Monday, October 15, 2012

Times: Jewish kids have terrible manners

Ok, fine. That's not precisely what the Times piece on Bar and Bat Mitzvah decorum actually says. But being a card carrying member of the Jewish blogging community, I feel entitled to mischarecterize anything the New York Times says when it suits my agenda. I mean, hey if big boys like Camera and Honest Reporting do it, why can't I?

In any event, the full article about how our monstrous children act like wild beasts at Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties can be found  after the jump.

Teaching Respect to the Faithful

ALIA RAMER, a mother of three from Maplewood, N.J., first noticed the problem when her daughter was just reaching adolescence, the age when many Jewish children celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs.

Parents were dropping their children off at the synagogue, and the kids, unchaperoned, were treating the joint like the mall. Girls were hanging out in the bathroom, sitting on the countertops and texting their friends, while boys were playing tag football in the social hall and sneaking brownies from under the plastic wrap.

In the sanctuary, she wrote in a rant on the Web site of New Jersey Jewish News, they “are prone to talking unabated through the service, save for the 30 seconds after they’ve just been shushed by people who are wondering where those kids’ parents are.” Even her own did it, she confessed.

The problem got so bad, Ms. Ramer appointed herself a sort of bar mitzvah bouncer, strolling through the hallways and standing guard over the babka like a cross between Severus Snape from Hogwarts and Miss Trunchbull from “Matilda.”

When I was growing up as a Jew in Savannah, Ga., in the 1970s, I watched with ostracized awe at the elaborate grooming and finishing rituals performed by my friends in privileged social circles. Most of this training happened in the late teenage years, when girls would make their debut in the cotillion and boys, known as stags, would chaperon them.

The backbone of the process was a series of etiquette classes in which boys and girls would learn to don white gloves, wear corsages and boutonnieres, write thank-you notes, and mind their p’s and q’s (and R-rated hand movements). Jews, of course, were not invited.

These days, the tables have been turned. Jewish communities around the country, horrified by the appalling lack of manners their children display at bar and bat mitzvahs, are increasingly turning to more-formalized training efforts.

At the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, a Modern Orthodox day school in Lawrence, N.Y., the school holds weekly academic classes to prepare boys and girls to become bar and bat mitzvah scholars.

But administrators added a separate, in-school program to rehearse the proper etiquette guests should display at these events. The highlight is a mock service in which teachers coach students on how to sit quietly during prayers and listen attentively to remarks made by the rabbi, parents and grandparents. Members of the school staff even make telephone calls to students’ cellphones to prepare them for that eventuality.

“Like many things in life,” said Rabbi Dovid Kupchik, a principal at the school, “if you actually talk to the students about how to behave instead of just assuming they’re going to act a certain way, it’s fresh in their heads. For adults, it’s challenging enough to sit through 20 or 30 minutes of speeches, but for 12- and 13-year-old kids, it’s especially difficult.”

The school also offers instruction on how to behave at the after-party, teaching students the polite way to wait in line at a coat check and how to thank and wish mazel tov to the parents of the celebrant.

At the conclusion of the class, students are asked to sign a contract promising they will uphold certain standards of behavior and be a positive reflection on the school. “It reminds them that it’s not a glorified birthday party they’re attending,” said Rabbi Kupchik, “but a religious celebration.”

In Detroit, Joe Cornell Entertainment has been offering dance classes for preteens since the 1950s. The 12-week courses, which this fall will have over 300 students, are often held in synagogues and are made up primarily of Jewish sixth graders entering the bar and bat mitzvah years, said Steve Jasgur, who bought the company in 1991.

Along with teaching ballroom dancing and popular line dances like the Hustle, Wobble and Gangnam Style, instructors devote special time to teaching bar and bat mitzvah etiquette. Lessons include how to ask someone to dance and why you shouldn’t run off with the decorations.

“One of the things we tell students is they shouldn’t steal the neon-colored cloth napkins and stick them on their heads like bandannas,” Mr. Jasgur said. “For every napkin that isn’t there at the end of the night, Johnny’s family is going to be charged. It’s $4, $4, $4, and all of a sudden it’s a lot of money.”

Instructors also talk about grooming. Boys have to be told to hike up their sagging trousers and not show off their boxers. Girls have to be told to pull down their shrinking dresses and not reveal inappropriate amounts of skin, and they are also encouraged to sit with their knees together and ankles crossed.

Last year, after a deluge of rabbis asked if they could visit the classes to warn students about their behavior, Mr. Jasgur introduced a one-hour course called Mitzvah Circuit 101, which he offers free to synagogues and Jewish community centers. The course includes a questionnaire about the proper way to respond to an invitation and what to do during the video montage. The following question addresses what Mr. Jasgur says is a common sore point for parents — students dismantling the centerpieces:

On your table you discover the following: ketchup, sugar, water, a movie-themed centerpiece and a bowl of mini chocolate Academy Awards. Do you a) quickly remove the two DVDs from the centerpiece and claim them as your own; b) take the glass of water, add two parts ketchup, three spoonfuls of sugar, four Academy Awards, and see if Mickey will drink it; c) arm yourself with the mini chocolates and see if you can hit Jason at Table 5 without his knowing where it’s coming from; or d) none of the above?

Why the need for the new course after so many years? “Should we blame it on society? Should we blame it on parents? I’m not sure,” Mr. Jasgur said. “Today’s kids are just overprogrammed. Their focus isn’t there. Many of their parents are also part of this younger generation, so it’s not their fault. It’s the way they were raised.”

Rabbi Adam Englander, a principal at the Hillel Day School of Boca Raton in Florida, lectures students three or four times a year about their behavior at bar and bat mitzvahs. He believes the new interest in decorum represents a larger shift in society.

“In my opinion, I don’t see it as a function of kids being poorly mannered,” he said. “I see it more as a function of schools being involved in much more than education. Schools are increasingly being asked to take on roles that years ago would have been considered the realm of parents.”

Stressed-out parents have less time to raise their children, he said. And with synagogues and day schools competing for customers, the misconduct of students often reflects poorly on the institutions they attend. “If one or two of my kids misbehave, even though it’s a weekend, I’m going to hear about it on Monday,” Rabbi Englander said. “That wouldn’t have happened 20 or 30 years ago. The inclination would have been to call the parents.”

Not everyone is happy about this trend. Ms. Ramer said she believes families should still be responsible for teaching their children manners. “I expect my kids’ day school to reinforce etiquette,” she said, “but I don’t expect my kids’ day school to be the primary teacher of the etiquette.”

But she understands she may be in the minority. What tips do these veterans of the manners wars have for those considering such classes? “Don’t call it a dance class,” Mr. Jasgur said. “And certainly don’t call it an etiquette class.” Instead, make the sessions part of the standard curriculum of your institution, so students won’t have to be persuaded to attend. Also, include a D.J. and teach some party games.

And as Ms. Ramer pointed out, include the parents. “I’m disappointed this is happening,” she said, “yet I’m resigned.” Still, the only way to truly solve the problem, she suggested, is to put children and their parents into the same room and teach them both how to behave.

Bruce Feiler’s newest book, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” will be published in February. “This Life” appears monthly.
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