Ruth Pachtman used to sing to her children that sweetest of lullabies, “Rozhinkis Mit Mondlin.” “Unter Yidele’s vigeleh, — Under Yidele’s cradle is a pure white lamb; this lamb has gone a-wandering.”
In the last hundred years, this family did just that: Lithuania to the Bronx to Queens to Long Island. Ruth’s daughter Cheryl, then a baby, played in her grandparents’ Bronx apartment while the Yiddish radio played cantorials and songs from Second Avenue music halls. The small Orthodox shul around the corner had a balcony from which the women — when they went to shul, at all — peered down at their husbands and sons as if the grandmothers were still on the fire escapes that overlooked the Hunts Point streets.
Cheryl was raised nominally Orthodox. Her
parents were active members of the local Young Israel’s sisterhood and men’s club, but Judaism was more sentiment than ritual. Hebrew school was an unsatisfactory experience for Cheryl; davening was a chore; meaning elusive. As she grew older she dated non-Jewish boys, but fell in love and married Kenny Schwartz. Had she intermarried, her mom would’ve “killed” her; Cheryl couldn’t break her mother’s heart. A pure white lamb could wander but only so far.
Cheryl and Kenny, two professionals in their early 40s, are now the parents of three children — Suzy, 16; Tara, 14; and Matthew, 10. They all attend Hicksville public schools and a supplementary temple school. Suzy plans on going to Hebrew Union College to become a cantor.
She’s getting ready for her confirmation now, celebrated at her Community Reform Temple in Westbury at the end of 10th grade. She writes a first draft of a confirmation speech: “Music and Judaism have consumed my life for as long as I can remember – the two topics closest to my heart. … I know wherever I go, I will always be connected to this bima, and these four walls will forever be my home.”
Kenny often accompanied the service on his guitar. Suzy would sing along with him, and Stephanie Freese, the principal, on the piano upstairs in the youth lounge. “Whatever talent I received from God grew and matured in this building,” Suzy says. “My cantors were such role models to me; they were young and able to inspire and touch people. They added joy to lives. I might want to be ordained as a rabbi, too.”
How do you raise a good Reform child?
“A lot of it came from my background,” Cheryl says. “My mother conveyed a love of Jewish culture. In turn, it was important to me to instill that warmth, that importance of culture and tradition. When I realized that, I knew that I had to attach myself to a temple.”
Tara and Matthew are both in the temple school, where they are taught the meaning of Bible, history and holidays. While neither talks yet about continuing their Jewish education beyond the temple school, “the temple is their second home,” says Cheryl, and the kids feel a connection to the temple’s rabbi, Judy Cohen-Rosenberg.
Last summer, Suzy and Tara would ride their bikes about a mile-and-a-half to volunteer as teacher-helpers with the temple’s preschool summer program.
Temple membership and school have cost the family about $2,000 annually.
Is intermarriage a fear? “I think it’s important for my kids to marry within their own faith,” Cheryl says. “There are so many things you have to deal with in marriage and with a family, it would just be so much added stress to have one parent with different values while I’m trying to raise a Jewish child the way I’d want.
“If my kids do intermarry, well, I’ll be somewhat disappointed. We try to instill good values and direct them on a path, but what path they take is something we have no control over. There’s only so much control we should have.”
How often does Suzy go to temple?
“She’d like to go every week; she just can’t get there every week,” Cheryl says. “We have services every Friday night.”
Most of the Sabbath tunes were composed by Debbie Friedman. When Kenny was in the hospital recently, Cheryl says he would listen to her and Jewish music. “She sings Mi Sheberach, a healing prayer, that is absolutely wonderful,” Cheryl says. “We sing that in our temple.”
Cheryl says she has accepted that one doesn’t have to be “totally observant” to love Judaism.
“My kids are more proud of being Jewish than I was as a child. It wasn’t natural for me,” she says. “I went to public school and sometimes didn’t want to be Jewish. I didn’t have Christmas; I wasn’t the majority.
“But my kids don’t have that feeling. They get more out of Chanukah than I ever did, and I’m not talking about presents. The kids have just developed a natural love and respect for who they are: proud Reform Jews.”
The Hacks: Long Road
To The Bima
There’s one thing most strangers in a shul don’t know: The shul president, sitting on the bima, was once as much of a stranger as anyone else.
Barry Hack celebrated his bar mitzvah in a Co-Op City shul, “but then, as is very often the case in Conservative Judaism, from the day after your bar mitzvah you don’t see a synagogue again. Until I started dating Linda, I was probably what you’d call a three-days-a-year Jew.
“Linda, not being born Jewish but being Jewish by choice, started studying Judaism, and I went through that process with her. Keeping kosher and Shabbos services became part of our routine.”
All these years later their two children — Jonathan was just bar mitzvah; Jordan will be 11 this month — attend the Kinneret Day School in Riverdale.
Barry and Linda, now in their mid-40s, liked Kinneret because it was more intent, he says, on teaching Hebrew and history “rather than just davening. My big one, though, complains they don’t do enough Talmud. He’s firmly of the mind that he’ll grow up to be a rabbi.”
Barry initially liked the idea of his children having the broad mix of friends they would have had in public schools, but acknowledges he turned to Kinneret “because of the lack of quality in the Yonkers school system.”
“But really,” he asks, “who has more than a handful of close friends anyway? Growing up in the New York area, you have a good feeling for diversity even if you don’t go to public school.
Kinneret’s tuition, he says, “comes to 10,000 for each kid, give or take. They’re very helpful for scholarships. We were given some help. The process was noninvasive. We made a request early on and they were very helpful all the way through.”
The Hacks now live in the Ludlow section of Yonkers, near the Hudson, and are members of the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale, about two miles away.
Drive or walk?
“It’s a split family,” says Barry. “My older son and my wife walk. I drive, and my little one drives with me.”
Shabbos is special for the Hacks. “My wife finds a way to make it a very festive affair. She bakes her own challahs. She makes a fabulous meal. Our family eats at the dining-room table on Shabbos and Shabbos only — the rest of the time we eat in the kitchen. We use the good silver. Candles are glowing. Linda makes the house that way. It’s a great blessing. It’s something I didn’t have as a child. And it’s mandatory for our family: You have to be home for Shabbos.”
“Very often we have a nice kiddush in our synagogue. By the time we get home, it might be 2 or 2:30 in the afternoon. Fifteen minutes later you can find us sleeping. My son is pushing us to be home more on Shabbos afternoon. When we were a really young family and we were all riding on Shabbos, after synagogue we’d go to a mall or someplace to eat. That has stopped in the last three or four years. Now we often leave the car at shul and walk home together.”
Hack has been to Israel a half-dozen times, “but not nearly enough.” The couple plan to go again, with the kids, after sleepaway camp, as part of Jonathan’s bar mitzvah celebration.
Hack says he wasn’t raised to be a shul president. “I wasn’t active in any synagogue life until the last few years. Then before I knew it I was leading the board of trustees and sitting on the bima.”
As president, he has overseen a $750,000 budget and the search for the current rabbi, executive director, principal, a new office staff and a new computer system.
So much time in the shul affected his family. “Linda was about to kill me. There was a lot of tension for the first two or three years [of being president], but now she’s on the board of the sisterhood so that takes some pressure off me.
“Look, my kids consider the shul a major center of their life. If I try to teach my kids that they have a responsibility to give back to the community, I have to teach them by example.”
The president sits next to the rabbi on the bima. Hack’s voice becomes still as he searches for the words to describe that experience: “I have to tell you, sitting on the bima that first time was a very, very special feeling. I kept hearing in my head, over and over, that song from Tevye: ‘If I had the time that I like to sit in the synagogue and pray. And maybe have a seat by the eastern wall.’ It is a very moving experience. My son, now that he’s old enough to get an aliyah, will come to the bima. … That’s a wonderful time to give my son a hug and a kiss.”
Hack says Rabbi Barry Dov Katz makes the shul family friendly, noting how children run the aisles to gather up the candy that is thrown at a bar mitzvah or aufruf. He says, too, that the rabbi and his wife, Shoshi, make their greatest contribution as role models for Jewish family life.
“She’s a fantastic mother; their kids are always there; she’s involved in programs for the children… all of the things that you’d love to see in your own house,” Hack says. “They are a family role model for the community.”
Intermarriage, despite the strong examples of family and synagogue, is out there, Hack realizes. He says “most” of his friends are intermarried couples. “Within my own family, probably everybody but me” is intermarried.
“But it was important to me that my children be Jewish. There’s too much history, too many Jews lost,” he says. “There are obligations that come with life; perpetuating Judaism is one of them.
How would Linda react to one of her sons intermarrying?
“She’d kill them!” Hack says, laughing. “There’s no way she’d let that happen. She’d beat them all over the head and say I didn’t go through all of this to let you intermarry.”
The Cohens: A Tender Orthodoxy
Glenn and Karen Cohen aren’t ones for making Jewish news: They’re not post-Zionist, intermarried, gay, New Age, the result of outreach or tattooed. They’re not looking for get-rich-quick spirituality from sidewalk vendors who sell to the lonely.
The Cohens are Orthodox, that blue-chip theological stock that’ll be there when they retire and provide for the children. Let others do what they do; the Cohens aren’t looking for fights. Born and raised as proud Jews, they’re raising their children the same way: to move through God’s world without alias or alibi.
For 17 years they have lived in the Hillcrest section of Queens, and to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, it’s a house in full. This Shabbos, a friend from the Young Israel of Hillcrest is celebrating a bar mitzvah, and the Cohens are putting up relatives of the bar mitzvah boy so the guests might have an easy walk to shul.
“Friday night is the most important night for our family,” Karen says. “We live for Friday night and being together.” The Cohens are all home on this night except for Stephanie, 18, who’s spending a year in Israel at the Midreshet Lindenbaum school. To be in Israel is to be home, too.
Back in Hillcrest, before saying Kiddush, Glenn blesses Dana, 16, Asher 12, and Jordanna, who’ll soon be 2. Glenn blesses Stephanie in his heart and places his hands on the other children’s heads, one by one, whispering the blessing that God taught the first Kohen, Aaron: “… May God illuminate His face and be gracious to you.”
It’s a tender moment in a house of tenderness and easy kisses.
Glenn says Kiddush. Then Asher says a Kiddush of his own. They sing the Sholom Aleichem three times, once to the classic tune, twice to a new one. The children are taught that the angels of Sholom Aleichem are watching over them; not the silly angels of pop culture but the Malachei HaShareis, the Malachei Elyon.
Shabbos doesn’t end on Friday night. The Cohens are in shul Shabbos morning; usually share Shabbos lunch with friends; and this Shabbos are back in shul for the bar mitzvah’s Shalosh Seudot. Theirs is a Shabbos in full, ending with Havdalah on a late spring night.
During the week, “Jordanna davens with me every morning,” says Glenn of his baby. “If she doesn’t get a little siddur she’ll let me know. She stands there and she shuckles alongside me.”
The little girl dances to tapes of Uncle Moishy, along with her Barney and Raffi.
Not only does Glenn daven every morning, but one night during the Omer, he tells us: “I’m happy to say that I’m still counting Sefirah with a bracha [blessing]. That’s a pretty good stretch.” After all, if you miss a night, you can no longer count with a bracha. When we spoke, Glenn was at 29 nights and counting, a feat of Jewish endurance more remarkable than DiMaggio’s streak of 56. Glenn keeps an Omer chart in his car, so he’ll be reminded daily. “I was going to tell Stephanie that she had to call every day to remind me – Stephanie’s definitely counting.”
Glenn and Karen, both in their early 40s, say they have tried to bringing up their children “with respect for the right things,” says Glenn.
“A lot of warmth and love,” adds Karen.
“That comes first,” Glenn agrees.
“I’d want my children to have a happy home to live in,” says Karen, “to want to be together, to even want to go on vacations together, to have a love for Israel. We try to go often. Asher’s been there about six times already and he’s only 12. Dana’s been there nine times.”
Karen says her only brother lives in Jerusalem with his family, “and that’s a big incentive, too.”
Karen teaches autistic children in a public school. Glenn manages Klein’s Wholesale Confectionery, the Brooklyn candy business built by his father-in-law.
Nevertheless, Glenn’s not the candyman in shul: “The older men in shul are the candymen,” he explains. “I couldn’t take that away from them. But I participate on Simchas Torah, with a group of people, giving out the candy bags.”
Glenn grew up in Orthodox homes in Corona and Kew Gardens Hills, with schooling at the Yeshiva High School of Queens. Karen grew up in Borough Park, “before it was so chasidish like it is now. I went to Shulamith [School], which was considered very modern. Now it’s much more to the right.”
They’d both regularly go to Salute to Israel parades and rallies for Soviet Jewry. “These are the things that are still important to us,” memory and commitment, Karen says.
Theirs is an expensive world: bills for charity, Jewish summer camps and yeshiva tuitions (Stephanie at Midreshet Lindenbaum; Dana at Yeshivah of Flatbush; Asher at Yeshiva of Central Queens) can easily top $40,000 a year. There’s also a tithe of time: Glenn has been involved with Chai Lifeline, for children with cancer; coaches the softball team of a nearby girls’ yeshiva; and volunteers as chairman of his Young Israel’s youth department. He has served as president of that same Young Israel. He blows the shofar in shul; when he practices, “the kids practice with me.”
The “youth department” is different than back in the 1970s, when young Modern Orthodox boys and girls dated and romanced in much the same way as their secular peers.
Now, Karen notices, “Dating has become a thing of the past. Kids don’t date just to have a good time and go out. They date now more, if not only, for tachlis — when they’re ready to get married, that’s when they start to date. And they’ll only date one at a time, not one person one night and someone else another night.
“We feel confident in the fact that our children go to coed high schools, at least, where they’ll get to know different boys and girls and have friendly relationships” with the opposite sex.
“They’re so into being shomrei negiya,” says Karen, referring to the idea that men and women should not so much as hold hands prior to marriage.
The Cohens are acquainted with popular culture, watching TV and going to movies, but cautiously: So many shows, even the once frothy sitcoms, now portray situations that are morally crude, even vulgar.
“Our kids watch TV,” says Karen, “but they know that shows like that are the outside world, not our world. They know it’s separate from them, but they watch.”
Intermarriage hasn’t invaded their social circle. Neither Glenn nor Karen say they know an intermarried couple, despite a national Jewish intermarriage rate above 52 percent.
That world, as Karen says, is separate from them. The Cohens live in the Orthodox world, with no shortage of Jews to fall in love with. You can see some of them in Hillcrest, blessing the children with whom they’ve been blessed.