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Could Hebrew School Be Fun?

Monday, September 9, 2013
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Maxon, on the far right, sort of smiling, along with me, my friend Denise Cohen and her twins, Sarah and Evan.

“So. How was Hebrew school?”

My son Maxon's answer to my question at 12:38 p.m.: “It was OK. It wasn’t so bad.”

“So. How was Hebrew school?”

Maxon's answer to his father's question at 5:33 p.m.: “It was horrible.”

What changed in those five hours? I think I know. 

First, let's recap. When we got to the parking lot of Congregation Rodeph Shalom on Sunday, Maxon saw a friend from Penn Charter, where he is in fourth grade. He dashed over to him and I hugged his friend’s mom, who I was equally happy to see. They trotted ahead of us, greeting more friends with abundant enthusiasm. Once inside, Maxon disappeared downstairs. I found him with two more friends, playing some game where they pull their arms inside their sleeves and hop around like kangaroos. He barely noticed I was in the room and left with his posse to go to the sanctuary. By the time I arrived, he was already seated between two of his closest friends in the row with his class. He even did a special handshake with a friend who came in late. 

No dread? No begging to go home? No "do-I-have-to?" Who slipped my child a cooperative mickey?

In the sanctuary, I met Maxon’s teacher, a fresh-faced blonde who looks like Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. I saw good friends and people I hadn’t spoken to in ages. By the time the service started, I was out of breath from hellos. Then the show began – the cantor strummed her acoustic guitar and launched into the morning prayers, the three rabbis kept the beat with clapping hands and soon the congregation was getting down to "Mi Chamocha" like a gospel choir.

Rodeph’s Mercaz Limud is in no way like my Hebrew school experience. For me, there were no school friends. There was no guitar. No clapping. No seventh graders acting out an original 12 Tribes of Israel play, no pizza and water ice party. Part of me – the girl raised Conservative part – wonders if this type of worship is serious enough, devout enough. Are they making Hebrew school too much like Hebrew School Musical? Is it too, dare I say it, fun?

But don't I want it to be fun? Aren't I hoping my oldest son gets into it after his history of throwing nuclear tantrums in the sanctuary every Sunday? I chose Rodeph so he could be with all his friends, only go once a week, have a more elastic Hebrew education. But is a soft touch as effective as a harder one?

When head Rabbi William Kuhn took the microphone and told us that Mercaz Limud is Rodeph’s number one priority – the place where the synagogue passes values and traditions to the next generation, I placated my Conservative side. I have to trust that regardless of whether the message is delivered with a disco beat or through a somber melody, the substance of that message is what matters. 

When I saw Maxon at pickup — his teeth stained from Rita’s Water Ice, friends on either side of him, half a pizza on a plate by his feet — he was begging for a play date and giggling. Since the first day seemed to be about 20 percent school, I figured he wouldn't give a 100 percent negative review. 

"How was Hebrew school?" I asked.

“It was OK,” he said, tilting his head to the side, nodding and flashing me his cherry red smile. “It wasn’t so bad.”

So why the "horrible" response later that evening? 

I think I know. With all the noise he made two years ago, all the VERY public shouting out in mad protest against Hebrew school, how could he possibly admit to liking it? 

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