The New York Times recently described the need to teach Jewish kids courses in Bar Mitzvah etiquette because their misbehavior at these religious events has become a great source of concern. In addition to learning ballroom dancing and line dances like the Hustle, instructors teach the preteens that they should not destroy the centerpieces or steal the neon colored napkins and stick them on their heads like bandannas. They talk about grooming, too. The boys are told to pull up their sagging pants so that they don’t show off their boxers and the girls are instructed to pull down their tiny shrinking dresses so that they do not reveal a ridiculous amount of skin. (It may be easier to just say boys pull up and girls pull down.)
A mother describes kids being dropped off at the synagogue and ‘treating the joint like a mall’. Boys play tag football in the hall, girls text message their friends while hanging out on the countertops in the bathroom, kids talk nonstop during services. More and more people are noticing the lack of dignity and rude behavior displayed by kids at bar and bat mitzvahs. People return from these celebrations and they are appalled. One school even has a mock service where teachers coach students how to sit quietly during prayers and how to listen as speeches are made by the rabbi and grandparents.
One course is called ‘Mitzvah Circuit 101’; I would simply call it ‘Being a Mensch.’
Why has it become okay for our teens to behave so rudely? To me, it is more than etiquette; we are not speaking here about learning how to use a knife and fork or how to write a thank you note. Sitting quietly during prayers, not talking while the rabbi and grandparents speak during the service, dressing with decency, not throwing food across the room, not destroying centerpieces – these are all behaviors that stem from the most basic level of respect. Not just for others, but even respect for oneself. Being a mensch means that I know that wherever I go in life, I go with dignity. It is apparent through the way I talk, the way I walk, the way I treat others, and yes, the way I dress and display myself.
Of course ‘kids will be kids,’ but there is an invisible line that has somehow been crossed. We must figure out how to return our children to a place in life where they understand the difference once again between right and wrong; between behaviors that are fun and acceptable and that which is ugly, rude, and destructive. The article asks the question: “Why the need for the new course after so many years? Do we expect our kids’ day school to be the primary teacher of proper behavior? Should we blame it on society? Should we blame it on parents?”
And the usual answers are given. The kids are too over programmed, they just can’t focus. The parents are part of this new generation. They have a different way of thinking; they don’t know better. It’s not their fault. Parents today are stressed out; they don’t have the time to properly raise their children.
What a cop out!
Of course we are all stressed-out, pressured, trying to make it in a world turned upside down. The recession has shaken our financial security. There are children who bring unexpected challenges that can sap the energy from our inner core. The world of Facebook and iPhone 5 has snatched our attention away from those who matter most and allowed children and parents to live together in the same home but live completely separate lives.
But this does not give us a license to abdicate responsibility and drop our children off to behave and dress as they wish. Too many parents tell me that they just don’t have the strength to argue with their preteens and teens when it comes to how they act and what they wear. It feels as if a generation of mothers and fathers has just given up.
We cannot give up. We cannot afford to fail. Raising children is a noble mission that begins from the very first moment we hold this new life in our arms. “Be fruitful and multiply” – in Hebrew, “pru u’revu” – we are told in the Torah. It is not sufficient to just give birth and have children. Our sages teach us that ‘revu’ means we must multiply and reproduce ourselves through our children. Children should resemble their parents not only physically, but spiritually and morally. When we plant and nurture seeds of decency and morality within our children we will sow fruits of dignity and respect as they grow.
It is not an easy mission. But we cannot raise a generation of children who will one day ask why we parents never taught them the basic skills of being a mensch. Our children are watching us. They see how we behave when the rabbi speaks, they observe how we act during services, and they listen as we whisper to our seatmates instead of praying. They definitely notice how we dress and how much parents drink during these celebrations. If we genuinely want to make a change, we can begin by looking in the mirror.
We have within our hands the ability to transform the next generation. It is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.