Local students also experienced the transitioning powers of mikvah immersion
By Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch
Watching the 2009 documentary Race to Nowhere was a defining moment in my understanding of what life as a child is like today. In one scene, a fourth-grader sits on a swing while he is interviewed. Disturbingly, he innocently describes the stress that he feels in elementary school to perform, because if he does not do well now, then he will not be ready for middle school, which will hurt his opportunities for advanced placement in high school, affecting the ultimate decision of which college he will end up attending. This 10-year-old child was unable to just go play on the playground because he was worried about his college application. No doubt his parents had also been worrying about how to pay for college for many years before that.
When Race to Nowhere came out, congregants with children at home said the film resonated with their experiences. Kids were more and more stressed at younger and younger ages, because they felt they were already in a race, but uncertain where it would lead, or why they allowed the intensity to enter their homes. Coming to the Berkshires was a blessing. I remember talking with one parent of a high schooler when we first moved here, and we began to discuss this film and what it was critiquing. This parent told me that life here in the Berkshires was different. Many of the parents in our community intentionally chose to move here and to raise their families here, for the very reason that they did not have to try to keep up with the Steins or be in a race to who knows where. I found this refreshing, and affirmed our own family decisions to be full-time Berkshire residents.
Yet, I have since learned that our Berkshire children are not immune to the effects of competition within their own schools. Ours are still ambitious, talented young people. They want to succeed. And, they are also challenged by the things other kids say to them on the playground and in the classroom because they are Jewish. We are aware of the ongoing blight of bias around here. It affects us, it affects people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and others.
After a difficult anti-Semitic incident in the Monument Valley Middle School, Rabbi Jodie Gordon and I realized that we needed to give space to our teens to explore what they have experienced in their community and in their schools. In partnership with Federation, we created a one-day retreat for the students to better understand hate and bias, and to spiritualize the process of letting go and moving into a new chapter. Thanks to the support from Carol and Steve Targum and an anonymous donor, 15 students and parents headed to Boston for the day.
There, the students first met with Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. Jeremy has spent a good deal of time thinking and writing about hate and anti-Semitism, and offered the students an overarching perspective on the recent manifestations of anti-Semitism. After his presentation, we invited the students to consider their experiences and their community. In the afternoon, we headed to Mayyim Hayyim, the progressive mikvah located in Newton.
The power of the day was held by the mikvah. First, educator Emilia Diamant guided our students through a storytelling circle, in which they supported one another by sharing stories of how they were subject to anti-Semitism and other bias in their schools. The adults in the room sat back and gave the students the space and time they needed. It was one of the most sacred experiences I have shared with young people in quite some time. Together, the students found a shared narrative, and also gave care and support to one another.
Following the storytelling, Mayyim Hayyim’s mikvah director, Lisa Berman, invited the students who wanted to immerse in the mikvah to do so. The mikvah is our ritual for transition. This was an invitation to take the unfortunate realities with which our young people live and to head into the water with them. In immersing, we hoped that the students would find a spiritual cleanse that would allow them to move into their next chapters and new conversations. To my surprise and delight, most of the students immersed. And as each came out of the mikvah, one by one, each reflected on their sense of calm and clarity, radiating a sense of serenity.
Not forgetting the joys of community, we finished the day with a meal together, complete with egg creams and French fries.
A truism of teenage years is that they are not easy. How many of us say, “I wish I could be 15 again?” Our students live with their own pressures of which we should be aware. They may feel the effects of the race to nowhere, and in our community, we have learned about other pressures that they are forced to confront. What we found in our Boston day is that our community is well equipped to provide the spiritual support needed to not only endure but to thrive.
Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch is a spiritual leader at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.