Recently I was teaching a class the Jewish value of G’milut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness). I asked them to think about a time when someone (friend, family–anyone) did something for them that they would define as an act of G’milut Hesed so we’d have an example of how the value is applied to real situations. This is a class of intelligent and outspoken students, grades 8 and 9, who attend public and private schools in a suburban area. No hands shot up. I waited and gave some examples in case they didn’t understand the concept yet, suggesting that it was a difficult question and to take as much time as they needed. Still nothing. Not one student had anything to say.
I discovered that the way they experience kindness is through gifts or exchanges of things. At this point we brainstormed about what they could do for others. At first, they also thought about things: buying someone lunch, buying them an itune, etc. It took some work to move beyond that, but we did.
I don’t know if this lesson will ‘stick’, or if its ramifications will affect them in any way. But it stuck with me.
I learned that this is pretty much their world. It’s not that gifts are bad (which we talked about). It’s just that in their experience there seems to be little in the way of true community at work. In a non-Orthodox Jewish community it is really hard to build that into Jewish life. I didn’t hear anyone talk about their synagogue or their youth group in this context, let alone the public arena. This is the setting in which community and classroom have to go together. The classroom needs to be the vehicle to put G’milut Hesed into action and any other value that we try to teach. We need to make it real.