By Harriet P. Gross
As our congregations shift into New Year mode and gear up for a new religious school year, I’m thinking back to the little shul where I spent my childhood Sunday mornings. Robert Fulghum wrote that he learned everything necessary for life in kindergarten; I learned everything necessary for Jewish life during one year of Sunday mornings in Mrs. Simon’s kitchen.
More than 80 years ago, Mr. Simon helped found a small congregation on the fringe of a thriving urban Jewish community that already supported several very large synagogues. His family gave its home to the new entity, B’nai Emunoh, while continuing to live above its long, thin sanctuary. I walked there every Sunday School morning of my childhood.
This was incredibly lucky because B’nai Emunoh grounded me in my faith. It’s where I became fully aware of Judaism as historic yet modern, small but mighty, something to be proud of and committed to. Its classes are where I found out what the Cave of Machpelah was, and is, and knew I had to go to Israel someday to see it in person. In its classes I read and discussed Sabbatai Zevi, found out who he was and how to pronounce his name, and absorbed enough about false Messiahs to carry me into and through a lifetime of truly understanding why there can be no such thing as a Jew who believes in the divinity of Jesus. It’s where I began to teach religious school immediately after my own confirmation, and developed my participatory love of Jewish education.
Classes in that little shul’s Sunday School were miniscule. I have a picture of our entire student body together, taken in my confirmation year; all together we weren’t much larger than any single grade in any one of those other not-so-far-away synagogue schools. Each little group met in one specified area of that long, thin sanctuary, kids huddling together on uncomfortable wooden chairs, teachers trying to keep their voices and those of their highly engaged students down so as not to interfere with the mighty learnings going on in all the other little huddles. But Confirmation Class was capital-letter special, because it got to meet away from the hubbub, upstairs in Mrs. Simon’s kitchen. And that’s where I learned everything I’ve ever needed to know about how to live a fulfilled and productive Jewish life: to keep on studying Judaism, because if you do, you will not only receive many personal benefits from it and never stray from it, you may also nurture realistic hopes of being able to enrich the lives of some others as you travel the path of your own life.
There were only a half-dozen of us that year in Mrs. Simon’s kitchen, but as with all the tiny confirmation classes before us, we left B’nai Emunoh knowing Judaism, doing Judaism, being Judaism.
My own son was married in B’nai Emunoh over 30 years ago. The shul, then already more than a half-century old, had a fire, after which it was rebuilt with improved facilities. But membership declined in the decades since. Just about this time last year, its membership was only 40 families, who decided, sadly enough, that it was time to shut its doors. Then in stepped Chabad, encouraging its young families to buy homes in that fringe neighborhood to assure continuity of the little shul’s always-vibrant Judaism. So now, the spiritual leader for half the congregation’s history has been able to step down from daily pulpit duties to reign as Rabbi Emeritus over a now-growing membership which, as B’nai Emunoh Chabad, is mingling the minhag of the past with its own modernity.
Mrs. Simon is long-gone herself, so classes don’t meet in her kitchen any more. But its lessons are still taught, every day, not just on Sundays, in the synagogue house that was her home. They are powerful lessons. They will endure forever.