Say you begin with the assumption that just about everything in life demands a balance — between work and pleasure, home and office, family and friends, saving and spending, responsibility and heedlessness, tradition and change. That’s just part of being an adult. Maybe you can call it the balance between pleasure and pain.
But what about children? What about adolescents? What do they have to balance? What do we as their parents have to balance for them?
That’s what Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser’s latest panel, “Preserving Youthful Innocence…or Teaching Adult Responsibilities… What Do We Owe Our Children?” will explore.
Rabbi Prouser, who heads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, said that we — parents, educators, leaders, and the community in general — have two very different sets of responsibilities toward our children. “One is to teach them adult responsibilities, to help them grow up,” he said. “The other is the critical responsibility to protect and preserve their innocence, to keep them as children so they can have a full, wholesome experience of childhood.
“Both goals are legitimate, and they are in tension,” he said.
“In the Jewish community, I think we tend to downplay the virtue of wholesome innocence, and to welcome kids to a mature and worldly experience earlier than we ought to, without thinking about the consequences,” he continued. “I would like us to focus on what we are doing best, and how we might do it better.”
Is the dilemma different in the Jewish world than in the broader outside one? “I’m not sure,” he said. “But with so much attention in Jewish education circles placed on the bar and bat mitzvah, I think a lot of the issues are expressed with that demographic, and that is where we can clearly see the fault line between preserving innocence and cultivating experience.
“It’s like the old joke,” he went on. “Today I am a man — tomorrow it’s back to eighth grade.”
Soon after the last fountain-pen retort dries up, the next hurdle arises. College applications. “But it’s not just the process of getting into college,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It’s the process of building up a resume. It starts with getting into the right preschool.
“It’s an issue that the Jewish community should be aware of,” he said.
Dr. Gary Mirkin, a Great Neck-based pediatrician, has known Rabbi Prouser for decades; in fact, it was Dr. Mirkin who provided Rabbi Prouser with much of the medical information Rabbi Prouser used in his groundbreaking, strongly pro-vaccination paper for the Conservative movement’s Committee for Jewish Law and Standards.
“I have seen a lot of the freedom that parents give children, and the balance between freedom and direction,” Dr. Mirkin said. “There are always some parents who swing too far in one way, and others who go too far the other way. The general trend seems to be toward too much direction, but there always are exceptions to the rule.”
As stressful as becoming a bar or bat mitzvah might be, “there are so many other pressures” put on children and teenagers that he thinks that particular pressure might be overstated. Younger teens are so consumed with the core curriculum, and with the growing emphasis on seemingly near-constant testing — “I have seen a lot of psychiatric issues with testing,” he said — and with older kids “so overwhelmed with college,” he thinks the pressures of becoming bnai mitzvah are relatively minor.
Joel Wiest of Kinnelon, the lone non-Jew on the panel, is an old friend of Rabbi Prouser’s; the two both work with the Boy Scout movement. He brings at least two perspectives to the evening that are not only fascinating but also unusual.
Mr. Weist works for Toys “R” Us — “I’m on the finance side, so I don’t develop products, but I do get to work in an office that we decorate with toys,” he said. “It’s a real whimsical atmosphere; we are focused on bringing joy into the lives of children and families.” He is also a Mormon bishop. “I did a mission to Holland and Belgium, and came home and got married,” he said. “We have four kids and 10 grandkids.
“We are very family-focused — most cultures and religious traditions are — and children are very important to us. Positioning them to succeed in life is very important to us. So there is a burden placed on parents, to prepare our children to make good decisions, so they can be happy as adults. There is also a responsibility for us as parents, within the four walls of the home, to create an environment where there is a lot of joy.
“There is a tension, because being happy over the long haul means being responsible, so you can learn to be responsible. You can’t have dessert at every meal. That’s the tension I hope to explore with the panel.”
This is not just talk for Mr. Wiest. His church has assigned him a big and new job. Although most Mormon churches use the geographically based parish model — you go to the church near you — he will open a congregation, called the Caldwell Young Single Adult Ward, aimed specifically at young people. “So if you are between 18 and 30 and unattached and live in Bergen, Hudson, Passaic, or Essex counties” — and of course if you are Mormon — “this is where you will go to church.”
Another panelist, Jules Gutin of Teaneck, will be a particularly special guest. Mr. Gutin grew up at Temple Emanuel, first as an active congregant, part of an active family, and then as a youth leader, when the shul still was in Paterson.
On June 7, Mr. Gutin will be honored at Emanuel’s annual gala dinner. Before that, though, he will talk on the panel.
Mr. Gutin worked at the New York-based international office of United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth group, for 43 years; for 22 of them, he was USY’s director. “My experience is primarily with teenagers, except for my own four children,” he said. “I will spend a few minutes talking about what I learned over the years in dealing with Jewish teenagers. A lot about teaching them adult responsibility, at least from my point of view, has to do with respecting teenagers, trusting them with responsibility, and making them aware of the world around them, particularly about some of the things that might not be evident to them.”
What about the other side of the tension, the innocence? “I am talking about one particular age group, but I don’t know that in today’s world there is much innocence left by the time they reach 14 or 15,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the world we live in — rapid communications, social media, all the things that are around them. I don’t know that we were always as aware of things in my own teenage years. There were a lot of things that just weren’t part of the conversation.
“But in a sense, the lack of innocence is not necessarily always a bad thing. Heightened awareness allows us to be able to discuss those aspects of life more openly, and allows people to make more rational decisions — if we handle it properly, and can use it properly in terms of teachable moments, and of the advice and guidance we can give them.”
The fourth panelist, Amy Lefkowitz, is the deputy mayor of Fair Lawn, an attorney who specializes in family law, the daughter of a rabbi, and the mother of a 4-year-old. As a law student she did a great deal of work with battered women, and now, as a divorce lawyer, she sees the effect of family stress on children.
Although it is easy — and old-school — to tell children “You don’t have to worry. Mommy and Daddy have grown-up problems, but we both love you,” that approach is more theory than reality, Ms. Lefkowitz said. “Then they hear their parents on the phone.” Parents, the judicial system, and the judge try to protect children, but it is hard.
Children know more than they should,” Ms. Lefkowitz said. Aside from what they might see or hear at home, social media makes it much harder to keep information private. “Parents post things,” she said. “Then when the kids go to school, another kid will say ‘My mom saw a picture of your mom with her new boyfriend’ and the kid will say ‘What do you mean? My mom doesn’t have a boyfriend!’”
There are many ways to help children deal with real-world problems, but deciding which methods to use is not easy either. “Many of us are quick to send children to therapy — but what kind of therapy?” she said.
There is also the question of what to tell children about their parents’ problems with drugs or alcohol. “What if a parent is arrested for DWI?” Ms. Lefkowitz said, and no, the Jewish community is not immune from such problems.
There is also the question of how to broach subjects that children have seen on the news. Her daughter heard a little bit about the Amtrak derailment, Mr. Lefkowitz said. How much more should she know? What is the balance between unvarnished truth and comforting understatement? Between fear and risk-taking?
More tensions. More grist for discussion at the panel.
Who: Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser will moderate
What: A panel discussion, “Preserving Youthful Innocence…or Teaching Adult Responsibilities… What Do We Owe Our Children?” featuring Jules A. Gutin, Amy Lefkowitz, Dr. Gary S. Mirkin, and Joel Wiest.
Where: Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes
When: Monday, June 1, from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m.
For more information: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (201) 560-0200