My Last Day of Sunday School

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It was the last day of my career teaching religious school at Congregation Eretz Yisrael, but I didn’t know it yet.

Jewish schoolchildren with signs in Hebrew around their necks.

Credit: Creative Commons / surlygirl.

When I arrived at my classroom that morning, two Israeli teenagers, a young man and woman, were standing outside my room, looking uncertain. I recognized them as the shin-shinim: Israeli students who come to the United States after high school, delaying their entry into the Israel Defense Forces for a year. Under the aegis of the Jewish Agency for Israel, these young people act as cultural ambassadors, linking American Jewish communities to Israel.
I took a deep breath and forced a smile. “Are you coming to my class?” I asked.
The young man, strongly built with close cropped hair, nodded affirmatively. The young woman smiled hesitantly, flicking a hank of long, curly hair behind her. The shin-shinim come in pairs, invariably a young man and woman. I wondered for a second why this is, whether they are supposed to represent the possible procreation of the nation of Israel, before suppressing a sigh and inviting them in. I imagined my careful lesson plan flying out the window of our basement classroom.
This was the third, surprise version of today’s class. My first plan had been to conclude a brief, five-week unit about the founding of Israel and the resulting displacement of Palestinians with a visit from a different guest speaker. Raja, a Palestinian American friend of mine, was going to come talk about her family’s struggle to hold onto their ancestral lands in the West Bank. My students were excited about this visit, partly because they welcomed any departure from regular class time, and partly because of how engaged they were in our lessons. Particularly if they suspect that something has been deliberately kept from them, eleven year olds love to learn new stories. This one caught their interest, big time.
When I first started teaching Sunday school two years ago, two different shin-shinim came to my third grade class. They did a slide show about their lives in Israel: their houses, their friends, the horses the young woman liked to ride. The Israelis were charming, and the third graders were fascinated. The madricha, or teaching assistant, for that class, herself a high school senior, wondered about their impending military service. “Aren’t you scared?” she asked.
“Yes,” the young man answered. It hit me then that, although my students were trained to identify Israel as important to their Jewish identity from gan – kindergarten – on, they knew little about the situation there. Here we were, talking to two young people whose lives were about to be transformed by the experience of military conflict, who were very likely to make life or death decisions involving themselves and their young comrades-in-arms. But we had not spoken a syllable about that.
The shin-shinim do what I imagine the program was intended for: they create a special relationship in the religious school kids’ imaginations between their lives as American Jews and the nation of Israel. But they do this devoid of any broader context about contemporary Israel, about the Middle East, about the vexed history of this region to which our curriculum insistently connects our children. There are never any Palestinian or Muslim visitors on Sunday mornings; never any scheduled activities involving Yiddish or Ladino, the rich languages and cultures of thousands of years of Jewish diaspora.
The shin-shinim are a component of a pervasive but ill-explained Zionism that infuses the Reform Jewish approach to religious education but is never addressed directly. The kids pick up on it without really understanding what it means. Once, during a free art session, Rex, who loves to draw and is fascinated by Asian history, drew an intricate dragon battle scene. When he looked up at me and remembered where he was, he went back to his drawing and added an Israeli flag at the top of it.
Two years ago, when the temple Education Coordinator first asked me if I would consider teaching Sunday school, I said right away that I didn’t think I could hold up a pro-Israel political line in the classroom. I have long been critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and have since become involved in founding a local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
“Oh,” she responded. “That’s all right. We just want the kids to know about Israel, to have a special relationship with the place.”
I agreed to teach Sunday school at Congregation Eretz Yisrael because I believe that Jewish history, our hermeneutic tradition of wrestling with the Torah, as well as our social justice teachings of tikkun olam, or mending the world, have much to offer our children. And, since I believed then and now that American Jews do have a special relationship with Israel, mostly because of the ways we are called on to support militarism in the Middle East in the name of Jewish safety, I thought that my views about Israel could at least cohabit with those of the congregation.
When I started teaching at Eretz Yisrael, I didn’t fully appreciate the vast distance between our definitions of the relationship between American Jews and Israel. More importantly, I didn’t understand how vigorously the boundaries of what can and cannot be said about Israel are policed. The Education Coordinator’s blithe inclusiveness that day may have been motivated by her desperation to staff the religious school, or by a fatal misunderstanding of who I was and what I had said. Perhaps she assumed that, as a member of Congregation Eretz Yisrael, I shared its pervasive and loosely defined Zionism.
I was initially hired because of a glut of third graders: an unusually large religious school class for Congregation Eretz Yisrael. Because of this demographic phenomenon and because many of the parents requested that their kids continue to have me as their teacher, I was able to stay with my class from third through fifth grade. I got to watch them grow up a little and form friendships; we had inside jokes referencing things that had happened in our classroom over time; they all knew where I kept my shoebox of “stale candy” to use as a goad or reward.
Over the three years I taught at Congregation Eretz Yisrael, I continued to be struck by the combination of inchoate commitment to Israel as a central component of Jewish identity and almost complete lack of information about the contemporary situation or history of the place. This combination emanated from the formal education our students received as well as what they overheard or were told by the adults in their lives. Each year, religious school faculty and students were urged to march in the local Jewish community’s Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day – celebration. Congregation Eretz Yisrael held an “Israel Day” festival around the same time featuring music, food and dance. In the congregation as well as at home and at school, our students overheard talk, often anxious talk, about politics, about terrorism and national security.
This combination of commitment, anxiety, and very limited knowledge sometimes led my students to misunderstandings. For example: the Torah strand of the fifth grade curriculum focused on Nevi’im: the book of Prophets. As part of this curriculum, my madrich, Ezra, and I brought in examples of contemporary individuals that might be considered prophetic. One day, we talked about Malala Yousafzai: a young woman who, we agreed, professes a vision, suffered for her beliefs, and claims divine inspiration: all hallmarks of being a prophet. She reminded my students of some of the biblical prophets we were studying. During our discussion, Gabriel wondered about this example. He commented that, unlike prophets, Muslims “blow babies up on balconies,” and espouse violence.
I knew that Gabriel and his family attended services regularly, and that sometimes the rabbi’s sermons referenced recent events in the Middle East. Gabriel’s comment made me see how confusing the scraps of information an eleven year old might glean from this might be. Wrestling with this over the next couple of weeks, I decided to do some very basic teaching about the recent history of the state of Israel. I discussed my decision with the current Education Coordinator, Sue, and with the Rabbi.
I wanted to anchor my students’ understanding of Israel as a Jewish state, and provide some historic context for the existence of the modern nation. So our unit began with two weeks of learning activities around the founding of the state of Israel and the Shoah. Sue then made a presentation about her recent trip to Israel, where she had met with some peace activists.
In the fourth week, I introduced the term nakba: the Arabic word for disaster, which is how Palestinians refer to the founding of Israel in 1948. Using materials from the Nakba Education Project, I showed a brief video about historical ruins in Israel and the ways that memories of formerly Palestinian villages are erased and forgotten.
At the end of this class, I asked the students what they thought so far. Michaela, a contemplative girl who I know has visited Israel at least once with her family, raised her hand. When I called on her she said: “I wish that these stories you are telling us weren’t true. But if they are, I think we should know about them.”
That afternoon, after Sunday school, I sent the parents an email explaining what we had discussed in class. The email included a link to the video; I encouraged them to watch it with their kids.
Later that week, the mother of one of my students, the head of the congregation’s Israel Committee, wrote a long, emotional email addressed to the Rabbi, Sue, and me. She talked about how offended she was to hear “our beloved homeland” criticized by an instructor who was clearly informed by “Arab propaganda.”
This upset Sue, who asked that I desist from “pushing it” by talking further about the nakba. Even though I had discussed this unit with both her and the rabbi, as well as several of the parents of my students previous to embarking on it, Sue found new qualms after receiving the letter. She wondered why I had started the unit in 1948, instead of giving the students a firm background in “Jewish claims to the land.” I had done this intentionally, because I wanted my students to see how Israel both provided a homeland for Jewish refugees and caused Palestinian displacement and loss. The question of originary claims to the land seemed far less important to me than the historical trajectories that create the current conflict there.
I did not want to subject Raja to the emotional climate being created around my short unit. She and I agreed that she would visit my class another time. I knew that my students would be disappointed to miss this visit, so I tried to concoct an interesting alternative for the following class. Ezra found some Israeli-Palestinian musical collaborations to play in class. I prepared a slide show with some images of Jewish and Palestinian towns and dwellings, to help my students imagine what life looked like there. Armed with these not-as-good-as-Raja solutions, I was ready for class on Sunday.
I had managed to avoid visits from the shin-shinim all that year. I did not want to confuse my students with ill-explained and unbalanced Israel advocacy. But I let them into my classroom that day both because I suspected that Sue had sent them as a kind of rear-guard action, and because I was trying to split the difference between what I wanted to do with the unit on Israel and what I was realizing was possible in context of Congregation Eretz Yisrael.
I explained to the shin-shinim that we had been learning about the history of Israel, and asked if they could tell about what they learned in school about the founding of the modern nation. They talked about the Jewish diaspora prior to 1948 and about the military struggle Israel faced in its early days. After about half an hour, they left to talk to another classroom. I wrote some of the words they used on the board, and worked with my students on understanding what the shin-shinim had told us. Although the religious school year was set to end in a couple of weeks, I imagined that we were starting a conversation we could continue next year.
Later that week, Sue emailed me and asked if I could stop by the synagogue some time during the week, so we could discuss my teaching for next year. We arranged to meet on Tuesday afternoon, when I had to drop off my daughter for Hebrew school. When I pressed her for specifics about what she wanted to talk about, she repeated the same thing verbatim about next year. Clearly, I was in some kind of trouble.
Sure enough, Sue told me on Tuesday that there was no place for me in Sunday school at Eretz Yisrael next year. I asked why this was the case: I was not the last to be hired, and I am an experienced and popular instructor. But Sue gave no explanation, only advised me that I was not being fired. She said that there was a dip in enrollment for next year, that the decision was made for “programmatic reasons” and had absolutely nothing to do with my teaching about Israel, or with my teaching at all.
I had one more conversation with Sue, more than one with the rabbi, and several with members of the Eretz Yisrael community. The official position on my dismissal remained: that it was in no way political, and not even a firing. But at the end of the day, my departure meant there would be no one teaching about the history of Israel and the nakba at the religious school next year.
When I was about my students’ age, at a similar, Reform Jewish religious school, the class was assigned to read about the founding of the state of Israel. The next week, I came in with questions, as did the son of our rabbi. “It seems like the Arabs might have a point,” he said, mildly.
I have never forgotten how fast our teacher shut us both down. It was clear that she would tolerate only one response to the subject. That incident affected me; it helped me see that there was a world outside the one being narrated to me in Sunday school. I recalled this incident when I was working on the unit for my class, hoping that I could provide my students with similar perspective.
After I was fired, one Sunday of religious school remained. The last day of religious school always concludes with a congregation-wide picnic; the time before that is festive and low on educational content. I told my students that I was not going to be returning to teach there the following year. I asked them to think a little bit about the past three years, and tell me what their favorite thing they learned was.
The students recalled the “creepy puppet video” relating the story of Purim that I had found on YouTube. We talked about how we had given the Prophet Ezekiel a “Z: no one should hear about this until after they are 40” rating because of how terrifying his prophecies were. Brandon, an antic and intelligent boy, said that before we talked about Israel he didn’t know that the nation had a history outside of the Bible. Then Gabriel raised his hand and suggested that since I wasn’t going to be needing it anymore, we should eat all the stale candy. So we did.
Raja told me that she cried all night after I told her I had been fired or “not hired back.” She said it made her realize how far we have to go to making peace between Jews – American Jews – and Palestinians.
I was shaken, too. The precarious balancing act between my increasing engagement in Palestine solidarity work and my commitment to Congregation Eretz Yisrael was directly challenged by my dismissal from Sunday school, whatever the official cause and term.
I continue to try to straddle these contradictory impulses; I am still a member of the congregation, and will be at least until my youngest child is bat mitzvah in a year and a half. I am also still co-coordinator of our local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. I try to insist that this contradictory stance is and should be possible.
But something has broken inside me, and it is harder for me to believe that these is a place for me and people like me in congregations like Eretz Yisrael. I argued strenuously all spring to get my teaching job back. In July, I was rewarded with a provisional offer to teach in the evening teen education program, with the understanding that I would not take up the issue of Israel again. I turned it down.
Maybe, like it did for Raja, my last day of Sunday school made me realize the long way that we have to travel toward peace in the Middle East, and even toward open dialogue in the American Jewish community. The existence of this chasm contradicts everything that I think is best in Judaism: the way we are impelled to wrestle with the Torah, rather than receiving it as a given truth; the way that identifying with those most oppressed has been central to our history. I think of how the stories of the prophets spoke to my fifth-grade class about the importance of finding the truth and of working for justice.