Tag Archives: Jewish education for girls

Challah Covers

by Maureen Rubin (Los Angeles, CA)

My family endlessly obsessed over my brother’s bar mitzvah.  Guest list, menu, music, clothes.  Were burgundy velvet tuxedos too much?  When it was over, I was only ten, but started counting the days until my own bat mitzvah.

Not going to happen.   In my hometown shul in 1960, girls could not get bat mitzvahed.  Instead, we would take part in a group confirmation.  Fifty Jewish girls in white dresses–without blue satin sashes.

Spurred on by the injustice of bat mitzvah prohibition, I drifted away from Jewish studies after my dull confirmation.  In college, my Jewish connection was limited to attending Rosh Hashanah services at Hillel so I could meet Jewish boys from ZBT.

But the one event I looked forward to each year was the Passover seder where we reconnected with our huge, loving family. Our seder was the Reader’s Digest condensed version.  No haggadahs and we completed the story of Passover in record time.  Jews, slaves, Moses, plagues, burning bush, Red Sea, freedom. Done. Then we ate.  And ate.

My freshman year I went home for Pesach with a friend whose family finished the entire haggadah with a discussion on each part.  The in-depth dialogues around the table set off brain sparks.  I could suddenly relate the history of Pharonic oppression to what was then happening to American women.  I don’t want to be sacrilegious, but clearly there were parallels.  OK, we weren’t building pyramids and eating dirt, but we could legitimately protest how women’s futures were being sculpted by everyone but them.  Women in America were living our own form of Egyptian slavery!

Years later, I married a wonderful man who was proud of my career and life choices.  We had two daughters.  When our eldest was 13, we decided to give her the bat mitzvah I never had, but would have loved.  She would be bat mitzvahed on Mount Masada, where King Herod had built a complex that sheltered the last survivors of the Jewish revolt.  Masada remains a symbol of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.

The ceremonies were unforgettable.  We sat in a stone amphitheater and looked down on our beautiful children. Ten 13-year olds, five girls and five boys, all wearing white, took turns reading from the Torah on the very spot where our ancestors chose mass suicide instead of Roman oppression. There wasn’t a dry eye in the dessert.

When the ceremony was over, the “new adults” received gifts.  The boys received beautiful hand embroidered tallitot and the girls received–challah covers! Suddenly, we saw movement below us, we heard buzzing from the girls. A voice rang out, demanding “fairness of gifts.” It was our daughter.

“We girls do not want challah covers,” she said.  “These gifts are not fair.  We are being treated differently.  Why did the boys get things they can wear to synagogue while we got things that keep us in the kitchen? We want to be treated the same.  We want tallitot.”

How proud we were.  Her act of civil disobedience reminded us of Biblical midwives who defied the Pharaoh’s orders to kill all the newborn baby boys.  In this sacred setting, it became clear that my daughter and her generation did not have to be told to remember that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt, nor that their foremothers were allowed few life choices.

The girls got their tallitot.  My daughter’s tallit became the chupah at her wedding and she will pass it on to her beautiful Jewish feminist eight-year old when the time is right.

Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge. In her 30 years on campus, she taught writing and media law , served in a variety of administrative positions, published widely and received numerous teaching and public service awards.  Prior to joining the university, Rubin was Director of Public Information for President Carter’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs in the White House, and held similar positions for a U.S. Congresswoman and several non-profits. She has a JD from Catholic University School of Law In Washington, D.C., an MA in Public Relations from University of Southern California and a BS in Journalism from Boston University.

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My First Aliyah

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL) 

I sat between my husband and brother and watched the snow falling through the stained glass windows of the synagogue as I folded and unfolded the piece of paper in my hands that held the prayers said before and after a Torah portion is read.  My cousin Walter sent them to me in the mail, written in Hebrew along with the English pronunciation.  I practiced saying them on and off during the two-hour drive from our home to Princeton, New Jersey where the synagogue was located and where his son, David, was to be bar mitzvahed.  I was both nervous and excited to be called to the bimah for an aliyah with my brother.  It was my first time.

Expecting a Reform service, since that’s how I remembered Walter being raised and where I feel most comfortable, I was surprised to find myself surrounded instead by the songs and prayers of my childhood—the cadence of a Conservative Jewish upbringing I long ago left behind. 

While my brother and all the boys went to Hebrew School preparing for their bar mitzvahs, I was sent to Sunday School with the other girls.  Our teacher, Mrs. Sands, was a beautiful, young Israeli.  She exuded class and charm and had a figure we adolescents dreamed of having as adults.  Full of life and ready with a smile, she had short, blonde, wavy hair.  Her dangling earrings would catch the light and brighten the glow about her.  Mrs. Sands had us mesmerized as we learned how to read Hebrew from a book similar to the English reader, “Dick and Jane.”   She taught us how to speak conversational Hebrew and to write in Hebrew script.  She led us in Israeli folk dances and taught us Israeli songs. 

Then one Sunday when we arrived for class, Mrs. Sands wasn’t there and we were told she wasn’t coming back.  Most of us figured she was let go because we were having too much fun and the Rabbi wasn’t happy about that.  Another theory was that she pronounced Hebrew words in the more modern, Israeli way.  In the end, all we knew was that the Rabbi fired her.  We never found out why.  And the injustice of his act led to an act of my own.

I decided I was done—done with Sunday School, done with the synagogue and its sexist rituals, done feeling warmly toward the religious teachings of my youth.  If Mrs. Sands wasn’t welcome, I didn’t want to be part of the establishment that didn’t want her.

I was pulled from my childhood memories as I heard the Cantor call my name along with my brother’s.  The English “Judy Rosner” sounded out of place, but then the Cantor used my Hebrew name, Y’hudite.  It rang true and sounded just right.  I was shaking as I took my place before the Torah scroll open on the reading table.  I felt a catch in my chest that made me worried I might cry.  Somehow I managed to say the prayers I had practiced along with my brother.  My daughter told me later she could barely hear me over my brother’s boom.  My husband was kinder and told me my voice complemented my brother’s nicely.

When we finished reciting the prayer after the Torah reading, the Cantor began moving me to the other side of the reading table.  I wasn’t tuned into the choreography of Torah reading, which he soon realized as he muttered somewhat annoyed under his breath, “No one seems to know where to go.” 

Rather boldly, I whispered back, “That’s because it’s my first time.”

“Your first time?” the Cantor asked incredulously.  “We’ll have to do something about that.”

And then came the best part.  The Rabbi rolled the Torah together and put a cloth on top as if to say, “Well get back to you in a moment,” and then he and the Cantor sang a special prayer just for me because it was my first aliyah.  Then the whole congregation sang the congratulatory song “Siman Tov! Mazal Tov! In effect, I was becoming bat mitzvahed, Conservative-style.  I felt proud, beautiful, and very special.  Mrs. Sands would have approved.

This wasn’t just a religious coming of age moment for me.   It was a political one as well.  Here I was, a woman in a Conservative synagogue, permitted to stand at the bimah and given an honor.  The synagogue of my youth would stand for no such thing.  Women took no part in the service, were not bat mitzvahed, and were never called up to the ark.

So now that G-d’s house has accepted me—on some of my terms, anyway—I feel better able to open my sanctuary, my heart, to G-d.  I still haven’t forgiven my childhood Rabbi for firing Mrs. Sands, and I still feel a bit like a foreigner in a Conservative synagogue, but I’m delighted that women now play a greater part in the service and that female rabbis have made their way to the bimah. 

I’ve been honored with an aliyah a number of times with my husband in recent years, most notably at the bat mitzvah of our daughter.  And each time I’ve been nervous and excited when singing the prayers.  However, none has had the emotional impact of my first time before the Torah at the Conservative synagogue in Princeton, New Jersey at the bar mitzvah of my young cousin, David.

Judith Rosner is a sociologist, leadership trainer, and executive coach.  She has published articles in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions.  Her primary focus now is memoir.

For more information about Judy, you can visit her websitewww.therosnergroup.com.

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Hebrew School Memories

by Jan Booker (Malibu, CA)

School meant public school.  Private school was for rich kids and we didn’t know any.  For South Philadelphia Jewish families, Hebrew School equaled in importance our secular education.

We didn’t go to Sunday School or religious school once or twice a week. Hebrew school was serious business: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, after regular school, for two and one half hours, plus the same amount of time on Sunday mornings.  If you subtract recess, assemblies, art, gym and music, the time spent in Hebrew School equaled our daily secular school time.

We had several subjects: Hebrew, of course, where we learned to read and write using the first five books of the Bible as our text. But this was before the establishment of the State  of Israel when Hebrew was rarely used as a conversational language, so to this day I can read Hebrew, but my conversational skills are limited to about thirty unconnected words.  Then there was literature, where we studied the literature of the Jews, concentrating on writers like Sholom Aleichem and Peretz.  History was as expected, a history of the Jewish people, from Biblical times through the Diaspora, up to what was the  present for us.  In the days before and during World War11, we studied shtetl life and European migrations of the Jews.  For those who went to Hebrew school after the war, studies must have had a very different focus.  We had written  tests and oral exams and homework.  Probably our classes in Hebrew school plus our secular school education equaled what is taught in any Jewish day school, except we spent double the time in classrooms combining public school and Hebrew school.

I attended JEC2, which meant Jewish Educational Center #2, part of a network of independent schools called, usually, a “Talmud Torah” or referred to in Yiddish as “Cheder.”  This institution was not synagogue- affiliated but part of a central education system.  Classes and offices were housed in a building at Marshall and Porter Streets, a typical school building with three floors and a wonderful auditorium.  The building was a kind of art deco- style.  Wide front steps led to a center hall and then to the large auditorium, where typical school-wide events were held: plays and holiday celebrations, religious observances and special events. Many years later, the building was utilized as a senior center operated by Philadelphia Jewish Community Centers.

Attendance at this Hebrew school almost mitigated the necessity of belonging to a synagogue.  There was no need for additional opportunity for worship.  We celebrated all holidays through the school, and the entire family was welcome to join any event.  The children were involved in all aspects of presentation or observance.

When I was about eight, studying Bible stories, I asked my teacher a question:  “Why,” I said, “if God knows everything, did He permit Eve to eat the apple.”  A curious look passed over the teacher’s face.  “Ask your mother,” was her answer.  It took quite a few years for me to understand why she didn’t want to deal with a reply.

We celebrated every holiday with a play to which parents and grandparents proudly lent their presence.  In my first year of Hebrew school I was in a Chanukah play.  Because so many of the parents, and all the grandparents, were immigrants whose English language skills were modest,  plays were presented in English and Yiddish.  My part was to run across the stage, stopping front and center, to announce in Yiddish, “Hannah is dead, Hannah has died, threw herself over the wharf and lies there with her seven children.”

When I think back to my seven years of Hebrew School, I am full of wonder at the quality of the teachers.  Mr. Blank taught Hebrew, a brilliant man who wrote fourteen novels in a language not yet used other than for worship.   Mr. Sankowsky taught us history.  I learned  years later that he was an accomplished artist whose work was exhibited throughout the city.  Dr. Levitsky, the principal, had a PhD, an impressive accomplishment in those days.  His wife, a striking exotic- looking brunette, taught us music and directed our dramatic productions.

We had no confirmation, no bat-mitzvah.  Those ceremonies were for more upscale neighborhoods.  Our parents thought them frivolous; it was the learning that mattered. In our South Philadelphia culture, boys were bar-mitzvahed but girls were also educated in Hebrew school in coed classes.

My memory is that there were no bar-mitzvah classes for the boys, who had to study with a Rabbi or Melamed (teacher.)  My brother was tutored by a special bar-mitzvah teacher who came to our house several days a week for a year.  My father, who lost no opportunity to increase the educational opportunities of his children, had Mr. Shafritz stay a little longer each session to teach me to read and write Yiddish.  So long as I knew the basic  Hebrew alphabet (Yiddish uses the same alphabet but substitutes letter vowels for the symbols used as vowels in Hebrew) he argued, it would be a simple matter.  It wasn’t, yet I can still work my way around large print in a Yiddish newspaper.  Book texts are somewhat harder and I give up easily.

Some families, eager to pass on their Socialist political leanings to their children, sent them to Jewish schools that de-emphasized the religious aspects of Judaism and focused on political and cultural issues.  I met many graduates of these schools several years later when I joined the Zionist youth group.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the authorFor more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

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