Learning to Love Hebrew at Vassar Temple

Whiteboard after Hebrew class about Passover

Whiteboard after Hebrew class about Passover

Students love writing on classroom whiteboards after class, and what they write can serve as a uniquely unfiltered window into what they are thinking.

This is why I was so delighted to find the words “I love this class!” under the Hebrew word for “questions,” both the Hebrew and English left over from Wednesday’s Hebrew class about Passover.

For us, it’s not enough for the students just to learn Hebrew. We want them to learn to love it. It takes a lot of work and planning, so it’s all the more gratifying when we find this kind of anonymous tribute.


Crafting a Worship Service

A Song For ShabbatPrayerbooks open, music compilations at hand, iPhones for downloading audio and video. And a dozen members of the Vassar Temple youth group.

Such was the scene yesterday evening when Vassar Temple teens worked over dinner to craft a worship service.

Working from an outline of the traditional Friday evening liturgy, the teens evaluated each worship element:

Which songs come from the traditional Friday evening Psalms? What melody should we use for Lecha Dodi? Should we sing the V’ahavta in English or Hebrew, and how does that choice influence the Shema that comes right before? Do we want a festive mood or a contemplative one? How long should the service last? What parts do we want to write ourselves? And so on.

Guided by the youth-group president, the teens reviewed 3,000 years of Jewish tradition as viewed through the lens of contemporary American Judaism. The result, a gift to the community, will be a remarkable worship experience on Friday, February 20.

You really don’t want to miss it.

Building a Holy Community: A Case Study

The power and impact of music are undisputed, but helping children find their Jewish musical voice is a tough needle to thread, because it demands an unusual combination of diverse qualities in a teacher: musical expertise and skill, an understanding of developmental psychology, an ability to relate to children, technical teaching skills, repertoire, patience, flexibility, and more.

PullQuoteFor example, musicians are frequently bored with the music that children like, while amateurs often lack the level of musical proficiency required to do justice to the music. As a result, supplemental music programs can end up backfiring, either teaching children to dislike music or teaching them that Jewish music isn’t very good.

Similarly, leading music is different than performing it, in the same way that conducting is not the same as playing the tuba. Many skilled musicians have difficulty making the transition to music leader.

So for a while I ran a rudimentary and fragmented music program myself, but I was limited by my own musical shortcomings. Most of the music I wanted to teach was beyond what I could do well.

Then two years ago a 10th grader who happened to be an opera singer joined Vassar Temple. She, obviously, could sing any of the music I wanted to introduce to the school. It turned out that she was also a natural teacher, and by nature patient and flexible. Most importantly, she would be a positive role model.

PullQuote2For a year and half we worked on applying her natural skills to the demanding task of teaching music. She learned how to lead services. She learned how to teach songs. She learned what kinds of music appeal to different age groups. She starting teaching music from time to time. She helped me lead worship services. Over the summer, she further refined her skills as she led a complete Friday night service with me.

After a year and a half of work, she was ready to start running our school’s music program. She began in the fall.

Then an opportunity arose for her to learn from two of the pioneers of American Jewish music, one an internationally recognized performer and songwriter, the other a professional cantor who runs one of the Reform Movement’s most important musical training programs. Together they offer a weekend-long master class in songleading. The rabbi funded the minimal attendance fee that made it possible for our music teacher to join a handful of other high-school students from around the country who gathered to perfect their craft.

The students at Vassar Temple now benefit from learning the songs that will be tomorrow’s mainstream melodies, just as they experience the joy of Jewish music that only an experienced teacher an bring. Just about two years after a musically inclined 10th grader first walked through our doors, we have an engaged high-school student, a top-notch music program, and joyous musical worship.

The words and values of our tradition rise in song from the mouths of the next generation of Jews.

What we have even extends beyond the individual successes and achieves the broader goal of bringing members of our community together to celebrate Judaism as part of a holy community and to continue the 3,000-year-old tradition of working in unison to create a glorious Jewish future.

Hanukkah Contest!

The talented folks at Key Tov have put together a spectacular Hanukkah dance and song mash up:

So here at Vassar Temple, we’re running a contest, with prizes for the first three people to correctly identify all of the songs in the mash up.

Even if someone beats you to an answer, you can move yourself up in the ranking by offering more information: Who wrote the songs? Where do they come from? What do the Hebrew words mean?

Put your answers in the comments — which will remain hidden until Friday, December 19, when we’ll announce the winners. The contest is open to students affiliated with Vassar Temple.


Fifth- and Sixth-Grade Vassar Temple Students Recreate Ancient Hebrew Poetry

Fifth- and sixth-grade Vassar Temple students studied and recreated the ancient Hanukkah poetry of Maoz Tzur. Commonly translated as “Rock of Ages,” the familiar words appear in a strict rhyming pattern. They reference the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple after Antiochus the Insane destroyed it, a path paved by Alexander the Great’s untimely death.

The students learned about the rhyming scheme and the historical background to the Hanukkah story before writing their own poems in the same pattern.

Here’s one poem, written by Bizzy, Anna, Chloe, and Mariel:

On Chanukkah we eat challah
In Temple we light the oil
They also celebrate it in Venezuela
We wrap our leftover latkes in tin foil
If you don’t they will spoil
They are made of potatoes from the soil
I love to eat gelt — but hopefully it won’t melt!
Alexander the Great was royal.

Now it’s your turn! Here’s the rhyming scheme:

— —A
— —B
— —A
— —B
— —B
— —B
—C —C
— —B

Can you use it to write a poem about Hanukkah?

An Exciting Start to Sukkot at Vassar Temple

Vassar Temple Seventh Graders Accept TorahThree dinners. A youth group meeting. A beautiful Sukkot service. Seventh graders accepting Torah. Dessert under the sukkah.

All of this was part of Vassar Temple’s celebration of Sukkot.

The evening began with three dinners. The 5th-7th grade Hebrew School students
met in one classroom for pizza. The post-bar/bat mitzvah students enjoyed Chinese food in the sukkah. The parents had pizza and salad (and some purloined Chinese, too).

Over dinner, the 8th-12th graders met to organize their youth group, electing peer leaders and starting to plan their year.

Then with sundown everyone came together for a celebratory service, during which the 7th graders received their own copies of the Plaut Commentary, a book they will use to prepare for bar and bat mitzvah.

Afterward we moved outside to break bread together under the sukkah.

As I said during the service, I love Sukkot.

Vassar Temple Gathers Under the Sukkah

Vassar Temple Gathers Under the Sukkah

Sukkot is in the Air at Vassar Temple!

Making an edible sukkah

Making an edible sukkah

With Yom Kippur behind us, Vassar Temple students turned their attention to Sukkot on Sunday. Each student in grade K-3 made an edible sukkah. Older students focused on Hebrew vocabulary and helped decorate the Temple’s main sukkah.

This Wednesday evening, the entire community gathers to usher in the festival.

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Vassar Temple Confirmation

Left to right: Rabbi Paul Golomb, Wayne H. (top); Olivia D, Ally B, Brianna E (bottom).

Left to right: Rabbi Paul Golomb, Wayne H. (top); Olivia D., Ally B., Brianna E. (bottom).

Though bar or bat mitzvah marks the transition from childhood to Jewish adulthood, the decision to celebrate bar or bat mitzvah is usually made by a child’s parents, precisely because the would-be bar or bat mitzvah celebrant is still a child while the plans for the ceremony are underway.

Confirmation, by contrast, gives young Jewish adults the opportunity to make what is often their first major Jewish decision as adults: will Jewish study be a central part of their lives?

Yesterday at Vassar Temple, four young Jewish adults — Ally, Brianna, Olivia, and Wayne — answered that question with an enthusiastic “yes” by leading their congregation in worship and by offering words of Torah.

In keeping with Jewish tradition, their remarks bridged their religious and secular worlds. Neither focusing too narrowly on the minutia of Jewish text nor ignoring their Jewish values, they spoke about human dignity, our obligation to care for the world, and the enduring value of Judaism.

The issue of global climate change speaks directly to our Jewish obligation to care for the world, as Wayne reminded the congregation. He spoke in favor of dealing with climate change now, and not bowing to pressure from those whose financial interests align with dismissing the problem.

The minimum legal drinking age is not a mere number but a decision about people’s welfare, Ally said as she argued that lowering it back to 18 would help people more than it would harm them, and, in addition, that a drinking age of 18 would better match the other rights and obligations that people earn when they turn 18.

School-wide dress codes have significant benefits, Brianna noted, but she still spoke out against them because in her eyes they do more harm than good. They make it harder to hold people accountable for their actions, restrict expression, contribute to inequality between men and women, and even indirectly promote misogyny.

Judaism focuses on this world more than any potential world that might follow, which is one reason Olivia said she was glad to confirm her Jewish identity. For her this was a particularly conscious choice because her family background gave her two clear paths in life, only one of which was Jewish.

“The world is based on three things,” our sages teach: “Torah, service to God, and acts of kindness.” It was a joy for me — and, I know, for the congregation — to see how these four young Jewish adults incorporated Torah and kindness as part of their service to God, continuing a tradition that began hundreds of generations ago, and, thanks in part to them, shows every sign of continuing for untold generations to come.

Left to right:  Ally B., Brianna E., Olivia D., Wayne H.

Left to right: Ally B., Brianna E., Olivia D., Wayne H.

Passover is in the Air at Vassar Temple’s Religious School

Grades 4 and 7 Engage in an Enthusiastic Passover Competition

Grades 4 and 7 Go Head to Head in an Enthusiastic Passover Competition

The students and faculty at Vassar Temple’s religious school prepared for Passover with reviews, food-tastings, games, stories, projects, and even a friendly class-to-class competition, all in honor of the yearly celebration that combines themes of freedom and spring in addition to the better-known prohibition on leavened bread.

Students Stay After School to Set up for the Congregational Seder

Students Stay After School to Set up for Vassar Temple’s Community Seder

Happy Purim

Dr. Joel "Hoffmantaschen."  Costume by Zoe  Peritz Greenman.  Photo courtesy of Brianna Erlebacher.

Dr. Joel “Hoffmantaschen.” Glasses by Zoe Peritz Greenman. Photo courtesy of Brianna Erlebacher.

Inspired by a couple of 4th graders who invented a Yoshi-taschen and a Hamario to help spread Purim beyond the walls of the synagogue, we invited other students to create their own Purim amalgams.

The one judged most creative (over my vehement objections) was Dr. Joel Hoffmantashen, seen to the right.

Happy Purim.