By Harriet P. Gross
Last week I told you about my inspiring, enduring relationship with a small congregation named B’nai Emunoh, where I got an incredible head-start on understanding Judaism and living a Jewish life. A good story, but like all good stories, there’s one behind it …
That little shul was barely within the City of Pittsburgh limits; a bridge just a scant three blocks away took you into another town. There were lots of those small, independent municipalities way back when. Now, many of them are called suburbs.
Then, there was an association that helped the little religious schools in the little synagogues in those little towns, providing teacher training, curriculum materials and textbooks, so that all of us students were literally on the same pages although we were physically miles apart. When our B’nai Emunoh Confirmation year was in full swing, with the six of us enjoying our Sunday classes in Mrs. Simon’s kitchen, we started preparing for the big joint celebration to honor all of us. We would be confirmed together on Shavuot. Our joint service would be held in the city, in one of its largest and most beautiful synagogues. And there, our scattered band of confirmands would meet each other for the very first time.
We were, of course, well prepared for the occasion. Readings and speeches were parceled out at the start of that school year, and those of us who could sing had received hymnals marked with the selections that would be our responsibility.
When the day arrived, we were ready. In the way of staid, mid-century Confirmations, we marched in solemnly. The boys were robed in dark blue, with matching yarmulkes. We girls wore white robes and carried large bouquets of fresh spring blooms to deposit on the altar for the then-mandatory “floral offering.” As we did this, we who had good voices (and yes, I was among them on that long-ago day!) sang one of the old hymns that had its origins in the 19th century’s emerging Reform movement; both its style and musical setting were derived from the churches of those Jews’ Lutheran neighbors. To this day I not only know all the words to “Father, See Thy Suppliant Children”; I can still sing them, with the changed-key alto variation in the harmonic center section. But then, we were so fresh and innocent, I’m sure none of us caught the real meaning of the hymn’s ending as we carefully placed our flowers: “‘Til we reach the land of promise, when the toils of earth are past/’Til we sleep the sleep eternal, in the realm of peace at last.”
We were all gifted with Bibles, of course — standard-size black ones for the boys; for us girls, small white ones intended to be the bases of our bridal bouquets some day. But each of us also received a book, newly published that year: “Preface to Scripture,” written by Solomon Freehof, esteemed rabbi of Rodef Sholom Temple, the largest Reform congregation then — and still today — in Pittsburgh.
Dr. Freehof was already a force in the movement then, and served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. An amazing fact about him was that he was going blind, and he dictated this and subsequent volumes to his wife, Lillian Freehof, a force in her own right, as well as an accurate transcriber.
I don’t know what any of the other members of our locally far-flung 1950 Confirmation class did with their personally inscribed first editions of our gift book, but mine now lives on in the University of Pittsburgh’s Israel Heritage classroom, one of its many Nationality Rooms that honor the points of origin of the numerous and varied groups of citizens who make up the city’s diverse population. My “Preface to Scripture” has become one of the Chosen Books that reflect the Chosen People in a special place of learning — maybe even a better place than Mrs. Simon’s kitchen.