I’ve been a very bad blogger recently (a whole week without posting), but a very good Jew: in the past 10 days, I’ve gone to services at three congregations, and attended a Storahtelling event. Plus, this Saturday morning I’ll be in shul (a fourth one!) yet again, for my niece’s bat mitzvah.
Those who pray three times a day, or are at least weekly shul-goers, may laugh at such modest accomplishments. Indeed, I’m sure someone will send me a nasty e-mail or post a comment saying this (along with being intermarried) is further evidence of my moral laxity. Nonetheless, for me, four synagogues in two weeks — not during the High Holidays — is something of a record.
It’s especially unusual since all this was personal business, not Jewish Week business, although my visit to children’s services last Saturday at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the LGBT (and their friends) synagogue in the West Village, was a combination of the two.
Although our little nuclear family is neither L,G, B nor T (well, I suppose it’s too soon to speak for 6-year-old Ellie and 3-year-old Sophie), my youngest niece has two mommies, Joe’s older brother is gay, and the first wedding Sophie ever attended was my friend Tani’s nuptials with his husband Chanan.
Not to mention that Jackson Heights’ annual Queens Pride parade is one of Ellie and Sophie’s favorite events, in no small part because, with all due respect, rainbow flags and drag queens are perfectly suited to little-girl aesthetics.
We first visited Beth Simchat Torah (CBST) this fall for the High Holidays, attracted in part by the free tickets, one of many impressive ways in which the congregation succeeds in being a welcoming and accessible place. Ever since, we’ve been on the synagogue’s mailing list, and the synagogue has in turn been on my short list of places we’re considering joining.
I publicly vowed this fall to make this year my quest for The Perfect Hebrew School (see column pasted below, because the original Web link has, sadly, been lost), but had slacked off on the project until fairly recently — hence the sudden uptick in worship.
This weekend I was at CBST both to check out the Hebrew school, which meets on Shabbat, and do research for an article for an upcoming Jewish Week special section on Jewish family life.
As a bonus, we got to see the shul’s just completed Torah scroll, the first time I’ve ever encountered a brand-new Torah.
Although I’m actually leaning more toward another synagogue right now, one that is more geographically convenient and has more kids, I have been impressed by how well-organized and engaging their children’s services and programs are and how friendly, welcoming and diverse the community is.
As I noted in a column back in 2008, gay synagogues are often touted as models of inclusivity, places that have been welcoming all kinds of families (including interfaith ones) for a long time.
In that column, Rabbi Lev Baesh of InterfaithFamily.com told me, “There’s a kind of welcoming and warmth that comes from being an outsider, on the fringes,” he explains. “When you walk into a gay synagogue, who’s Jewish and who isn’t is not an issue.”
NOTE: THE COLUMN BELOW APPEARED IN THE JEWISH WEEK IN SEPTEMBER 2009. I AM REPRINTING IT BELOW BECAUSE THE ORIGINAL LINK WAS LOST:
ISO Perfect Hebrew School
by Julie Wiener
September, with its just-sharpened pencils, yet-to-be-filled notebooks and new school/new Jewish year possibilities has always been my favorite month.
With my older daughter, Ellie, settled into first grade at our neighborhood school, I am using this September to officially kick off a yearlong project: a citywide quest for the perfect Hebrew school.
Yes, “perfect” and “Hebrew school” may sound like an oxymoron. After all, Hebrew school is arguably the most maligned institution in American Jewish life.
It’s a rite of passage that I, the child of thoroughly secular Jews, never experienced for myself. For most of my youth, the incomprehensible Hebrew — which I saw on placards outside my neighborhood’s many synagogues and flowing through foreign prayer books during my rare, uncomfortable ventures to religious services — beckoned, yet also seemed to symbolize exclusion, the cryptic font like security bars or a locked gate keeping me out.
I didn’t find the keys until college when I joined Oberlin’s Kosher Co-op and then, still completely illiterate in Hebrew and with a vocabulary limited to “shalom,” signed up for a semester at Tel Aviv University.
I soon learned to (among other things) clumsily negotiate Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market in Hebrew, saying “slicha” (excuse me) to those in my way, requesting “hetzi kilo hetzilim” and “shtei kilo agvaniot” (half a kilo of eggplant, two kilos of tomatoes) from the vendors, and mostly paying the correct number of shekels they demanded in return.
Perhaps even more nourishing than the regular supply of fresh fruits and vegetables I consumed, was the obsession that Israel— where Hebrew was alive and bubbling over everywhere, not just in prayer books and Torah scrolls but on movie marquees, street signs and overheard conversations — sparked in me.
Back in America, I blasted Israeli pop music from my boom box, pored over homemade vocabulary flash cards crafted from tiny strips of colored paper, and plotted my return trip to the Promised Land. At 23, I did a few months of kibbutz ulpan, followed by a year working in a Jerusalem office (with an English-speaking boss). On Shabbat, while my American roommate, a yeshiva student, went to shul, I painstakingly worked my way through the front page of Haaretz, looking up words in my battered paperback Hebrew-English dictionary.
I want Ellie and her 3-year-old sister Sophie to share my enthusiasm for Hebrew and Judaism, but not to, as I did, feel like outsiders growing up or feel the need to play catch up as an adult. Since my husband Joe isn’t Jewish, the girls are only half-Jewish in ancestry, which makes it all the more important that they be confident and knowledgeable about Judaism and that it mean something more than just bagels, lox and a shared history of oppression.
My approach to the kids’ Hebrew school options contrasts greatly to my behavior vis-a-vis their secular education. While many parents I know in our neighborhood have pursued charter schools and specialized programs all over the city for their kids, I’ve been content to keep Ellie at our zoned public school. Instead of exhausting her (and myself) with school bus or subway commutes in search of the ideal learning environment, we’d rather she walk around the corner, make friends with kids from a range of ethnic backgrounds and get a good-enough, albeit not perfect, education.
For Hebrew school, though, the stakes are higher. For one thing, neither Joe nor I know as much about Judaism as we do about, say, reading and arithmetic, and — while we celebrate Shabbat each week and often read children’s Bible stories at bedtime — our ability as Jewish educators is somewhat limited.
Also, whereas our local public school is good enough, a lot of Hebrew schools really aren’t. In fact many, if their horrible reputations are to be believed, do more to quell Jewish interest than to nurture it, and some remain staffed by old-fashioned teachers who preach against intermarriage, a message I not only dislike but believe would make my daughters (and husband) feel unwelcome. Not to mention, while public school is free, Hebrew school is going to require a substantial cash outlay; I’d like to make sure it’s money well spent.
This summer, my daughters saw Mommy go to “Hebrew school” — an intensive month-long class at the JCC in Manhattan. My Hebrew had been dormant for years, but I managed to place into the advanced level and successfully make my way in Hebrew through news articles, passages about Israeli history and even sections from Pirke Avot. (As an added bonus, I also got to watch Israeli TV shows from the exercise machines in the JCC gym.)
One of the best things about the class was interacting with the other students, among them a professor of medieval Jewish philosophy (whose husband is a well-known neocon); a sheitel-wearing yeshiva principal and scholar married to a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi; an Orthodox man who runs a yeshiva for post-college men; and a 20-something Ramaz graduate who teaches in a liberal Jewish day school.
It was empowering to keep up in Hebrew with people whose Jewish knowledge so far surpasses mine, and it also was exciting to argue respectfully with people who don’t share my liberal Jewish outlook or background.
Let’s hope I can find an equally stimulating and enjoyable Jewish education for Ellie and Sophie.
“In The Mix” appears once a month. For past columns, go to http://intermarried.wordpress.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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