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How to Be a Better Jewish Role Model

How to Be a Better Jewish Role Model

If you haven’t read Michael K. Mulligan’s "The Three Most Important Questions You Can Ask Your Teenager," I highly recommend it. This is his core message:

We can do better. Truth is, we know full well that lasting happiness springs from good health, solid values, meaningful work, multiple positive relationships, and selfless service. So how about we cease and desist on the pressure front – and get our eye back on the ball that matters – stop asking What (What grade did you get? What team did you make?) and begin asking Who, Where, and How?

1.   Who tells us who we are?

2.   Where do we want to go with our lives?

3.   How do we want to get there?

As a parent of two teenage boys and an almost-10-year-old girl (who often thinks she’s a teen), I know I can do better. I know I have uttered those phrases that stem from a place of pressure– asking what grade, how many points scored, and a myriad other performance-related questions.

It’s difficult to avoid this mindset, which is the predominant message in society. It doesn’t help that most of our society’s heroes and role models are famous athletes, entertainment stars, and billionaires – and that their primary stories are not about who, where, how but rather what. Performance outcomes are an unavoidable aspect of life – but they only tell part of the story, and they should not be our obsession.

Indeed, when I reflect back on those teachers, coaches, counselors, mentors, friendships, and parental moments that have most inspired me and helped me grow, it was those messages that led with who, where, and how that rise to the top.

Try it: Think about those who have really helped you grow your self-esteem, your inner core. What kind of messages did they deliver to you? Even though it is difficult to cut against the grain, we have the ability, opportunity, and obligation to do so in working with children and teens. We may not be able to control the media’s messaging, but there are so many relationships we can control in our work as parents, coaches, mentors, counselors, friends, and family (and of course, many of us play multiple role). We have the power of relationships – and it is never too late to change the way we approach them.

As Jews, we are blessed with a faith tradition that provides us with cherished values, perspectives, and mindsets to help along the way. The idea that we are all created b’tselem Elohim, in a divine image, and thus have unique gifts to share with the world, is a pillar of Jewish values that can help dictate our relationships with our children and each other.

Those of us who work with Jewish youth (I work at a Jewish summer camp, but it’s also true in the realms of religious school and youth groups) hold this term near to our hearts, and we use the phrase “b’tselem Elohim” frequently. It helps guide our interpersonal relationships, our leadership, and our managerial and supervision culture; we also use it as a guide for connection between campers, staff, parents, board members, faculty, donors, alumni – our entire Jewish community. When we talk about being a k’hilah kedoshah, a holy community, I cannot think of anything more holy than the way we treat each other. How do we interact, respect, tolerate, and embrace each other as divine individuals sharing the life journey? How do we really look into each other’s souls to bring out the best and celebrate our goodness?

By focusing on each other’s gifts – by helping each other discover and celebrate our best selves – we get a glimpse of why so many campers and staff say their Jewish community is where they can be their best, which translates into greater self-esteem and a deeper appreciation for Judaism. One of my favorite Jewish texts, by Rabbi Nachman of Braslav is “Seek the good, reveal it, bring it forth,” and it’s a mantra we use at camp.

Campers’ parents frequently ask, “What is it that camp does to make my child so happy, proud of themselves, loving of Judaism, and helpful when they return home?” The answer is not in what camp does but in the nature of how we treat each other day to day, minute by minute – rebuilding each other’s humanity after a year filled with the performance-related pressures of grades, sports, and extracurricular activities. I see it more and more every summer: At camp, the weight of the world is lifted from children’s shoulders.

Ruben Arquilevich is the Union for Reform Judaism's vice president of URJ camps, NFTY and immersive experiences, leading teams across North America to increase engagement and strengthen URJ’s year-round youth, camp and Israel programs for people of all ages. Formerly, Ruben was the executive director of California camping and youth programs, including URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA (where he served as director for 25 years), URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy West, and 6 Points Sports Academy California, along with multiple NFTY regions. When not in the field visiting the Reform Movement's 17 camps, 19 NFTY regions, and many Israel programs, Ruben is out in nature with his wife Vivien and three children, who were all shaped by URJ immersive experiences.


Ruben Arquilevich
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