So before I start today’s post, I have to say it. It happened. I missed a day. It sucks. I’m mad at myself. But you know what? Life happens. I fully intended to post yesterday, and then, guess what? Life happened. Indeed, I had a post all written up and just…never clicked the “Publish” button. Messing up once doesn’t mean I’m down for the count though. Keep an eye out for a two-a-day post sometime soon. I promise we’ll have 365 by 2018!
I’ve been debating about writing this post for a while. It’s not a post about education in the traditional sense, not really. Posting it also leaves me open to a lot of vitriol and judgement from the vastness of the internet. To be honest, a large portion of me wasn’t sure that I was ready for the potential backlash. Then, I thought “this is an integral part of who I am. It matters.” Regardless of backlash or judgement or lack of understanding, this is something I fervently believe in. I’m so grateful for it. In large part, it has formed the foundation of my being. So buckle your seat belts folks; I want to talk about my Jewish education. It’s going to be a doozy.
Point the 1st: I didn’t go to a Jewish Day School, or anything resembling one, to receive my pre-collegiate education. I did attend the local Jewish Community Center (JCC) for preschool, but a large number of my classmates weren’t actually Jewish. From my understanding, the curriculum itself didn’t have much to do with Judaism, either. To my knowledge, the biggest Judaism-related controversy (which I only know about because it’s a go-to anecdote for my mom at dinner parties) came when one of the Catholic mothers wanted the preschool to sponsor an Easter egg hunt. As you might imagine, her idea didn’t go over too well.
Other than those few years at the JCC, though, my general education was completely unrelated to my faith. As someone who went to public school until 11th grade, that’s exactly how it should have been. From Monday morning to Friday afternoon, I was a typical all-American kid, one who just happened to be shoved in the corner of the classroom with a Menorah-themed coloring book come Christmas.
Besides the awkward posturing from teachers who didn’t know what do with me during the holidays (there were less than 20 practicing Jews at my 1,100 student middle school, for point of reference), my general education was unremarkable in every way. It was on weekends that things got interesting.
Point the 2nd: I didn’t realize how different my Jewish educational experiences were in comparison to those of my non-Jewish friends until college. Sophomore year, I got a gig singing professionally for the High Holidays, and one of my good friends was hired to teach Sunday School at the synagogue adjacent our university. This spawned a long and cheerful conversation about our own Sunday and Hebrew School days over drinks on a Saturday night. Although I was raised Reform, and she Conservative, we both had fond memories of the rigorous curriculum and copious amounts of bagels that had defined our childhood Sundays.
Our non-Jewish friends were shocked. They also ran the gamut when it came to religion. Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Hindu, and agnostic; we were a fairly diverse bunch. Of those represented, however, it was the Christians of all kinds who couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that, for us, our religious education had been both rigorous and fun.
Their confusion confused me. It had never occurred to me that, for others, religious education wasn’t something to look forward to. Sure, there were the folks who didn’t love it when we were kids (my older brother for instance, was — as far as I know — only in it for the bagels). Still, pretty much every single Reform or Conservative Jew I have ever met agrees, through the lens of adulthood, that it was absolutely worth it.
For starters, we got to learn a foreign language. Wednesdays and Sundays, my mom would drive my brother and I to Hebrew school — ironically housed in a church for a few years, later at a private school, since our synagogue was too small to hold us. At first we learned basic conversational skills, then the reading capability and musical skills that would allow us to chant from the Torah for our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. All together, the Hebrew portion of things took about 4 years, from 3rd to 7th grade.
In addition to that, there was the Sunday school portion. We don’t have synagogue on Sundays, of course, so Sunday school was the single Jewish activity for the day. Usually, we started the morning with an hour of Hebrew school, if we were old enough. Then we switched to the non-language related classes.
When we were very young it was a lot of Bible stories, sure. Singing songs about Miriam and Aaron and Moses in English, since most of the little ones didn’t know any Hebrew yet. By the time we hit 4th grade, though, things got serious. There was discourse, debate. A whole year was dedicated to discussing the formation of Israel — the good, the bad, and the ugly (inasmuch as you can share the bad and the ugly with a group of 10-year-olds whilst building a scale model of a country out of candy). We were always — always! — allowed to ask questions. We weren’t quiet about it either. My cohort of about fifteen was heavy on sassy, smart, utterly shameless girls. Our thirst for knowledge was somewhat insatiable, and we were constantly pushing the envelope. ‘Is this true?’ ‘Could that really happen?’ ‘Well, that seems stupid.’ We were never told to stop asking questions. We were never told that we had to believe something. Our teachers, a mix of volunteer parents and grandparents and synagogue staff, treated every class as an exercise in critical thinking. I don’t think I ever — not once — in over thirteen years of Jewish education ever heard the phrase “because the Torah says so.”
Apparently, that’s a little different as to how it went down for my Christian friends. That Saturday night over drinks, I heard a lot of anecdotes about burning hellfire. I was informed that “because the Bible says so” was a favorite phrase among Christian educators of all kinds. Resentment, anger, heartbreak, and fear were the predominant emotions my friends wanted to express when it came to remembering their Sunday school experiences. Even my friends who remain faithful, dedicated Christians today said they had remained adherents of the faith due to their own personal explorations of the Gospel more than because of any educational or institutional support they ever received. Again and again, tongues loosened from fruity cocktails and the comfort that comes from being with friends, they brought it up: they hadn’t received an education so much as an indoctrination. Now, I was the one who was confused.
Point the 3rd: if my Jewish education taught me anything, it’s that I’m really darn grateful to be a Jew, and to be a Jew living when and where I do. The time and place component of that is hugely important.
When we were in 6th grade, our Sunday school curriculum revolved around Jewish and family history. We spent hours discussing the Jewish diaspora, the Spanish Inquisition, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. Eventually, we got closer to modern day, and our teachers decided that experimental learning was the way to go.
They gathered us, 11 and 12-year-olds, and dressed us up in haphazard costumes. Then, with a little instruction, they sent us through a makeshift Ellis Island. As in reality, two-thirds of us were deported. They turned us away due to disease, country of origin, false paperwork: all the reasons Jews and others were actually deported in real life. It was jarring. It was horrific. It was emotionally draining to ask children of that age to grapple with the reality of discrimination and hardship and fear.
Later, we talked about the Holocaust. We read a lot of books. K, one of our classmates, had a grandmother who had escaped Germany as a child. She came to speak with us. The image is one I will never forget. Her grandmother was chipper but frail, wrapped up in a pale pink sweater. She had no accent, as the vast majority of her life had been lived in the United States. Her posture was rigid but welcoming, and in a strong, considered voice, she told us abut her life. About experiencing Kristallnacht as a 6-year-old girl. About watching her friends turn her back on her. About the reality of loosing everything and everyone she had ever known. About looking the worst of humanity in the eye. About learning to survive, afterwards.
Watching her was hard. It was visceral and raw and real in a way few things in my life had been to that point. It was also so, so important to my development as a human being.
Eventually, we brought it back around to religion. We grappled with how the God we were learning about could let such a thing happen. We talked about our fear and anger and disappointment. We learned that, just like anyone or anything else, God isn’t perfect. Nothing is.
Point the 4th: if my Jewish education taught me anything else, it’s that faith is a choice.
When I was about fifteen I went through a process called confirmation. Similar to Catholic confirmation — though perhaps not as important, considering the rigorous B’nai Mitzvah process we finish by thirteen — Jewish confirmation is when a young adult affirms their dedication to maintaining their faith. By this point, a few kids in our Sunday school class had dropped out. Even I, who’d always enjoyed the trappings of synagogue and Sunday school, was not enthused to be giving up my Sunday nights to a youth education initiative where they brought us Kosher-style Hawaiian pizza (a.k.a cheese and pineapple: do not recommend) in an attempt to be hip. Still, I went. I felt like I owed it to my community.
That first day, we sat around the table, about twelve of us, our Rabbi at the head. His son was in our class, which made things exponentially more awkward in the minds of a bunch of high-school sophomores. We sat there in silence for a few moments, wary and ungainly in the usual teenage way. Then, our Rabbi spoke.
“So, raise your hand if you believe in God.”
It was so casual. Nonchalant, like he was asking us if we liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream. We all froze. By this point, we had learned that, even (or perhaps especially) at synagogue, we were allowed to disagree. To question. Debate. Still, this seemed weighted. Heavy. How could we be here if we didn’t believe in God? Even for our fairly liberal congregation, it seemed like not believing in God was breaking a rule. Crossing some sort of invisible line.
“Seriously: it’s not a trick question. Raise your hand if you believe in God.”
We looked around at each other. That conspiratorial look that teenagers unsure of how much trouble they’re in give each other when all the chips are down. Finally, someone took the plunge. A half-hand raised. A quarter. Someone slunk down in their chair as far as they could go. One raised her hand as high as she could, a real Hermione Granger moment. Most of us, though, settled at the half-way mark.
Just on the cusp of things turning truly awkward, our rabbi turned to look at us. Each and every one of us was looked directly in the eye. After making the rounds, he spoke.
“I want you to know that it doesn’t matter if you believe in God. People change. Their beliefs evolve. If you believe in God today and not tomorrow that’s alright. If you never believe in God, that’s okay too. What I want you to know is, no matter what, this is your home. This is your community. You belong here. If you ever need help, if you ever feel scared or abandoned or alone, this is your home. Come to us. No matter if you believe in God or otherwise, you are always welcome here.”
It probably doesn’t surprise you that that was the moment I decided I would never turn my back on Judaism. That no matter where I went or how I changed, I would stick with these people to the bitter end. As a lifelong skeptic, an intellectual who lives and breathes on the nuance, the ‘what-if’, I had been afraid that having faith meant leaving a vital portion of myself behind. That day, I was assured that that would never be the case. That the Judaism of my childhood — that questioning, challenging, frustrating, exhilarating world — could be the Judaism of my adulthood too. That I didn’t have to have all of the answers. No one did.
Today, I look around at my world, and I’m so intensely frustrated. Thousands and thousands of people are using God as an excuse to behave badly. To ridicule and malign the poor. To take away from the sick and infirm. To close our borders and our minds to truth and justice and peace of all kinds.
When I get frustrated though, I try and think of my friends. My Christian friends of all stripes who were not educated, but indoctrinated. Who did not get to question or challenge or debate. They were told what was true without proof — only faith. But, in my view, faith does not work without knowledge. Religion is a compass for behavior, but for the compass to work, you have to know which way is north. If you are a person of faith, I salute you. I respect you. I only ask that you try and give your children the kind of education I was so lucky to receive. One where, no matter what and who and how you believe, in America, you are always welcome here.
Day 27: January 27, 2017