By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein, Congregation Ner Shalom
Jewish tradition tells of a story about a man in the first century who was curious about Judaism, but didn’t take his curiosity very seriously. He went to one rabbi and said, “If you can tell me everything that is in the Torah while I stand on one foot, I will convert to Judaism.” The rabbi told him to stop wasting his time. The man went to another rabbi and said the same thing. The second rabbi said, while the man held his balance, “That which is hateful for you, do not do unto others. That is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary, now go and learn it.”
Often, Jewish people use this story for commentary on the loving nature of our teachings, and the focus is on the Golden Rule aspect of the second rabbi’s response. For me, I like to emphasize the second half of his answer. Of course, it is important to be nice. But there’s more to life than passive kindness, and there is so much to learn about the world that can make us better people. An essential tenet in Reform Judaism in particular is the idea of “choice through knowledge”: that even though Reform Jews put less emphasis on keeping to traditional Jewish law, particularly in matters of ritual observance, it is important to learn about these practices so that each person may decide for themselves which rituals are meaningful and how those religious practices guide them toward a more moral lifestyle.
For all these reasons and more, education is very important at Congregation Ner Shalom. Despite our small size, we have an active Religious School with students ranging from kindergarten to 9th grade. Many of our older students and alumni teach or assist in the younger classes, particularly for Hebrew lessons. We are so grateful for our tireless volunteer teachers and religious school board, and especially proud of our teenagers who get themselves up early on Sunday mornings to help pass the torch to the next wave of students.
Our curriculum is provided by the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (or ISJL), based in Mississippi. Besides providing thorough curricula for Judaics and Hebrew lessons for kindergarten through high school, the ISJL also assigns us an Education Fellow every year. This fellow visits three times a year and provides support in between visits, answering questions from the education team at Ner Shalom and sending more programs and lesson plans when we have an idea for a special event but need guidance to pull it off.
As rabbi and principal of the Religious School, I am definitely a huge proponent of the ISJL partnership, but I couldn’t have brought it in alone. We have a volunteer school board, comprised of parents of students or alumni, who vote on the curriculum and lend their own ideas to the running of the school. And of course, none of what we do could be pulled off without the hands on support of those same board members. They take care of so much material necessities to create programs, special events, dinners, breakfasts, Shabbat services, you name it!
Our adult education program has a less formal means of operation, but is no less group-led. Every fall, I put out the call for suggestions for what our members want to learn, and I do my best efforts to structure the year’s “curriculum” around the responses. I bring the texts and knowledge necessary to set the foundation for the classes, but so much of how they run depends on the interests and needs of the students, with little personal agenda from me. Our topics in the last few years have been:
- Shabbat Torah study through the Book of Genesis
- Women in the Bible
- Re-Introduction to Judaism (for those raised Jewish who still have unanswered questions about our traditions)
- Introduction to Judaism (for those raised without Jewish education)
- Adult Hebrew
- Jewdo self-defense training with guest teacher Devon Gritoles
- Jewish Philosophy with guest teacher Professor John Rybicki
- The Books of Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah
In addition to these wonderful courses, we’ve had single-serving programs teaching about a wide range of topics, Sisterhood-led educational programming, and special services. We have a Book Club that meets every month, a sing-a-long to learn more Shabbat music before services one Friday a month, and more coming up all the time, because we know that we are never done learning and connecting on new levels!
Learning About Jewish Holidays
We have several opportunities coming up to learn about our next holiday, Purim. During this festival, we learn about the story of the Biblical Book of Esther, in which a Jewish queen of Persia hides her identity only to reveal it at a key moment to save her people from an evil villain who wishes to kill all the Jews in Persia. This festival is celebrated with reading the scroll of Esther, wearing costumes or masks to mimic Esther’s hidden self, and (for adults) drinking to celebrate the freedom that the Jews of Persia eventually win.
At Congregation Ner Shalom, we will kick off the festival season with a Prequel event on Feb. 23 to learn about the story and holiday in some depth, and then we will be celebrating throughout the weekend following the holiday itself. On March 22, there will be a special Shabbat service with participation from our Religious School and including a reading from the scroll of Esther. The following day, our Jewish adults will celebrate with “The Mad Hatter’s Purim Party.”
On March 24, our religious school students will have their annual Purim Carnival with games and prizes and the traditional Purim cookie, “Hamentaschen,” designed to look like the funny triangle-shaped hat we’re told the villain of the Esther story wore. With so many ways to celebrate, everyone in the community is welcomed to join and learn about this festive time in the Jewish calendar!
Lizz Goldstein is the rabbi at Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge, the only synagogue in Prince William County. She resides in Vienna and also works to build Jewish community among millennial activists in the DC area. She can be reached at email@example.com or through nershalomva.org/