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Standing on Chairs: My Journey as a Hebrew School Teacher

September 21, 2009

Expecting others to act in one way without challenge does not make for a good marriage or a good classroom. Judaism teaches us that first we learn how and then why. Growing up in a traditional home you learn which dishes are the meat dishes long before you learn why Jews keep kosher. "How" is the spirit of Judaism and "why" is the foundation. Learning why and listening to others ask is not always easy; it takes patience, tolerance and understanding. I learned this first as I struggled to explain Jewish

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rituals to my non-Jewish husband; and later as the model for my Hebrew school classroom.

I grew up in a traditionally Conservative home. We kept kosher, we had Friday night dinner and we attended services on Shabbat. This traditional upbringing did not stop me from falling in love with a man who was not Jewish. My husband agreed before we married that we could make a Jewish home together, but only if I would explain the meaning behind the rituals. He couldn't agree to a Jewish lifestyle without understanding why.

Explaining why did not come easy to me. I wanted to throw up my hands and say, "Just because you are supposed to do it this way." More often than not, this was because I didn't know the answer, or my answer, "because you're not supposed to cook a kid in its mother's milk" was not a good enough answer. I learned, first from my husband and later as a Hebrew school teacher to have patience with questions and tolerance when the answers provoked more questions.

I had taught Hebrew school before I was married. Back then, I was never afraid to push my students to learn more Hebrew or more prayers, but my classroom did not encourage questioning. My classroom after marriage was a different place. I still taught how, but I challenged my students to look further and ask questions. One year, in a fourth grade Hebrew school class, we were learning about Purim. My students asked, "Was Haman a bully and if so, was Mordechai a bully too? Or did Mordechai just stand up to a bully?" I did my best to teach my students to look at a story from all perspectives, not just the usual Jewish "good guy" angle. I was proud of their questions and their struggle with this issue.

I am not sure I would have been so open to their questions if it hadn't been for an event a decade prior. My new husband and I attended a young adult Purim service together. I told my husband it would be fun, a costume party and drinks. My very serious spouse sat and read the Book of Esther in English as we chanted in Hebrew. He pointed to the chapter where the ten sons of Haman are hanged, and 75,000 enemies of the Jews are killed. How come I never learned this in Hebrew school? This discovery and a new set of questions from my husband put a damper in the evening. I learned that I need to look at the whole, not just pieces. I made sure to teach this chapter in Hebrew school. I did not shield my students from the tough questions and, as a result, they were not only open to discuss who was a bully, but also the greater issues of Purim, beyond the costumes and fun.

Patience and tolerance not only meant listening to my students' questions, but being open about my intermarriage. Being open encouraged my students and their parents to talk with me. Once, I was talking to a student's parent who is married to a non-Jew. It was December and she was telling me about how she struggled with the excitement of Christmas with her husband's family. She really wanted to make Hanukah important but she did not even know the prayers for lighting the menorah. I listened to her without judging. To help her, I made cue cards with the blessings transliterated along with directions on how to light the menorah. The mother later told me that she was proud not only her children knew the blessings but now she knew them as well. I genuinely understood where she was coming from and as such, was able to help her learn more about a Jewish ritual.

The mother I met with did not want to know why we light a menorah; she just wanted to know how. Knowing how to say a prayer, or light candles is what makes us feel like Jews. I think if you ask my students about my classroom, they would tell you about the Shabbat crafts, the songs we sang and the books we read. My students were engaged because they felt like a community of Jews. One of my favorite memories is my 3rd grade class, standing on chairs singing as loud as they could, "Od yavo shalom aleinu, v'al kulam." May peace come to us, and to all. My students did not absorb the meaning of the song, just the melody and the movement. Judaism teaches us you cannot ask why until you know how, until you are able to experience the ru'ach, the spirit, of Judaism. At that moment, the students were standing on their chairs singing with ru'ach, with no need for more.

My journey as a teacher has been influenced by my upbringing and by my relationship. Learning to listen with patience, tolerance and understanding is what makes a good marriage and a good classroom. Be open to learning and asking why, but don't forget the joy of standing on your chair to sing.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "our duty," it's the name and first word of a prayer recited at the end of three daily services in traditional Jewish liturgy. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story.
Morissa S. Fregeau

Morissa S. Fregeau has been married to her inquisitive husband for almost 20 years. The questioning tradition is alive in their son who has the courage to question his parents, his teachers, and Rashi. Morissa no longer teaches Hebrew school but the lessons she learned in the classroom translate well into her life as a corporate attorney.

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