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The One-Woman Hebrew School

Rite of Passage: Today you are a woman. Image by Shira Yudkoff

In early 2010 I received an email with the subject line “Hebrew tutor for my (awesome!) 11-year- old daughter.” The dad who had sent that email found my name through the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I had done my undergraduate studies at the Double Degree program with Barnard College back in 2003. Someone in career services had encouraged me to post my tutoring services, and it finally paid off. But I couldn’t have known then to what extent.

Soon after starting to work with the student, Sydney, her good friend Kaley joined us, creating what amounted to a mini–Hebrew school. These girls had never had a formal Jewish education, so we were starting from scratch. But the small size of this New York City group allowed us to speed through aleph-bet and basic Hebrew vocabulary. We moved on to learning prayers, holidays and other Jewish topics, and later to bat mitzvah preparation. Having taught in synagogue Hebrew schools many times before, it was extremely rewarding to see such quick progress, which often gets slowed down in Hebrew school because of time spent on classroom management.

I went to Jewish day school and took for granted the idea that Judaism was an everyday component of my education. From my days teaching Hebrew school, I knew the challenges of teaching children who were often tired after a long day at public school and didn’t want to be there. But my new tutoring students were even further removed from regular Jewish institutions. Their families weren’t members of a synagogue; I was their entire source of Jewish education –– a one-woman Hebrew school. While it was easy to work with these intelligent, well-behaved, eager students, I still felt the pressure of knowing that I was it. Whatever I taught them would be what shaped their Jewish identities. Despite the pressure, this was also the fun part. I had absolute freedom (with some feedback from the parents) to design the curriculum. I created my ideal educational environment, mimicking the best parts of my own Jewish education: encouraging open discussions and questioning; exploring Jewish ideas without insisting on specific beliefs, and teaching Jewish practices without requiring observance.

But there were downsides to knowing that I was it. I wasn’t a synagogue or a school or even a “real” Jewish community. I was one person. I often wondered how my students would construct a future of Jewish engagement without a community. I felt obligated to create the semblance of a community in our tiny hevruta, or study group, during the few years I had with them. I also felt I had to make the best case for Judaism I could, knowing it was up to them (and all of us) to choose how Jewish they wanted to be.

No Shul Necessary: Hila Ratzabi officiates at Sydney Allard’s bat mitzvah. Image by Shira Yudkoff

This aspect of choice was compounded by the fact that one of my students grew up in an interfaith family. Around the December holidays, Sydney mentioned having a Christmas tree, adding, “Well, I guess I’m kinda Christian….” This phrase struck me, and I used it as an opportunity to discuss what we mean when we say someone is “really Jewish” and what it means to identify as Jewish in the context of an interfaith family. At the time, I was in the early stages of an interfaith relationship (now marriage), so I felt a special sensitivity to interfaith kids, an extra impulse to make sure they felt they had the right to claim their Jewish identity, regardless of whether their mom or dad was Jewish. But again, there was that pressure: I hoped I could make a good case for why my students should choose to be Jewish.

A lack of traditional synagogue membership also created a surprising opportunity. The family was planning to have Sydney’s bat mitzvah at a non-synagogue venue and wanted me to officiate! I wasn’t a rabbi, but of course, you don’t officially need a rabbi to officiate at a bat mitzvah or even a wedding. Even if you did, we were already operating outside the bounds of traditional Jewish practice. After a bit of trepidation, I accepted the offer. I knew how to lead services, but I’d never officiated at anything before. Being outside a synagogue, we didn’t even have a liturgical framework to work within.

So we made one. Over the month leading up to the bat mitzvah, Sydney, her stepfather and I designed a service from scratch. It was a truly do it yourself bat mitzvah. It was heartening to see how devoted her stepdad was to the process. He and Sydney chose melodies for different prayers, and invited musically talented family members to perform. We created an abridged but meaningful service. We used the website Custom Siddur to design a unique prayer book for the occasion, and even added our own commentary alongside the prayers. The service took place at a beautiful venue overlooking the East River in Manhattan. The family purchased a Torah scroll. During the opening morning prayers, Sydney chanted Psalm 150 to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. As in most traditional b’nai mitzvah services, Sydney led the Torah service, chanted her Torah and haftarah portions, and gave a d’var Torah, a commentary on a biblical passage.

Since then, my one-woman Hebrew school has made its way online. A family I know from College Station, Texas (where nary a Hebrew teacher could be found), hired me to tutor their daughter, Olivia –– over Skype. Again I found myself as the main source of Jewish education for one bright young girl whose family was not part of a synagogue (and whose relatives were also intermarried). The curriculum I used was similar to the one I used last time, with the occasional Wi-Fi hiccup. Again I was asked to officiate at a bat mitzvah, and again I hesitated, worrying that I wasn’t very good at this sort of thing. The family was having the bat mitzvah at the local college Hillel and preferred to have me do it, given the personal relationship I had forged with their daughter over two years. I said yes. Like last time, my student and I designed the service together, and we were able to make it very personal, involving family members and friends.

Today I’m tutoring the younger siblings of both of these students. A friend joins Sydney’s younger brother, David. Sydney has grown up to become an awesome 15-year-old young adult. Recently she peeked into her brother’s tutoring session to say hi. I asked what she’s been up to lately, and she told me she is interning at the Jewish feminist organization Ma’ayan. As a Jewish studies teacher — regardless of whether you teach at a day school, Hebrew school or privately — it is gratifying to know that your student is still doing Jewish things past the bar or bat mitzvah. That was a moment for kvelling.

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