By Rabbi Lisa Delson
Since last June, I have been thinking about and planning a Teen Alternative Spring Break for kids in my congregation. Over that time, details of the trip morphed and changed and eventually I set the final itinerary. We were going to Detroit, just an hour from Ann Arbor, and we were going to run a spring break day camp for kids in a poor neighborhood with the guidance of Repair the World. Once I decided on the main portion of our work, I was able to build the rest of the trip around it. We ended up staying in an apartment in downtown Detroit and then the headquarters of an organization called Summer in the City. I arranged learning sessions with a local Detroit Jewish educator. I chose the restaurants, the fun activities and made sure that we had a meaningful Shabbat experience at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. While planning this five-day four-night trip, I tried to imagine what the participants would like the most and what they would take home to their families and our congregation. Mostly, I hoped they would not be bored. I imagined they would feel a sense of warmth from the relationships they made playing with the kids in Delray. I anticipated they would talk excitedly about cooking Shabbat dinner at the Downtown Synagogue with cool 20 and 30 year olds. And I thought they would have a good time getting to know each other better. What I did not anticipate was the time the teens and I had to talk about life in general.
They asked me questions and I asked them. I asked them what they thought about the meaning of having friends, was it better to have one best friend or a group of friends? How do club sports differ from varsity sports? What are the differences between the street we are driving down with burnt out houses and no grocery stores within 4 miles and their own neighborhoods? What does it mean that the kids we were playing with could not bring their own food for lunch and had to eat unappetizing pizza three days in a row? Could you imagine being one of ten children like the girl in the spring break camp? What does privilege mean and how can we reconcile that we only live an hour away from Detroit but it feels like a different state? For the most part, they answered my questions and asked many more in follow up discussions. They had the chance to entertain what life would be like had they been born forty miles from where we currently live.
As special as those moments were when I was asking them questions, what really moved me were the questions they asked me. I was playing basketball with one of my participants and a group of fifth graders. My participant asked me when I knew I wanted to be a rabbi and my answer was when I was her age. Another question was what is my favorite part of my job and my honest answer was hanging out with them and meeting with b’nai mitzvah students. The question that carried the most weight for me though was during Shabbat services. I had my eyes closed for the Shema and afterwards one of the girls tapped me on the shoulder and asked why I did that. I told her why I do it. Then the girl on the other side of me asked the follow up question with some trepidation, “Do you believe in God?” My answer was, “Yes, but I didn’t always.” I know for a fact that this young woman is struggling with what she believes, as many 15 year olds do. We had built a level of trust and acceptance over the few short days that we spent together that I felt comfortable telling her exactly what I thought. I am not sure how she took my answer but I knew she trusted me enough to ask me.
Looking back on ASB 2013, I realize that wading through all of the details, worrying about the budget and anticipating hiccups in the schedule was part of my job but not all of it. The itinerary really did not matter; it was the opportunity for these high school students to spend time thinking and asking questions in a place outside of their comfort zone and trusting that I would be there for them. And I was. I was their rabbi and they taught me so much.
Rabbi Lisa Delson serves as Assistant Rabbi and Program Director at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is currently recovering from five, long days with special Jewish teens.