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My Last Day at Sunday School (JQuest): A Few Final Thoughts

This coming Sunday, May 15, 2022, will be my final day at JQuest. JQuest this year has another week but because of a family event tied to the KI Spring Celebration and two weddings, May 15 will be my last day. I will be in the lobby to say goodbye and even take pictures if you would like a memento.

I probably started attending Sunday School in the fall of 1959. I was in Kindergarten at Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, Maryland. That was 63 years ago. Since then, I have probably attended Sunday School more than 1,500 times and went every year except the year I was attending rabbinic school in Jerusalem. I always enjoyed Sunday School and most years, received a Perfect Attendance Pin (remember Hebrew School pins?)! Around third grade, I joined the Safety Patrol. Our school was so big, we needed a Safety Patrol for dismissal. I rose to the rank of Lieutenant (Blue Badge) and then Captain (Red Badge).

My favorite teacher was Mrs. Klotzman in Second Grade. She was an old fashion teacher and a believer in Classical Reform Judaism. According to family lore, she encouraged me to become a rabbi. All I can remember is that I admired her devotion to our faith and the unique blend of dignity, seriousness and fun she brought to the classroom. From her example, I realized (and still believe) that the key to a good Jewish education is a great teacher. Curricula come and go. Educational fads come and go. But a good teacher can make a permanent mark on a child and she did!

I had a few bad teachers, too. One was very mean. He carried a yardstick in his left hand and would hit a desk hard if we misbehaved. I was afraid of him but fear never motivated me to pay attention or practice my Hebrew. Again, I learned that a good teacher makes all the difference and so does a bad one. During those years, our school switched from Ashkenazic to Sephardic Hebrew. It was so confusing. All the “oys” and “aws” were officially removed. Even God’s name was changed. I never did get it quite right and still speak a kind of Ashkefardic Hebrew! More importantly, I learned to love Hebrew and studied it in College, Rabbinic School and ever since. I cannot speak Hebrew like an Israeli, but I am part of that tiny percentage of American Jews who has a basic fluency in Hebrew. Along with the teaching of kindness (Hesed), I believe Hebrew instruction is one of the two main pillars of Jewish education.

My childhood Sunday School had a beautiful library. We used it regularly and it also served as a study hall for “regular school.” Sitting with my friends and mixing schoolwork and socializing were among my favorite activities. I still believe a synagogue library is important to learning and to community building. At KI, we are very lucky to have a thriving, endowed synagogue library. The “other” activity at Sunday School was Youth Group. My Youth Group was part of MAFTY (Maryland Federation of Temple Youth). Our Director was a mom of one of the other kids, Mrs. Roz Keane. Junior Youth Group (Middle School) was particularly fun. Our Youth Group was TOSTY (Temple Oheb Shalom Temple Youth). I went on sleep away conclaves (to Silver Springs, Md) and other special events, mostly at Mrs. Keane’s home. It was a good time and I had good friends (from other schools).

During my college years at Franklin and Marshall (1972-1975), I was a teacher at the local Reform synagogue, “Gates of Heaven.” At first, the rabbi there did not like me because I had the kids sing songs like “Feeling Groovy” to start our weekly assembly. He eventually came around and realized it was necessary to warm up spiritually before the official prayers and songs of the day started. I did not have a car at the time, so one of my professor’s wives who was also a teacher, drove us on Sunday mornings. There were a few Sundays on which I was totally sleep deprived from the night before but with Mrs. Pinsker’s encouragement and some real coffee, I persevered. The experience only strengthened my resolve to go on to rabbinic school.

During my third year of rabbinic school to ordination, I served as a student rabbi at Temple Beth Boruk in Richmond, IN halfway between Indianapolis and Dayton. I still hear from some of those students today. One went on to be President of a Conservative synagogue. Another student became a lawyer and an expert in archival law (and a sort of advisor to me in that area) and still others just stayed in touch with me. How satisfying! My very first Bar Mitzvah student later died in a fire at a frat party while away at college. I will never forget how deep that grief was and it stays with me every time I work with a family who has suffered a loss.

As a rabbinic student, I taught Sunday School at the Wise Center in Cincinnati. Our Director was Rabbi Joel Wittstein. He was a master teacher and deeply committed to values clarification, the educational trend at that time. He taught me the value of good lesson planning and the priority of teaching ethics. I probably learned more about Jewish teacher education from his example than from any class I look on the same. From him, I also learned the need to have a visionary school director.

In Binghamton, NY, Temple Concord’s school experienced exponential growth during our years there, 1990 to 2001. At the same time, I was a professor at SUNY Binghamton. At Temple Concord, I worked with an Israeli Religious School Director, Orly Shoer, who had trained in a Teacher’s College in Israel. The Binghamton School met on Saturdays and ended with Saturday morning services, which were “standing room only.” Hebrew instruction was a high priority and Confirmation at Concord was a breeze as most of the students were children of professors and we had wonderful, probing conversations. To this day, the Temple Concord School remains my model of excellence in supplemental Jewish education.

During the last 21 years, I have worked in tandem with the Directors and teachers at KI, both Hebrew School (JQuest and Quest Noar) and Preschool. My unique partnership here has been with my wife, Liz, who not only headed up the music program but ran a children’s choir, Shir Joy, that has galvanized our religious school’s sense of community, taught the kids their prayers and fortified their Hebrew education. We have been an educational team for over 40 years and Shir Joy was among the most effective learning experiences I have ever witnessed in supplemental Jewish education. From Rabbi Stacy Rigler, I learned the importance of project based learning and the value of informal Jewish education even in a more formal educational structure like Sunday School.

I leave our program in the good hands of Deb Rosen, a forty-year veteran of the KI education program. During the last year, she has overcome the centrifugal forces of Covid, learned to incorporate new educational technologies and reestablished a sense of community in our school. She has also restored Israel education and Hebrew instruction to a level I happen to like and I wish her well in the future. I also want to thank Cantor Amy Levy for heading our Bnai Mitzvah program for many years and turning the experience into something warm, positive, and memorable for our students and their families. I always love leading a Bnai Mitzvah service with Cantor Levy!

I have been going to Sunday school for 63 years now. I only have 3 hours left! It is a bittersweet moment, as I need to retire as a matter of self-care. Meanwhile, I leave with the satisfaction that I have played a role in the Jewish identity development of several generations of Jewish students and even some of their children. The tradition goes on from “generation to generation.” I am proud to have been a link in the chain of tradition, which links Abraham and Sarah to our generation and our children and grandchildren’s generations. See you on Sunday!

Shabbat Shalom and L’hitraot!

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.