"Rabbi, is There a Blessing for the Bieber?"
We were quite excited to sit down with more than 75 students and adults this past Thursday evening at a theater on the Upper East Side of NYC to view an exclusive screening of Justin Bieber's brand-new, biographical film, Never Say Never for Temple Shaaray Tefila's students. Filmed in 3-D, you felt as if you could reach out and touch his famously coiffed head from your seat. It is virtually impossible to work with middle- and high-school students in our synagogues and not hear the name "Justin Bieber" mentioned (often followed by shrieks and swooning). Surprisingly, there were many rich Jewish values present in his film, and we warmly recommend that families and educators take the time to see the film and then discuss the various Jewish themes.
The film alternates between biographical interviews and musical numbers from his concerts. Bieber is a legitimately talented performer, even at the young age of 16. More interesting, however, is the presence of many grounded, wise, and caring adults in his life who keep him focused on "real life." He was raised by a single mother who kept him involved in church and raised him to value faith and prayer. His grandparents appeared numerous times in the film, and these folks were as normal and relaxed as could be. Not one member of his family seemed to seek out fame and fortune; rather, they all wanted Bieber, more than anything else, to be a respectful person. Just as Pirkei Avot 4:17 reminds us that, "There are three crowns--the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name surpasses them all," his mother said, "I want his identity to be based on who he is, rather than what he does."
Bieber is surrounded in his life by experienced, kind mentors, such as the musician, Usher, and producer, L.A. Reid. Pirkei Avot 1:6 instructs us in the importance of finding caring teachers: "Make for yourself a teacher, and you will find yourself a friend." Unfortunately, in many cases of childhood stardom, the surrounding influences can encourage drug use, irresponsible choices, and criminal behavior. However, Bieber's mentors unceasingly look after his health, encourage him to rest, and even provide him with a protein shake that will keep him strong and well. At one point in the film, Bieber has developed an infection on his vocal chords. His managers, vocal coaches, and family members encourage him to cancel one show now, rather than get sicker and have to cancel 7 or 8 later. In a real-life example of the tension found in the Hillel's teaching, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (Pirkei Avot 1:14), Bieber has to weigh his obligation to his fans in relation to his obligation to self-care. Though he feels terrible about it, he cancels the one concert and rests.
One of the most interesting characters in Bieber's life is his manager, Scooter Braun (who had found Bieber on YouTube to jump start his career). Braun is both a big brother and a father figure to Bieber, and Braun's Jewish heritage is apparent throughout. As discussed in a recent JTA article, entitled, "For Justin Bieber, 'Scooter' and the Shema Play a Major Presence", there are Jewish rituals and traditions that have become an important part of Justin's pre-show preparations, including the recitation of the Shema. Braun shares his philosophy of being sure to "give back" to all the fans, demonstrated most notably in his regular trips to distribute free tickets to those fans that were unable to buy tickets themselves. Braun reminds Bieber that they would not be where they were without the fans, thus encouraging an atmosphere of gratitude and appreciation
As Jewish professionals, we are cognizant that Justin Bieber is a major part of many of our students' lives. And, as far as potential role models go, he is not a bad choice. There are so many other young celebrities in the public eye who make exceedingly poor choices, and we would rather our students be inspired by a young man with admirable values, a strong support network, and a message of love and hope. Though he is not Jewish himself, one might argue that he is, in fact, a good Jewish role model. By highlighting the prevalence of many Jewish teachings in the film, we could encourage our children to discuss what makes his actions "Jewish," and what they might therefore add to their own Jewish lives.
Hope Chernak is Director of Youth and Informal Education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. Hope has a certificate in Youth, Adult and Family Learning from the New York School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and will receive her master's degree in religious education from HUC-JIR in May, 2011.
Rabbi Marci Bellows was ordained at HUC-JIR, NY, in 2004, and proudly serves as rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, New York. She can't wait to share these impressions with the students currently enrolled in her, "Jews and Pop Culture" religious school elective.