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l'Dor Va Dor-Religious Education at BHA

09/27/2021 03:09:27 PM


Anna Marcus

Fall has officially begun, children have returned to school, and in the time-honored tradition, Jewish kids everywhere are starting up their religious education and preparing for their B-Mitzvahs.* As we continue to explore the rich history of Beacon Hebrew Alliance and Jewish life in Beacon over the past 100 years, this month we are going to examine how the traditions and learnings have been passed down over the generations to BHA’s youngest members.

 A group of children, dressed in white togas and holding cut out shields, are lined up along a wall in height order. They are all singing and a teacher is holding a cue card in front of them with lines in transliterated Hebrew. There are tiled translucent windows behind them and a large wooden plaque with branches coming up lined with brass leaves.

Children from BHA’s Hebrew school acting out the Hanukkah story, December 22, 1997, photo courtesy of Ellen Pearson Gersh

Early Religious School at BHA

We are missing many records about the religious school at BHA in the early years. According to the board minutes from July 1922-January 1923, the board elected Rabbi Levine (no first name provided) in November 1922, as the “first Beacon rabbi,” at the rate of $15 per week. In a “History of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance” written by long-time members Tillie Shapiro and Sadie Jane Cahn in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the synagogue in 1996, they wrote: “Rabbi Levine … also served as the Hebrew school teacher and the shochet.” This was before the synagogue was built, and services were held in a variety of halls and homes in Beacon. 

Type-written notes on an old piece of paper say: Rabbi Levine elected. (First Beacon rabbi.) $15 per week. November 21, 1922. Committee of Misters Taub, Levy to see Mr. Glick about lot for synagogue.
Board minutes from Jan 1923 noting the election of Rabbi Levine, the first rabbi of Beacon Hebrew Alliance on November 21, 1922


An old grainy black and white photograph of a boy around 13 years old, wearing a black suit jacket with a white collared shirt, a striped tie, and a white handkerchief folded  in his breast pocket. He is also wearing dark knickerbocker shorts, dark socks and shiny dark leather shoes. The portrait was taken in a photography studio with blurry stained glass window shapes in the background. He is smiling slightly into the camera and his short hair is parted to the side
Harold Ginsberg as a young man, around the time of his Bar Mitzvah at Beacon Hebrew Alliance, c. 1943, photo courtesy of Dr. Harold Ginsber

The oldest first person account we have of a B-Mitzvah at BHA is from Dr. Harold Ginsberg, who was born in Beacon in December 1930, and who had his Bar Mitzvah at BHA in 1943. Dr. Ginsberg did not go to Hebrew School at BHA. He was raised by his maternal grandparents in Bayonne, New Jersey where he attended religious school, but when it came time for his Bar Mitzvah, his father Benjamin Ginsberg desired it to be in Beacon at Beacon Hebrew Alliance where his grandparents Max and Bertha Ginsberg had been founding members. Dr. Ginsberg doesn’t remember much about his Bar Mitzvah because he didn’t know the rabbi or the Jewish community at BHA very well at the time. Later when he moved back to Beacon in the late 1950’s, he became very active in the synagogue with his wife Phyllis and their three children attended the Hebrew school and were all B-Mitzvahed at BHA.

The next account we have is from Albert Green, who was born in 1941 and grew up in Beacon going to BHA. His grandfather Abraham Lewis was a founding member of BHA, and Albert remembers going to BHA with him frequently. “There was always a minyan here every Saturday. I always went with my grandfather. We always went to shul every holiday. We couldn’t go to public school [during the holidays], even for Passover … And I really remember sukkahs very very vividly … My grandfather was very religious, and he passed it on to me.”

In preparation for his Bar Mitzvah in 1953, Albert recalls getting caught playing hooky: “My mother is driving down Verplanck Avenue and looks at the field, Hammon field, and sees a familiar figure who isn’t supposed to be there. He is supposed to be at his Bar Mitzvah lesson with Rabbi [Joseph] Brandeis … My mother calls the rabbi, and the rabbi says, ‘Oh he called and said he wasn’t feeling well, he wasn’t coming today.’ And I got caught playing baseball instead of going to my Bar Mitzvah lesson.”


Religious School at BHA in the 1960s and 1970s

Starting in the 1960s the religious school at BHA really grew. We have many oral history accounts of people who attended the religious school and had their B-Mitzvahs at BHA during this time. It is also when girls were allowed to have Bat Mitzvahs at BHA (although they were not full Torah services like the boys).

A black and white photo of a man wearing a black suit and tie, with a mustache and dark framed glasses, and a dark kippah on his head is singing a blessing behind a Hanukkah menorah on a table. The candles in the menorah are being lit by a small boy wearing a kippah. Four other boys flank the man and the boy lighting the candles. They are all wearing kippahs and singing while reading the blessing from papers in their hands.
Rabbi Leon Wengrovsky leads a Hanukkah blessing with boys from BHA’s Talmud Torah class (David Morgenstern is the tall boy second from the left, the other boys are unknown), c. 1964, photo courtesy of Karen Moses.

The religious education consisted of two programs - Sunday School and Talmud Torah. The Sunday School was for younger children, and was taught on Sunday mornings by women from the Sisterhood, primarily Lilian Etkins and Tillie Shapiro. The curriculum consisted of bible stories, learning about the holidays and Israel, and doing craft projects. Talmud Torah was for the older children who were preparing for their B-Mitzvahs. These lessons took place two days a week in the afternoons after school, and were focused on learning the prayers in Hebrew. They were taught by the rabbi of the shul, primarily Rabbi Leon Wengrovsky in the 1960s, and Rabbi Lieberman in the early 70s.

For several years, there were gaps in rabbis at BHA, and B’nai Mitzvah students had to find their own mentors in the community. Dr. Ginsberg recalls that there wasn’t a rabbi in place when his children were ready to be B-Mitzvahed, so he arranged for them to study with Israel Lewittes, an elder in the community who was highly respected and often led Saturday services. His son Stuart Ginsberg shared his memories of learning from Mr. Lewittes: “I would go over to his house, after he got done with work … it would be in the early evening ... and back then your haftorah was on a record. So he would put on the record and we would generally memorize it. I didn’t do it by knowing the trope. It was really purely memorization of both the words and the tune. I still remember the first line!”

A short older man in a suit and tie stands between a bride in white and a groom in a white suit jacket. They are all on a bimah with an ark behind them that has a silver, shiny curtain with a crown embroidered on it. A caption on the photo says: Grandpa Siegel … 1968.
Hyman Siegel standing with a bride and groom on a bimah (synagogue unknown), 1968, photo courtesy of Ellen Pear

Hyman Siegel was another highly religious and educated member who acted as a mentor and teacher for B’nai Mitzvah students around that time. Beth Pearson recalls him teaching her Hebrew: “There was no rabbi at the synagogue when I was Bat Mitzvahed [in 1970], and I studied with Hyman Siegel, the father-in-law of our aunt. He lived on Davis Street, right behind Schenck. I would walk over there. He was a tailor by trade, but he was really one of those, just the classic image of the tailor-scholar. His apartment was just lined with books and papers all over the place … He was a very big proponent, even though he was from the old school, of Sephardi Hebrew, and not the old Ashkenazi with the ‘sah’ and the ‘ah’. He taught me the modern Hebrew… on his little couch in his dusty, dingy apartment with all the books… He did my Bat Mitzvah on the Friday night.”

Beth’s sister, BHA Cantor Ellen Pearson Gersh adds: “What a sweet man. He did so much for the synagogue … I remember one time my dad was driving me to Hebrew School and Hyman Siegel’s on the roof. We all pull up, all the kids. I was thinking maybe he would fiddle, and be the fiddler on the roof… but he’s on the roof and saying ‘ve’a hav’ta la re a’cha  ka mo’cha!’ Love your neighbor as yourself! So here he is, repairing the roof, and he’s teaching us.”


Rebirth of the Religious School in the 1980s and 90s and the Tots Program

In the late 70s and early 80s, BHA shrank down to its smallest size, and the Hebrew school stopped running with so few children in the congregation. Then in 1981, it was reactivated, and former BHA board president Betsy Solomon became the sole teacher. She recalls: “At the time, BHA had been subsidizing the kids to go to the community Hebrew School in Poughkeepsie. Since we had something like four to six children, we basically opened a one-room school house.” Then in 1987, when Betsy got a full time teaching position, she left and the Hebrew school at BHA went on hiatus again. It wasn’t brought back until 1994 when Bruce Waxman was the board president. 

Bruce adds “We had a core membership of maybe 55 families. We did have our own Hebrew School, which was very small, but then we joined the … community Hebrew School … so basically all the synagogues were in one Hebrew School, but we had different branches … one in Poughkeepsie and one in Beacon … I wasn’t happy, and some of the board members weren’t happy either because of the caliber of the teaching in the Hebrew School. I just felt that they weren’t up to par, that the kids weren’t learning anything … I proposed to the board that we wanted our own Hebrew School. This was the origination of Ellen [Pearson] Gersh being involved … because I wanted Ellen to run the Hebrew School.”

Bruce felt that bringing back the Hebrew School would attract more families to join BHA, and he was right. He recalls the exact night that he convinced enough Board members to approve the measure, “After I had finally convinced enough board members, I remember going down to my desk, calling up Ellen Gersh, and saying, ‘Ellen this is yours, God Bless You’ and ‘run with it.’ She did a fantastic job, it started to take off like crazy… We literally went up … from 55 members to 130-145 members.” Betsy adds, “Once the school was reactivated [in 1994] … more people moved into the area and they had children. Vickie Grillot ran the Tots Program, which was once a month, and that brought children in. I think it was a matter of having a program and that once there was a program, people came out of the woodwork.”

A color photo of children rolling dough on a table with a large ball of dough in the center. A woman stands behind one of the small children, helping them to roll it out. Many children stand near her, waiting their turn at the activity. An older girl in a red velvet jacket and skirt stands to the right of the woman, and is looking on, her dough is rolled out in front of her.
Vickie Grillot leads the tots in making sufganiyot (jelly donuts) for Hanukkah. BHA member Joan Pirie stands behind in a blue dress, December 1997, photo courtesy of Ellen Pearson Gersh

The Tots Program was for very young, preschool-aged children. At first parents took turns preparing lessons for the group once a month on Sunday mornings, and eventually Vickie Grillot, one of the parents, became the lead teacher, and prepared all the lessons. The Tots program became an entry point for young children to Jewish culture and customs and led into the Sunday school, then the Talmud Torah, and culminated in B-mitzvahs for many of the children at that time.

An echo of the Tots program exists today as the BHA Preschool, led by BHA member Ilana Friedman, which is a progressive, garden-based Jewish community for children 2-4 that meets four days per week.


Reimagining Religious School in the 2010s as a Jewish Journey

 A woman with glasses and dark, salt and pepper locked hair, pulled back in a ponytail, sits holding a green tray with two large golden braided loaves of challah bread on it. Two young girls, one with long dark hair and one with curly blond hair stand next to her smiling with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Another young girl stands behind them to the left in a brown dress. They are outside on a brick terrace with some green grass.
BHA teacher Julia Alexander sits with children from her grades K-1 Hebrew school class and shows off the challah bread they baked together, c. 2016

In recent times, with the hiring of Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek in 2010 and the creation of a permanent Education Director position at BHA in 2014, the religious school at BHA went through another radical transformation, the result of which was the creation of a new curriculum called Masa, meaning Jewish Journeys. In Masa, the path is emphasized more than the destination. Children are given multiple entry points into the curriculum, and choice about how they engage with the material. In addition to the age-based classes on Sunday mornings which have mindfulness lessons and Hebrew-through-movement as well as traditional teachings, older children could choose electives during the week such as cooking classes, singing with Cantor Ellen, discussion groups, or leading mini Minyans with the youngest children on Friday afternoons.

With the advent of COVID, the Masa curriculum was reimagined again. Virtual offerings included one-on-one Hebrew lessons over Zoom, independent projects, and weekly elective classes were offered. The program also expanded to include outdoor and nature-based classes. For the first time, families from outside of the area could participate using virtual technology, and we had students from across the country tuning in.


An Intergenerational Dialogue

A gallery view of a Zoom video chat room with 15 people shown in little boxes. Everyone is smiling or laughing in their pictures. Two people have their cameras turned off.

A screen shot of BHA’s 6-7th grade Masa students and teachers interviewing adults who attended BHA as students in the early 1970s. Shown left to right - Top row: Cantor Ellen Pearson Gersh, BHA Centennial committee chair Anna Marcus, Illene Klein, Ann Gail Klein; Second row: Ed Kaplan, Debbie Kaplan, Jeffrey Klein, David Kaplan; Third row: BHA teacher Jonathan Billig, Reya, Asha, Story; Bottom row: Henry, Seth’s screen picture, Laura (not shown), May 23, 2021

On May 23, 2021, the Masa class of Jonathan Billig and Cantor Ellen Pearson Gersh had the honor of interviewing six adults over Zoom who attended BHA’s Hebrew school in the early 1970s along with Cantor Ellen. The Masa students each prepared a question to ask the adults, and in the end, they had a very fruitful dialogue comparing the way learning happened at BHA fifty years ago, to how it is done today. The adults were two sets of siblings: Anne Gail Klein, Ilene Klein, and Jeff Klein; and Ed Kaplan, David Kaplan, and Debbie Kaplan. The Masa students, in grades 6-7 were: Seth, Asha, Reya, Story, Henry, and Laura.

Below is an excerpt from their conversation.

Henry: What were some of the customs and fun things you remember about BHA and some fun things you liked about being in Hebrew School?

Illene Klein: My favorite part was the Purim parties and the Hanukkah parties. I thought that they did a really good job. We always had really cool costumes, and it was always really festive.

Ed Kaplan: We had a few different rabbis over the years. We had one, Rabbi Lieberman, he was a heavy guy, and before class started, he would send somebody outside, down the stairs and over towards the Shell station, and across the street was a store called Fernbrook, which was a candy store… and we would have to buy a few treats for everyone in the class, and that’s how we started… I don’t know if that was a custom, but that was what we did.

Debbie Kaplan: That was the most fun part. The rest of it we couldn’t stand!

Asha: Were there any activities that were specifically boring or tedious?

Ed Kaplan: The idea of Hebrew School at that time wasn’t really Hebrew, it was more Prayer school … The Rabbi would sit in the front and say, “paragraph one, page forty-two, you (pointing), then you, then you, then you,” “paragraph two, you, then you, then you”. Then we would just listen to each other drone out a paragraph from the siddur, and that was pretty much what we did.

Reya: What changes would you like to see at BHA, Jewish life, and the world?

David Kaplan: You guys are lucky, because you're at BHA which has a really long history of families in the community … It's hard to maintain your own individuality, and your Jewishness let's say, when you grow up in a country like the U.S. that is a majority not Jewish. Even though you guys are young, the things that you’re learning now, the Hebrew, and the prayers, and the things that are unique to the Jewish people, are important. We had that cohesion, because we were a small group. With Ellen, Ann Gail, Illene, and Jeffrey, we were the same families all the time, and it helped us to learn the things we needed to learn, and to maintain them when we got older…

Ann Gail Klein: And really deepen those relationships you have with each other... That’s really important. Debbie and Ellen and I did a lot of things together. We were in youth groups together, we went to camps together, and we went to Israel together. We have a lot of close history. Ellen and I haven't spoken since you did the service for my mother, and that was quite a few years ago... but we can just pick up right where we left off. That’s what a true bond is. We got that through the Beacon Hebrew Alliance.

Debbie Kaplan: How did you get the name Masa?

Ellen Pearson Gersh: We wanted to take the word “school” out of the equation ... Masa is a journey, journey through Judaism … Living Judaism, doing Judaism. It’s multi-layered learning, not just formal learning.

Story: The Hebrew school now is more like a journey. We learn not only about the Jewish holidays or customs that we do, but we’re also learning meditation practices and mindfulness of our Jewish world, and really thinking deeply about what the stories are really about.

Henry: Now we learn about the holidays, but we aren't really forced to believe anything. We can develop our own thoughts, and Jewish identities on our own. There are a bunch of people at BHA that can help us develop our own Jewish identities, and think about what we believe in.

David Kaplan: That’s a good point Henry. A lot of the prayers in the Jewish prayer book, they start with the phrase "Our G-d, and the G-d of our fathers." You have to think about that. What does that really mean? ... So your parents and our parents, they had a certain belief system. That was their G-d, the G-d of our fathers... But when you say “our G-d,” that is your own personal connection. You have to form that for yourself. So as you are learning, you have to take in the words, and come to your own understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

Asha: I have this idea that when you're learning Hebrew it takes a few steps: first you have to learn the aleph bet, and learn all the things you need to actually read Hebrew and speak it, then you need to learn the words, and memorize what they mean, then you have to make personal connections to them, and associate them with other things. Have more of a personal connection to the words. It's not just a word that's there.

Jonathan Billig: See look. Jewish community in beautiful evolution. The role that I play … as the students have so beautifully demonstrated, is we teach some of the letters, we teach some important things, but we really let the students process their journeys.


Do you have photos or other memorabilia that relate to BHA’s story? If so, please fill out this quick google form to let us know what you have. We will reach out to you to arrange to scan your photos or collect your artifacts. BHA’s Centennial programs are made possible, in part, with funding from the Sadie Jane Effron Cahn Beacon Hebrew Alliance Endowment of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley.

* When referring to Bar or Bat Mitzvahs that are not specific to an individual, we are using the gender neutral and gender inclusive term: B-Mitzvah.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784