I am the product of a Jewish education…but not in the way you think

When I was a child, my Jewish education was spotty at best. I had a firm sense of Jewish identity rooted mainly in food and family. (Not for nothing, but my mother’s chicken soup is better than all other chicken soups, in this world and the world to come.) With respect to Jewish learning, though, the story is like a wikipedia stub article: a year or so of Hebrew school at a shul we never attended, learning with kids I didn’t know. I might or might not have gotten kicked out of class so many times I had an endowed seat in the principal’s office. In a plot twist rare in synagogue life, I dropped out of Hebrew school before Bat Mitzvah age.

As I grew older, into my twenties and even my thirties, I was constantly trying to connect to Jewish life and constantly thwarted by that awful feeling of being “not Jewish enough.” In every Jewish context I found myself in, I seemed to be surrounded by people who knew their stuff and knew each other. I became an adult with a strong internal pull to connect with my heritage and without the background or knowledge even to start.

When I became a mother, the longing I felt for my Jewish identity inspired what might seem like an odd choice for someone so far off the derech: my Jew-by-choice husband and I decided to send our children to day school. What informed this choice, for me, was the aching desire for my children to feel that they own the tradition, that it belongs to them and lives inside them, and that they have a right to be in any Jewish context they choose to inhabit.

We settled on JCDS just as the bottom tumbled out of our world. Where our existence before October of 2008 was one of privilege and plenty, we experienced a reversal of fortune in the great recession and found ourselves without resources and without skills. Neither of us had ever held a grown-up job (actor doesn’t count!) and with two young children and no income, we needed urgently to set about the task of regaining our foothold.

Even so, our commitment to providing our children with a Jewish education remained firm, and by hook or by crook, we pieced together the tuition deposit to enroll Akiva. Every sacrifice has been repaid thousandfold.

In our early days at JCDS, I was consumed with that “not Jewish enough” feeling: a vague dread that permeated my every encounter. Despite feeling like an impostor, I was continually touched by the kindness and welcome that characterized the school community. Gradually I began to feel I belonged, and that there was hope for me to move beyond the stunted Jewish identity of my childhood and into a fuller expression of my Jewish self. Akiva made friends with others in his class, Shabbat invitations came, and before I knew it, we were part of a community. As I took advantage of the many offerings for parents at JCDS – parenting discussion groups, Hebrew for novices, Torah study and more – my sense of connection grew and grew. Through these intimate encounters, it wasn’t just that I started feeling more comfortable in my Jewish skin, it was also that I started to develop a sense of what it means, and what it takes, to be in community.

When hard times came, we found ourselves supported by that very community. One year, in Bill’s busiest season at work, I was diagnosed with pneumonia and bronchitis. The boys were little enough that they couldn’t help with cooking or housework, but the JCDS community swept to the rescue, delivering meals, offering rides to school, and generally cheering us up with constant love and kind attention.

I started to volunteer at school, out of appreciation for what was offered and a desire to give back. Although I lacked the background in those early years to lead a study group or similar, I did discover within myself an aptitude for what I eventually learned to call community engagement. As a worker bee, as a committee chair, and eventually as the Chair of the entire Va’ad Horim (Parent Association), I organized and publicized programs, published a popular weekly message, navigated the dynamics of true religious pluralism, and learned to work effectively with volunteers and administration alike. I was endlessly energized by this work. Quite by surprise, I had found my calling, and when Gideon started school, I joyfully entered the profession of Jewish communal service!

While I was channeling my inner extrovert, I was also discovering my inner scholar. Through participation in Torah study, I began to find my voice as a learner. This, in turn, gave me courage to begin facilitating pluralism discussion groups. The more I learned, the more I learned. Gradually I have become more comfortable speaking up in Torah study, developing study skills to match my curiosity, beginning to chant Torah, attempting to write divrei Torah, even occasionally leading services at the Reform synagogue where I work. People now think of me as an accomplished learner, someone who knows her stuff. Shockingly, there are times when people who didn’t know me before think I am a Rabbi. (I should be so lucky!)

JCDS has played a significant role in the development of my adult Jewish identity: as a learner, a teacher, a friend, a professional, and – most importantly, perhaps – as a person who knows, lives and transmits the value of Jewish community. I couldn’t possibly be more grateful.

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