I am very active personally and professionally in the New Orleans Jewish community. Recently, I began teaching a beginner adult education class entitled “The Stories of Genesis and Exodus.” This eight week series is free and open to the public with no prior knowledge required.
On our first day of class, I had everyone introduce themselves and say a sentence or two about what they hoped to learn. The make-up of this class is very interesting. The students include three individuals who are in the process of converting to Judaism; one Catholic who has been married to a Jew and participating in Jewish life for over 20 years; and one woman who identifies as Christian but recently learned of her Jewish heritage and wants a full understanding of what Jews believe and what our holidays are all about.
“I am here to learn THE truth,” this last student said.
And suddenly I realized the serious responsibility of teaching Torah to beginners.
Many years ago, I taught another group of adult beginners—those brave enough to attempt an adult beginner ballet class. Back then, I recall how surprised I was by how much more difficult it was to slow myself down. To go back to the basics, and teach new learners the concepts behind the techniques, even before breaking down the physical basics, bit by bit. I was usually extremely exhausted and sore after those classes, unlike going through my regular motions teaching intermediate and advanced classes. You would think a beginner class, with no advanced moves and only basic skill-building, would be easy! But making sure we have the core concepts and basic moves down, going from nothing to step one, is sometimes the hardest step of all.
Teaching Torah is no different.
While I thought it would be simpler, in actuality, teaching “new Jewish learners” is much more complicated than teaching intermediate Jewish learners, because with the intermediate there is already an understanding. We have shared terminology, make more assumptions, and assume a certain level of “same page knowledge” with those who sit at the intermediate tables. With these beginners, before I could even get to the basics, we needed to talk technique—just as with my dance students.
I realized the first order of business was NOT starting with “In the beginning….” It was to explain that Jewish thought does not consider any one thing as “The” Truth; that is a far more Christian concept. We Jews are filled with questions, interpretations and thousands of years of written thoughts to ponder and learn, which are amazing.
Of course, we do thank God in our blessing after the reading of Torah reading for giving us a “Torah of Truth.” But as we learn to study Jewishly, we realize that this can mean a Torah full of truths, not one single Truth. We can also have a rich discussion of the beauty of the truths in the Torah, with an understanding of the difference between truth and fact, between Truth and truths, and so on.
I had imagined this adult beginner class would be “easy.” Instead, it is a daunting task—and also an awesome responsibility. I look forward to next week when I walk in much more prepared to listen first, and teach second instead of the other way around. We will focus on the technique as much as the steps, learning like dancers.
See there, I am already learning again… and that is the truth!
I am a lover of stories and often find myself drifting into worlds outside my reality. My young mind fought to protect Gotham City, sailed aboard the Pequod with Captain Ahab, traveled time with Billy Pilgrim, mourned the loss of Professor Snape, and fought beside Odysseus so he could return to his beloved Penelope.
Outside of the realm of literature, I am also a wanderer, collecting stories of those I have the pleasure to meet. Upon graduating college in New York in May 2012, I engaged in a major adventure – moving from Westborough, Massachusetts to Jackson, Mississippi – as part of the ISJL Education Fellowship.
The only thing I had to rely on were the stories I had read of the Mississippi – Aibileen bravely advocating for her fellow maids, the stream of consciousness surrounding the passing of Addie Bundren, and the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (on the Mississippi River and not in the state, a subtle geographical distinction I initially failed to grasp). I knew Mississippi in books.
Upon arrival, I expected to be an outsider. I dreamed of absorbing the idyllic South as if I was reading it in a book, surveying the lives of the Magnolia State residents, seeing their narrative as separate from my own. What I found could not have been further from my hypothesis.
The last two years, my story has become our story, the Fellowship chapter. This is the story of five people from different walks charting undiscovered and rediscovered worlds together. The story of sharing, spreading, and discovering Jewish wisdom and knowledge throughout the South, sometimes in the most unexpected places. That of leading song sessions and musical experiences, or Geocaching to explore Passover. We deduced that there are over a hundred different ways to eat grits and that flight times are negotiable. We found love and support in our communities – and strength and family in our relationship with each other.
And now, our stories diverge, as my fellow Fellows and I all prepare to begin our next chapters.
Sam will travel to Baltimore, MD to begin her studies at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Adam’s next chapter takes him Memphis, to begin his training to work in Development for the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity.
Dan’s story will have him teaching high school history in a public school in the DC area, bringing along the skills and ideas he learned in the fellowship.
Elaine, too, will continue teaching, and she’s going to be doing it in an exciting new Jewish setting up in Boulder, Colorado, working as the Adventure Educator with the Adventure Rabbi program.
And my story takes me back up North, to the Big Apple, where I will begin my graduate work in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
Who knows where our stories will take us? Wherever they do, I’m glad to have spent this chapter in the Southern Jewish world.
On Yom Kippur this year, the few remaining families of the 161-year old congregation of B’nai El in St. Louis, Missouri, entered the large sanctuary of Shaare Emeth. All of the members representing Shaare Emeth’s 1600-plus households simultaneously rose to their feet in honor of the Torahs held in the arms of B’nai El’s remaining few members. They, along with the Torahs, were being welcomed into their new spiritual home.
For those who may not know, B’nai El (established circa 1852) was the first Jewish congregation to build its sacred dwelling west of the Mississippi River. After a brief period of existence as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai El joined the Reform Movement, and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
B’nai El was also my hometown congregation.
I say, “was,” because – as of this year – B’nai El closed its doors, due to a great decline in membership over recent decades. Facing this moment has not been easy for any of us. Yet, thanks to a dedicated board and a compassionate interim rabbi, the congregation of B’nai El made thoughtful, though difficult, decisions that brought great honor to its history, ensuring its lasting legacy.
These brave acts included offering me (as a son of the congregation) the complete contents of their Sisterhood Judaica Shop. As their Sisterhood president Maryellen McSweeny told me: “Just because we are closing doesn’t mean that we can’t still make a difference, an impact in the Jewish world. Please take these items to impact your work with small congregations in the South.”
In B’nai El’s name, I have done just that. During a Bat Mitzvah service in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant young lady received a beautiful B’nai El tallit. Every time she wraps herself in it, the generations of B’nai El embrace her. During a funeral in Alabama, the mourners received a special yahrzeit candle holder. Every year they light it, memories of both their loved one and the congregation will be illuminated.
And, during a Shabbat service with the small college town congregation of Am Shalom in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I noticed that the Torah was without a yad for reading. Upon my return to the office, I went to the ISJL closet filled with B’nai El’s generous donations. From it, I pulled out a yad. I sent it to Am Shalom with the message, “May it continue to point y’all forward with God’s loving touch in this coming year.”
Am Shalom’s president, Laura Jacobs, wrote the following to Maryellen McSweeny in response:
We very much appreciate you sending us your yad. We are a very small congregation of about 15 families. We meet about one time per month for social and religious events. We are lay-led and so appreciate Rabbi Klaven and all he brings to our small congregation. As you know, he is a special person, making Judaism come alive for the young and old. We are blessed he chose to share your yad with us. Know that we will put it to good use. I’ve attached the pictures of some of our members on Yom Kippur with the yad on our Torah. L’shana tovah to you!
What I have come to appreciate even more through connecting some of the remaining items from my hometown congregation of B’nai El to other Jewish communities in need is that our story does not end when we find a place to call home. Rather, just as it was for our ancestors, coming home marks the next chapter of our development, as we continue to honor our history and live our legacy.
Image above: B’nai El’s Yad brings new blessings to its new home at Am Shalom.