Steven Bayar, who often points to social action as a core feature of his rabbinate at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, has now written a book on transmitting those values to children.
And You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation is actually a sequel to the Ziv/Giraffe curriculum, a nonsectarian, nondenominational social action curriculum Bayar wrote 12 years ago.
The program has become a central feature of the Giraffe Heroes Project, based in Langley, Washington. (The giraffe represents the notion that heroes are people who stick their necks out for others.)
“I always knew there was a need to put the information into a book for parents, because the primary responsibility for moral development lies with the family,” he said.
In other words, maybe it’s time for the giraffes to come home.
On Oct. 11, Bayar participated in a joint speaking and book signing engagement at his synagogue with his friend Joan Leegant, whose first novel, Wherever You Go, was recently published by Norton.
Each chapter of Bayar’s book is devoted to different paths into social action. Most offer stories that reveal that the best method of transmission is modeling.
In one chapter, Bayar’s own daughter recalls the day her father picked her up from the apartment of her Hebrew tutor, who lived there with his wife and baby. Noticing that on a very hot summer day, they had no air-conditioning, Bayar told the family he knew someone trying to get rid of an air-conditioner (a ruse, fabricated to preserve the dignity of the family). When they left, Bayar headed straight for the nearest hardware store, bought an air conditioner, pulled off the tags, and dropped it off at the tutor’s apartment.
The incident made a lasting impression on the daughter, who went on to perform her own good deeds. “Many times we assume that by telling our children what is right and wrong, they will learn,” writes Bayar. “While that may be true, nothing can compare to the effect parents’ actions have on their children.”
Written mostly by Bayar with help from former congregation president Naomi Eisenberger — who was managing director of the Ziv Tzedaka Fund for years and now runs the Good People Fund — the book also includes chapters by several congregants, including one on special education inclusion by Beth Giladi and one on mitzva clowning by Andrea Hirschfeld.
Some chapters, like the one for grandparents, offer a list of things to do to transmit values, but most focus on a single mitzva and a “good person” who carries it out, whether contemporary, like the mitzva clown, or biblical, like stories of Elijah and the mitzva of welcoming the guest.
There are also tips for imbuing holiday celebrations with social action: for example, decorating a sukka with gloves, hats, and scarves that host and guests provide, and then donating the clothing to a local shelter after the holiday.
In the end, the book posits, there are no rules, only examples to follow.
If Bayar’s book is all about what to do, Joan Leegant’s novel is basically a primer on what not to do. Her fictional work examines the real question of religious fanaticism and violence in Israel. She introduces several American-born Jewish characters visiting or living in Israel who come perilously close to or are on the road themselves to religious fanaticism, and have to contemplate the potential results of such extremism. Leegant, a visiting writer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, spends half her year in the Boston area and half in Tel Aviv.
At the Oct. 11 event, Leegant spoke in depth about the creative process and pointed out that her book emerged from her own ruminations, as an aging child of the ’60s, as she asked such questions as: “What does it mean to live a life attached to a cause, and how far can the attachment to a cause take you? Does it include violence? Or is it better to live in your own little corner of happiness?”
Bayar and Leegant trace their long friendship back to their days as staff members at Camp Ramah New England; meeting over coffee in Tel Aviv last year, they realized they would both have books coming out at the same time and recognized the loose common thread woven throughout the two works.