Ilene Mogavero's Journal

Gemilut Chasadim

March 10, 2014 by Ilene Mogavero   Comments (0)

hebrew school, Gemilut Chasadim, tzedakah, Tikun Olam

A Word from Dori Stern, Education Director

At the Sunday School for Jewish Studies we teach our students that people should be more concerned with how we treat our fellow human beings than with strict ritual observances. Educating our students about the rituals and observances of Judaism is critical, but we also emphasize the importance of kindness, respect and compassion, concepts that are a significant portion of the essence of Torah and Judaism.

We all know the meaning of tzedakah, the giving of charity, but there also exists a wider scope of charitable activity called gemilut chasadim - acts of caring and responsibility. The differences between tzedakah and gemilut chasadim lie in a couple of areas. Tzedakah is carried out by giving money, whereas gemilut chasadim involves giving of one's person, for example by a kindly word or a pat on the shoulder or by generally offering words of comfort and consolation. Tzedakah is usually directed towards the poor, whereas gemilut chasadim involves the expression of goodwill to all, rich or poor, healthy or sick, successful or to those who fall short of success. Tzedakah is a part of gemilut chasadim and gemilut chasadim is a part of the Jewish effort to "repair the world" (tikun olam).

Each of our classes is responsible for a gemilut chasadim activity. Projects vary from class to class. The following are a few samples of activities that your children might be engaged with in his or her class:

In Ms. Gerber's class, students are bringing in new/gently used books for a book drive helping out Read Boston. Closer to Passover they will be doing a matzah collection for Family Table.

In Ms. Lapuck's class students will be creating Passover decorations and sending them to Hebrew Senior Life.

Ms. Smith's class is the "go to" class in raising funds to plant trees in Israel. Ms. Smith's students have collected money from all classes and have been responsible for planting 11 trees in honor of The Sunday School.

Ms. Scolnick's class made tzedakah boxes at the beginning of the year and have collected a lot of tzedakah. They will be having an in depth discussion (third grade style) about where to send their tzedakah.

Mr. Heller's class has been responsible for the two "Healthy Snack" sales we have had this year. Sixth graders chose the Make A Wish Foundation to be the recipients of their tzedakah efforts.

Ms. Yanofsky's class have agreed to do extra chores around their homes for a quarter. They then bring their quarters to class and purchase cereal that they will donate to the Boston Food Bank.

Along with the efforts above go the frequent classroom discussions about kindness, and the need for us all to lend a hand in repairing the world.

The doing of gemilut chasidim, is supposed to come from within, from the compassionate heart. It is not supposed to be imposed from without, nor does it come from a sense of duty. Gemilut chasidim is what must be done to "repair the world." As the old Jewish saying has it: "Charity awaits the cry of distress. Benevolence anticipates the cry of distress." Learning to have a compassionate heart, comes from parents, teachers, schools and community. We believe this to be such a fundamental Jewish value that we have incorporated it into our Sunday School curriculum.

Creating a Child and Family Friendly Passover Seder

February 26, 2013 by Ilene Mogavero   Comments (0)

hebrew school, Sunday School, Passover, jcc, Newton, MA, adult education, Interfaith Families

Submitted by Dori Stern, Education Director

When my children were little they liked Passover, but didn't love Passover. The seder was lengthy and though we didn't chant it all in Hebrew, as was my childhood experience, the Seder simply did not thrill them. Of course there was the Four Questions, the Afikomen and the dipping of a finger into the wine to remember the Four Plagues, but the requirement to sit reasonably still for a couple of hours in order to participate in the eating of the matzah, bitter herbs, parsley and charoset, well - it was not a wopping good time.

One might say that the Passover Seder is not supposed to be a wopping good time but I now believe that it can, and should be a fun, and educational experience. The goal of this yearly ritual is to tell the story of the Exodus to our children, so that they will speak of it to their children and their children to their children and the lessons of freedom, perseverance and hope will be treasured and repeated.

The Passover celebration is such an essential ritual that it is something many of us remember from our childhood - either negatively or positively - but we do remember it. We want our children to remember this important holiday and we want them to look forward to this moment in the Jewish calendar.

With this goal in mind, every year at the Sunday School we have model seders, each different, creative and fun. Our teachers create them and our parents bring the necessary items. So how do we make this important holiday fun, yet meaningful at our home seders? You can't have our talented teachers in your homes but you can have the next best thing!

On March 10th, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston is bring a Parenting Workshop, called Creating a Child and Family Friendly Passover Seder, to the Sunday School. It is open to the public and there is no charge- all you have to do is show up in the cafeteria from 11- 12pm. Family educators will be sharing activities, songs and tips which will have children of all ages engaged at your Seder table. They will explore what kind of Seder will work best for your family and family members or guests who may be unfamiliar with the Seder.

The only thing that is asked of you is to pre-register, so that they know how much of everything to bring - which includes Passover-themed refreshments! Please contact: or 617 558 6440.

The Sunday School for Jewish Studies was featured in The Jewish Advocate

January 16, 2013 by Ilene Mogavero   Comments (0)

Sunday School, hebrew school, Interfaith Families, education, Natick, Framingham, shul

Teaching the lesson of faith(s)
Interfaith families flock to Newton Jewish school
By Elise Kigner
Advocate Staff

While some Jewish institutions are still struggling to figure out how to attract interfaith families, the Sunday School for Jewish Studies gets them in droves.
Leaders at the Newton school estimate at least 80 percent of the 160 students come from interfaith families. There are children with a parent who converted to Judaism, and those who have a parent who isn’t Jewish. Almost all celebrate Christmas, said Dori Stern, the school’s education director.
Partly, the high numbers are due to the school’s structure. As it’s not affiliated with a synagogue, it draws many families without shul membership. Classes meet one day a week for two hours, as compared with most shul religious schools that meet two or three times a week.
But it is also largely due to the staff of the K-7 school, who make it a point not to “talk down” to interfaith families, Stern said.
“I am a child of survivors and their version of Judaism was ‘us vs. them,’ a lot of fear,” she said.
Stern said she has always been determined to be different.
“From the bottom of my heart, this place is opening and welcoming and accepting,” she said.
The school was founded after World War II by Harvard University professors who were not comfortable with synagogues. Since the 1980s it has been drawing high numbers of interfaith families.
Even so, the curriculum hasn’t changed. Students study Hebrew, holidays, blessings, Torah and culture.
Students have the option of studying for a b’nai mitzvah. Some of the students lead services in a synagogue, but most have them in alternative venues, everywhere from backyards to restaurants to conference centers.
In addition to offering classes, which meet at the Oak Hill Middle School in Newton, the school organizes free High Holiday services. The services typically draw 500 people to a Newton public school. Twice a year, students and their families also go to Shabbat services in a family’s homes.
Michelle Andler a seventhgrade Sunday School teacher, said many of her students don’t go to synagogue, light candles on Shabbat, or celebrate the holidays in a traditional way.
“I try to give them an experience that is fun and traditional,” she said.
In the fall, they build sukkot out of graham crackers and candy, and then shake the lulav and etrog in the school’s sukkah.
In addition to celebrating holidays, her students study the Holocaust, Jewish immigration around the turn of the century, and comparative religion.
While most of the students come from interfaith families, she said their practice of other religions doesn’t come up much.
“The kids know they’re at the Jewish Sunday School, and they put their Jewish hats on,” said Andler, who also teaches fifth grade at MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham.
From time to time, though, they have questions about how Judaism may or may not jibe with other religions.
For example, Andler recalled giving a lesson on Passover. One student asked if that was the same as Jesus’ Last Supper.
“I said, ‘There are a lot of similarities, and you have to remember that we as Jews don’t necessarily use the words Old and New Testament, because we don’t believe in the New Testament, but it’s the same first chapter of the book,’” she recalled.
Students have also asked her whether Jesus was the son of Gd. For that question, Andler didn’t have an answer. She told her students to talk to their parents.
While it can be challenging to grow up with two religions that are mutually excusive, Andler said she tries to teach the students that religions have many similarities and hold the same basic values.
“I hope it makes it easier for them to peace their puzzle together,” she said.
She also tries to help them understand how Judaism fits with their secular world. Andler recalled that after the recent massacre in Newtown, Conn., they said, “The shooter was crazy, just like Hitler.’”
“It was exciting for me to see they were making these connections,” she said, “and understanding that Judaism does exist outside of 9:45 and 12 on Sunday mornings.”
Marjie McDaniel said she and her husband Eamon, who isn’t Jewish, explored joining a local Reform temple when their kids were young.
The Natick couple was put off, however, when they learned there were restrictions on how much a non-Jewish spouse could participate in services. They also weren’t interested in sending their kids, Zack and Eric, to a three-day-a-week school, and getting involved in activities such as a sisterhood or brotherhood.
The Sunday School, however, felt right. It was a place where their kids could get a Jewish education, without them joining a temple.
And the Sunday School services feel comfortable for her husband.
“He’s with every other spouse who may not know the different parts of the service, or the holidays we’re celebrating,” she said.
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Why I Do What I Do

January 16, 2013 by Ilene Mogavero   Comments (0)

Sunday School, hebrew school, Interfaith Families, holocaust survivors, education

By Dori Stern, Education Director, Sunday School for Jewish Studies

About once a month I am asked a version of the following questions:

So, tell me why do you do what you do?

How did you end up directing a school that is becoming increasingly a school not only for traditional Jewish families but also for interfaith, inter-everything and definitely populated by some who are ardent non-joiners?

These are valid questions, especially since my graduate work was at Brandeis in the Hornstein Program for Jewish Communal Service. I thought that I might be a fundraiser for Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, or some other well-established, mainstream organization. Those of you who know me well are undoubtedly laughing uproariously right now, because you realize that I have totally no aptitude for financial issues.

Also, the above questions become particularly interesting when it is known that both my parents were holocaust survivors. But their version of Judaism was all about us vs. them; being different and feeling like outsiders. It was rarely about celebrating the joys of Judaism.

And I suppose therein lies the answer. I never want Judaism to be about us vs. them. I never want someone to feel like an outsider because they don't have the proper ancestors. And I never want children to feel excluded for whoever and whatever their family is or does.

One of our parents recently pointed out to me that I draw no line in the sand when considering who is Jewish nor how to be Jewish. That is accurate. It is indeed who I am. I also believe that this unguarded view of Judaism is a necessity. It is imperative to consider that if Judaism is to exist generations from today, we will all need to redefine whom and what is a Jew.

Judaism has always risen to the challenge of redefining itself. I am hopeful that it will continue to find ways to share its wealth of moral, social and ethical beliefs. I am hopeful that it will continue to find ways to share the beauty of it's liturgy and it's wonderfully nourishing life cycle events.

So here is the answer:

I do what I do, obviously because of, or in spite of, my background. I started this effort wanting to work within the Jewish community. I now work inside and outside of the Jewish community, eager to make the best of Judaism accessible to all who want to learn about Judaism. My goal is to convey Judaism to all the remarkable, non-joining, sometimes ambivalent, searching people and their children who are probing for meaning and community in their lives. I am pleased to be able to accomplish this purpose at the Sunday School for Jewish Studies.

December Holidays - The Interfaith Mash Up

November 27, 2012 by Ilene Mogavero   Comments (0)

Celebrations, Chanukah, Christmas, Sunday School, Sunday School for Jewish Studies, interfaith

Our interfaith family has had a pretty laid back approach to the holiday dilemma. I come from a Scandinavian tradition, so the December holidays are in many ways more cultural than religious. It was a time of year of candles and celebrations in my grandparents’ native Denmark because it also was a time of year with little daylight. The holidays dispelled some of the cold and dark. The holidays were always a special time in my family too with a visit to my grandmother where the whole big family came together and we saw cousins and second cousins we saw just once a year. And of course growing up in the Midwest I remember Christmas concerts at school and the community Christmas sing a long. These were fond memories and family traditions that I wanted to be able to share with my own child.
I grew up a Catholic but in a family of many faiths – Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, and Unitarian. My husband grew up in a Jewish household and wanted to ensure we raised our son with a Jewish education. For me, I’d had my fill of religious education at parochial school and CCD classes and knew I didn’t want that for my child. Church and religious education were something we were made to do. Our family was lucky to find the Sunday School for Jewish Studies. There were lots of families like ours at SSJS and our son got a great Jewish education there in a once-a-week format that didn’t make him feel like we were making him go or pushing religion on him. Two years ago we celebrated a very spiritual and meaningful Bar Mitzvah that not only included all our non-Jewish family and friends, but that touched them deeply. Even our Jewish family was truly surprised at the Bar Mitzvah – it was so different from what they were used to yet also so meaningful. My husband I felt like we had found that middle ground and were happy we had chosen SSJS for our son.
We have few holiday conflicts these days. We’ve developed traditions for our family that include a Hanukah party, the menorah and of course our Christmas tree – a real holiday mash up. We enjoy the connection between the lights of Hanukah and the lights on the tree and I think back fondly to my grandmother and my Scandinavian roots. It all fits together somehow.

-Contributed by Margaret Albright, Sunday School for Jewish Studies Parent

December Holidays - A Family Celebration

November 27, 2012 by Ilene Mogavero   Comments (0)

interfaith, holidays, Christmas, Chanukah, Christmas and Chanukah, Celebrations, Sunday School for Jewish Studes, school, Sunday School, hebrew school

Both of my biological parents are Jewish. When I was 4 years old, my father remarried a Christian. Every winter break when I visited my father, we would celebrate Christmas with my step-mother’s family. My childhood memories include Passover with my Orthodox grandparents in Brooklyn, NY, Hanukkah with my mother and step-father in Newton, and Christmas in California with my dad, my step-mother and her family.

Ten years ago I became part of another interfaith family, my own. My husband is a non-practicing Christian and our children are being raised Jewish. We are fortunate to have found The Sunday School for Jewish Studies, a once-a-week Hebrew school where my children learn about their Jewish identity. They learn about the holidays, eat raisins under the sukkah, spin the dreidel, light candles, and participate in Passover Seders. And, like many of their SS4JS friends, on December 25th, they celebrate Christmas.

We just can’t help it. Christmas for me is a holiday of family traditions. Visiting my step-grandparents, filling stockings, opening presents, and eating Christmas pancakes are some of my favorite memories. For my husband, Christmas is the one Christian holiday he can’t do without. My 8 and 10 year old children now have their own Christmas traditions, decorating the tree, eating candy canes and hot chocolate, visiting their Christian cousins, and of course opening presents.

And yes, my kids have asked why we celebrate Christmas if we are Jewish. My husband and I explain that for us Christmas isn’t a religious holiday, it is a holiday about family.

-Contributed by Liz Davis, Parent and Board Co-President, Sunday School for Jewish Studies

Doing the Interfaith Shuffle

November 5, 2012 by Ilene Mogavero   Comments (0)

Newton, Religious School, hebrew school, education, children, interfaith

By Erica Noonan

Want to get a funny look at parties? Tell people you have a child named Dennis McCormick enrolled at the Sunday School for Jewish Studies.

First people make the most reasonable assumption: I must be a Jew who married an Irishman.

“What's your maiden name?” they ask.

“Noonan,” I say.

That doesn't clear anything up, so they peer at me a little more closely, searching for a reassuring Semitic look around the eyes and nose. It is there, so they start peppering me with questions.

So, ARE you Jewish? Which synagogue do you go to? What is the SS4JS?

At this point, I usually start babbling defensively. “Well, my dad is Catholic but my mom is half-Jewish, and a bunch of my relatives are Jewish, but I was baptized and had First Communion in the Episcopal Church, but a Unitarian did our wedding... And uh, David is an atheist, but he kind of likes the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but he put me in charge of the kids religious education because he likes to sleep late on Sunday, but I think atheism is too cynical of a view to press on children...”

The person now looks truly horrified, yet my mouth won’t stop moving.

“,so, anyhow, I am identifying more as an adult with Judaism, but we celebrate Christmas because the grandparents would kill us if we didn't, and we are part Christian. Uh, sort of...."

By now the person has backed away, suddenly remembering an urgent appointment to talk to someone else -- anyone else -- except me.

Oddly, traditionally raised Jewish people are often the least tolerant. There is the “you aren't Jewish enough to count” camp or the “your kids can't be Jewish!” delivered with a dismissive shake of the head. Or sometimes the discussion turns into a rather intimate genetic search-and-destroy mission capped off with, “so, WHAT was your mother’s mother?” Sometimes people sneer. Or say dismissively, "that interfaith stuff never works out."

It took years, but I have finally come to regard these folks as a gang of judgemental creeps. Because of decisions made three generation ago my kids don't get access to this thread of their heritage? Their bloodline is too muddied? Who gets the right to say that I am not “enough” of something to “count?”

My children’s grandparents passed down many excellent things -- but a well-defined relationship with God and a parochial attachment to ethnicity -- were not among them.

As children of the 1960s, my parents and in-laws thought they were doing us a gigantic favor by not imposing religious dogma or an airtight lifestyle choice. As an adult, I appreciate that.

I hope my kids are as equally grateful for the religious structure I am imposing on their generation. I want to give them access to Judaism, with its rich spiritual and intellectual heritage and its proud tradition of moral leadership and social justice. I want them to become compassionate and funny adults who love life.

So, every Sunday morning they go to SS4JS -- a place that manages to be welcoming, tolerant, yet intellectually rigorous enough so that Dennis, age 8, recently out "Alef Bet-ed" a kid belonging to one those those “real” Jewish people. (Who's sneering now, I ask you?)

Whenever I take them to Sunday School, I feel like I am making up for lost time. The kids know they can choose at age 13 what they want to be -- Jewish, Christian, atheist, or something else entirely.

I see the Sunday School, as one politician put it the context of immigration, as a path to citizenship. By then they will have earned a Jewish identity fair and square. It will be up to them to embrace it for life.