Flashback to 2008: It is Friday night. My husband and I, along with one hundred parents of small children, are packed in like sardines for Tot Shabbat. Children run the aisles. I find myself feeling obligated and uncomfortable. After, we attend a kosher dinner in which we sit with three couples who already know each other and spend the dinner comparing diamonds, cars, and private school educations.
This would never be my synagogue. My kid will not go to Hebrew school here. What happened to the Reform synagogues of yesteryear? I want my rabbi bearded, wearing a tie-dye tallit, and playing guitar. I want my son to grow up to be a thoughtful, spiritual, civic-minded, Jewish man. How will he get to these milestones if I don’t start educating him now?
Fast Forward to 2009: I decide it’s time to commit. Our family must join something. I tried services at the local Hillel. I went back to Tot Shabbat. (It wasn’t any better than the first time.) I contemplated a Reconstructionist congregation but it wasn’t right for us either. My husband and I don’t know what to do… we only know that the clock is ticking.
Here in Atlanta, where churches majestically sit on nearly every manicured corner, we have a handful of Jewish friends. Our family celebrates major Jewish holidays and an occasional Shabbat, I write for the local Jewish newspaper, and I belong to Hadassah. But that doesn’t feel like enough. Our 3-year-old deserves to spend his childhood learning Jewishly, and it’s not something I can homeschool.
One spring day I receive an email about an alternative Hebrew school. Soon I am sitting with visionary Ana Fuchs. Energetic, full of passion for children and Jewish learning, Ana describes her childhood. She spent 1,000 hours in Hebrew school, yet her best encounters were at Jewish summer camp. Ana says a disconnect between Jewish summer camp and formal religious education during the school year indicates traditional Hebrew school doesn’t reinforce positive Jewish experiences. Though I never attended Jewish summer camp, I spent many hours in religious school (boring!) and youth group (incredible!). Her words make sense to me.
Ana’s idea is to start a non-affiliated Hebrew school called Jewish Kids Group. In a neighbor’s home, the kids will meet on Sundays to learn conversational Hebrew, Jewish customs, and Israeli culture using art, movement, song, and imagination. This is unchartered territory but I’m 100% on board.
Immediately, I see the benefits:
1. No boredom. This will be so far removed from the boredom my husband felt in Hebrew class while memorizing prayers, it will blow his mind.
2. Low fee. We will befriend Jewish parents and kids without a $5,000 commitment to a synagogue.
3. Ahhhh. Two quiet hours on a Sunday morning to read the newspaper and drink coffee.
That summer my boy learned the Shema in sign language, sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in Hebrew, and got slathered in a Dead Sea mud bath. Since then he has taught my dad how to play Simon Says in Hebrew, been serenaded by a Jewish American Idol contestant, created a map of the Negev desert in Israel, played with Hebrew puppets, and created his own Hebrew alphabet book.
In three years, Jewish Kids Group has rapidly grown from just 12 children to 65 kids and their families, whose backgrounds range from interfaith to Orthodox.
This is my community. Though we don’t have that hippie rabbi, my child knows every word to the songs we sing. And now I dream of continuing to build community from like-minded people, great ideas, and a little bit of inspiration.