with the very traditional, very unique community, one year  traveling up and down Western India for the holidays with Ronan, going to Chabad Houses but also doing some local stuff), before that I was in New York (modern orthodox, gay-friendly, synagogue in the UWS, Ashkenazi, obviously), before that in Paris (Moroccan-Orthodox), and before that, in Middlebury (Reconstructionist, Ashkenazi, ultra-Liberal). I don't remember what my family does or what "I'm used to", and in any case it's probably changed at least three times since I last spent the HH with them, which was in Madrid in 2004 (Orthodox Ashkenazi in the basement of the synagogue, with some strong Sepharadic undertones). Throw in the fact that I've been working in the Jewish world for three years and it's no wonder (though admittedly quite ironic) that I feel a little disconnected.

Tradition and continuity, and doing the same thing year in and year out, are important. I understand that, now perhaps more than ever. And part of what I'm trying to figure out is what kind of religious practice – and what kind of community – fits this very international lifestyle. The great thing about Shanghai - and other communities in the region – is that there are many people like me, so the culture of the community is very international and diverse. People connect quickly, they're nice and welcoming to newcomers and the institutions and their leaders (mainly Chabad and the wonderful rabbis and rebetzins that are here) are set-up to accommodate transience and international diversity.

Perhaps my problem, then, is that I have not yet found a way to have a coherent, consistent and personal spiritual experience that transcends on one hand place, tradition and custom, and on the other, the issue of working in the field with a community made up of people who are exactly like me. This boundary between the personal and the professional (which I think is always an issue when you're working in the field and have human needs like making friends and other meaningful connections) when put in the spiritual context takes on a more complicated dimension. It requires, for example, not necessarily socializing when going to the synagogue, or not going "for prayers" – as the Indians say – at all (I think I am realizing that this is a personal preference for YK day, for example). While I probably can't do that this year – I almost had a meeting scheduled for that day, and definitely have to go to at least one, if not two, services – being honest about my spiritual crisis is helping me do something about it.  


After a long break, I'm picking up the Shanghai-Jewish story again! Would love to read your comments :)

The Shanghai Jewish Center's Hebrew School has been through some serious structural changes this year. It is a sign of larger inclusion and tolerance, and an example of how communities should grow and change and flow as their members change as well. The two biggest changes are to offer a track for Israeli children who speak Hebrew, and also to accommodate for the growing number of pre-teens in the community.

I teach that group – the 11 to 14-year-olds, and I absolutely love it. I am doing a Shorashim (Roots) project with them, meant to explore their identities, their family background and their community and people. It is a project that all 12-13-year-olds do in schools in Israel and in many Diaspora communities. My co-teacher is French girl who is wonderful. Often we split up the group, so I teach the Hebrew and she teaches the English.

In developing the curriculum for the project, I began thinking about how these kids are going to talk about their lives, their families and their communities. Though I've taught Hebrew school often and in various countries, I've never taught a group of third or fourth-culture children, who are multilingual, very bright, international, well-traveled and still, at the end of the day, Jewish children (who don't naturally love going to Hebrew School). The group is incredibly diverse, with Israelis, Americans, French kids, half south-African, and of course, half-Chinese.

I feel like I am getting the opportunity to teach as I myself would have liked to have been taught. Though I (thankfully) had wonderful education throughout my life, there was always an element of me having to adapt to the local culture, as I wasn't really in it. There is a lot of value in this; it forces you, for example, to learn the language fluently and it makes you understand the local culture insanely well. Total immersion and you wind up with an insider's perspective.

But the downside is that the international part of your identity gets a bit downplayed. In something like a Shorashim project, which is inherently personal and individual – as it's about people's lives and identities – it's great to be able to understand, from first-hand experience, what these kids are going through.  Their questions about telling their life-story ("What if I moved six times?", "What if we just moved house in the same country?") are so unique to their experience, and I get it. I get them. I love it, because there aren't a lot of people like me my age, but there will be a lot of people like them by the time they're my age.

In a time when the world is becoming more globalized, more interconnected and diverse, when the meaning of Place is changing, and nationality often doesn't even begin to tell the story, it is time to think about how to adapt education and make it relevant to children who are growing up with a completely different kind of identity, one that is above all molded by exposure to international diversity, with all the languages, cultures and constant changes that that it involves.