If there’s one thing I love about my community it’s the diversity. Yes, approximately half of our members come from outside the tri-state area, from 15 different countries and across the US, but that’s not the diversity I’m talking about. It’s the educational diversity of the children in my shul. As Youth Director of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston I have the privilege of running our shul’s Junior Congregation each Shabbat. We daven, we have candy and we have a weekly parsha game. This competition generally consists of questions on the weekly reading and the first team to get five right wins prizes. But I take great care in which specific questions are asked, as the youths that attend our Junior Congregation represent Kushner, JEC, Golda Och (Schechter), Cheder Lubavitch of Morristown, and public school… and those are just our regulars.
I learned very early in my tenure that if I asked any question starting with “why” I was in for trouble. The answer to these questions will often reflect the particular ideology a child is learning, which can lead to some disagreements. On several occasions when the “right” answer was given to a “why” question (i.e., the answer I was looking for), it was often followed by “That’s not what I learned!” For example, I once naively asked “Why didn’t Yaakov know that his other sons had it out for Joseph?” I had at least three different answers that started with “Well, I learned…” It’s hard to say “You’re wrong” in these situations. After all, as a Youth Director my primary objective Shabbat morning is to enhance the Jewish education my young congregants are receiving from their day schools and private tutors, not contradict it. I’ll often say “That’s not the answer I was looking for, but very interesting,” though this can leave a child with an unsatisfying, conflicted feeling, because they were, after all, just saying what they learned.
Questions that start with “Where” are generally good, but there tends to be far too few of these to ask in the majority of parshas. But questions that start with “How” and have a number answer are gold.
How many animals does the Torah mention with one sign of kashrut? 4
How old was Moshe when he returned to Egypt? 80
How old was Moshe when he led the Jews out of Egypt? Still 80 (The man worked fast!)
How many sons did Avraham have? 8
The beauty of questions like these is that there is no wiggle room. The Torah only mentions four animals with one sign of kashrus, not five. Even the most obstinate child can’t accurately say “That’s not what I learned” to that question.
I often get a great deal of traction out of the Avraham question. The Torah clearly says Avraham had eight sons. Although without fail each year when I ask this, a child quickly blurts out “Two!” I shake my head, and can see the confusion on the faces of the children. I know many are thinking those five words of contrary, and a few are ready to pounce. I quickly let them know that while they think the answer is two, that’s not what it says in the Torah—and no matter what school they go to there’s no way to dispute that. Avraham had six more sons with Keturah. I then go on to explain that sometimes you think you’ve learned something, but it could be you misheard the information. Or jumped to a conclusion. Or a teacher made a mistake.
Perhaps the best part of number questions is that they enable every child to get involved with the parsha programming…even and especially if they don’t have a clue about the week’s Torah portion. It doesn’t matter if they go to Golda Och, Kushner or public school, everyone has the chance of getting a number question right. If I ask “How old was Joseph when he died?” there’s a good chance that’s not something all the kids might have learned. But if I add “It’s a number between 90 and 125” then every hand will go up with a guess…and if after ten guesses no one is right then every hand is up and kids are jumping out of their seats screaming “I know it! I know it!” Obviously they don’t know it or they would have got the question right the first time they answered. But they think they know it, they want know it. It’s the thrill of guessing a number correctly that’s driving them—like a contestant who’s sure he/she is getting closest to the actual retail price on “The Price Is Right.” This is something I could never get from a “why” question. And when the answer is eventually discovered to be 110 you can bet several kids will say “I was going to say that!” And maybe they were. And maybe they weren’t (they probably weren’t). But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that by focusing on these number questions we get the kids interested. We get them excited. And in that regard they don’t seem that diverse after all.
By Yoni Glatt
Yoni Glatt is youth director at Congregation Etz Chaim, Livingston, NJ.