When Jon asked me if I would give a RH address I was very honoured – and a bit surprised. Not as surprised though as my daughter whose reaction was – with all those Rabbis, all those professors, and all those knowledgeable people – you are an interesting choice.
Realising she should say something positive she added.... Well, at least we won't be having too much intellectual thought to ponder this year.
Looking for some moral support I mentioned to a friend in the community that I had been asked. Hmmm she replied, at least you'll be
So, here's my address, it may not be intellectual but you should be able to catch every word.
Day One of Rosh Hashanah (Genesis 21:1-34; Numbers 29:1-6):
This year, like every other year on Rosh Hashanah we hear the story of the birth of Isaac – a much longed for child born to Abraham and to Sarah. Isaac though, was not Abraham's first son.
Fourteen years earlier (though just a few pages back in the Etz Hayim) we read that Sarah, having been unable to have a child herself, suggested to Abraham that he should father a child with her maidservant Hagar. And so, when Abraham was 86 years old Hagar gave birth to his first son Ishmael.
Today's reading starts with the news that G-d remembered the previously barren Sarah and chose to bless the 90 year old and her husband Abraham now 100 with a son they named Isaac.
On the day Isaac was weaned, probably when he was about 3, Abraham held a great celebratory feast. During the banquet Sarah saw the teenage Ishmael mocking Isaac. Sarah worried about the negative influence Ishmael posed for Isaac and the impact he would
have on Isaac's inheritance.
She was so disturbed by Ishmael's behavior that she requested that both he and his mother Hagar be banished. This put Abraham in quite a difficult position. He was very distressed by her request and very reluctant to agree. However, he relented when God told him to do as his wife had asked.
Aaah, if only I had such support in my house!
Sarah's story is one that resonates with me - longing for a child, giving birth as an older mother (though not quite at 90), the absolute joy of a child, and the desire to create an environment where my children can feel secure in themselves and in their Jewish heritage.
I think for my parents it was more straightforward. I grew up in upstate NY in a perfect Jewish town - that is one with 2 Synagogues –
the one we belonged to and the one we most certainly would not belong to. There was a well run Cheder and large Youth Group.
My parents and grandparents were actively involved in the Synagogue, in Sisterhood, and in Bnei Brith. The town had a Jewish Community Centre complete with swimming pool, gymnasium, tennis courts, art rooms and a summer camp. The centre was founded by my Grandpa Lou, when he decided that the families who wouldn't even think of belonging to each other's Synagogues should at least have a common place where they could socialize. He raised the money, bought the land and built the Centre.
And, although as Jews we were very much a minority population, there were enough of us so that school was closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during Pesach there were other students eating matzah and our classmates had an understanding that we celebrated different holidays and that some of us were more observant than others. Israel was portrayed in a positive light. And unlike my children I grew up in a family where both sides were Jewish so there were local friends and family with whom we shared Shabbat and other festivals.
For my 3 children it has been quite different. They have been the only practicing Jewish children in their schools. And because my family live in America the times our visits coincide with festivals are rare.
When the children were young we were on holiday in the Caribbean one December. Notes were slid under the door of rooms inviting those celebrating Hanukkah to join other guests in the lobby at 7pm. When we arrived the lobby was packed. The children were baffled and asked me why so many people had come to watch us light our Hanukkiah.
I explained that they had all brought their own Hanukiahs so we could say the prayers, light our candles and sing a few rounds of dreidel dreidel dreidel together. One of the children asked me how there could be so many Jewish people in one place as we weren't in a Synagogue. It really hit me just how different their experience was going to be to mine.
I knew then that we would need to be part of an active community so that they could learn our traditions and be able to go on to create their own.
So, we joined the OJC and like other parents we made the commitment to bring the children to Sunday morning Playshul and Cheder classes. I'm often amazed that so many parents make the commitment despite all the other conflicting activities and despite recalling
tales of their own miserable times at cheder. And, I admit, I do often wonder about the experiences of the children whose families choose not to make that commitment.
My relief in finding that in Oxford I didn't have to choose between 2 Synagogues was short lived.I soon discovered that there are still very difficult choices to be made – Main Shul or WF Hall, Birnbaum or Routledge.
I was really pleased to find that the OJC Cheder brings everyone together. There is an acceptance that we all celebrate our Jewishness in a variety of ways. And, my family isn't unusual. Many of our Cheder children have a non-Jewish side of their family and many have family living abroad making it far more difficult to share intergenerational traditions.
I'd like to share 3 things that I have learned through my families' experiences:
1. Firstly, I learned that for me, it wouldn't be enough to just bring my children to Cheder. It was inevitable given my upbringing that I would want to be involved. And, there are many others who feel the same way. The current Cheder team is mostly made up of parents and grandparents from the community and excitingly 8 cheder graduates, who having completed the GCSE are still choosing to come to the OJC on Sunday mornings to work as helpers and teachers. They are a pleasure to work with and it would be incredibly difficult to run Cheder without them.
A year ago when I gathered the young people together to propose a new Youth Club they agreed to be actively involved in running their club. They've chosen a variety of activities from Film night, to a sleepover, to bowling, to just hanging out and enjoying each others' company. Our big outing was our coach trip to Thorpe Park. On our arrival at the park the children divided into groups between those thriving on the stomach flipping Colossus and those looking for something a bit tamer. My highlight of the trip came at lunchtime as I watched the children share their Pesadic food and listened to them organize the afternoon by choosing rides which would suit them all so that they could spend time together as a complete group.
For me, and I hope for them, its clear that the success of the Youth club and how much they will enjoy it isn't about them just
showing up on a Saturday night but is dependent on them forming their own youth community and being actively involved in it.
2.Secondly, I've learned that the specifics of what we teach at Cheder aren't nearly as important as teaching the children how much
there is to learn about our religion and its many traditions. In our community we have representatives of much of the diaspora – along with Israelis we have members from Britain, America, Australia, Iraq and Iran, Algeria, France, South Africa, Gibraltar, Germany,
Russia and many other places. There are Liberal, Masorti, Orthodox and secular Jews who all bring to Oxford their varied traditions. What is important to learn is that there is a breadth and depth to those many traditions.
And, Importantly, that learning doesn't have to be a miserable experience. It can be a lot of fun – and, its a lot more fun when you have friends. We've worked really hard to be creative in the way we teach our curriculum. Some of our age groups are small and it makes it more difficult to find friends and do activities that require numbers. So, I'm always pleased when I get a call from a parent asking if their child, whatever their age, can attend Cheder. I don't think I've spoken with a single new parent that has been interested in the detail of what we teach but all have mentioned that they want their children to connect with a Jewish community and make Jewish friends.
3.Thirdly, and, probably most importantly, the final thing I've learned is that however hard any of us may try as individuals, or however good a Cheder may be we are limited in what we can do – it takes input from others in the community.
Many members of the community have shared their knowledge, skills, or time with our Cheder students. With their help we've been
able to run a Music Group, offer Yiddish lessons, hear from authors, bake Challah and make Matza, do special art projects, hold Cheder Seders and run our Hill End weekend. Their input is always welcome and there is always much more that we could do.
Several years ago, following a sleepover we encouraged the students to attend what was then a regular Sunday Shachrit service. Several went – and a handful continued to go. Some of the boys who otherwise would not have had the opportunity learned to lay Tefillan. And importantly as they got a bit older they had the opportunity to experience the mitzvot of contributing to a minyan.
This summer we were traveling in Italy. One evening as we dined outside at a Kosher restaurant in the old Jewish area of Rome a man walked by speaking Italian. Amongst his words my son Jake heard the word minyan, left the table and disappeared for the next 20 minutes. I know that this would never have occurred without the input and guidance of members of the community who organize
services and make the effort to involve the young people.
Similarly B'nai Mitzvah training is well beyond my capabilities and that of most parents. Watching my children and so many other young people mark their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs over the past few years it is obvious that a talented teacher and a willing (or even only slightly willing) student can achieve so much and have such a positive experience.
In each of my 3 learnings Community is a common thread.
Like Sarah did for Isaac we are creating an environment for our children. There is such a richness to Judaism, Torah, food, literature, art, religious and cultural practices. There is so much to teach our children – and so much for us to learn. I have learned that for me it takes individuals and a community to create a shared passing of our traditions to our children.
Shanah Tovah to you all.