The Citizenship of the Heart

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:2 NJPS)

The buzz of activity on the lower floor of the synagogue echoed that occurring amidst the trees that enveloped Congregation Beth Adam’s Loveland address with their summertime susurrus. As the local fauna—insect, avian, and otherwise—took advantage of sunlight stretched to its annual peak to build their nests and fill their hives in preparation for the inevitable slip into shorter days and colder weather, so their human counterparts applied themselves in joyful industry to a task with an autumn deadline. The members of Cincinnati’s own humanist congregation had a school to build, and while the June and July days were long, the weeks until the first students were to arrive for what promised to be a wholly different sort of Jewish educational experience were beginning to look awfully short.

On that Sunday morning, as on several other Sunday mornings throughout my time as a fellow, volunteers representing all segments of Beth Adam’s membership showed up. Our sleeves were rolled up. Bag after huge, contractor-size trash bag was filled up with the accumulated detritus of decades, from abandoned craft projects to dried-up markers to broken toys. So many pairs of hands came together on those days to pick up, clean up, and spruce up the religious school. So many eyes looked beyond the tired classrooms that had been there and the daunting mess of renovation in progress to the vision of what we might build together.

We were building Our Village.

Founding Rabbi Robert Barr, in keeping with his long career of always seeking to create and facilitate Jewish experiences that call on the best of what our human reason might discover, has demonstrated his devotion to taking bold steps, such as moving to radically restructure the religious school. Rabbi David Burstein’s vision for compassionate, experiential, values-based Jewish education found fertile soil at Congregation Beth Adam, which is known for its members’ commitment to inquiry and open-mindedness in all facets of the quest to explore what it means to be human and to be Jewish.

On quieter days, when the bustle of loving volunteer labor ebbed as people dispersed to their workweek occupations, I listened as Rabbi Burstein described the space—both mental and physical—he hoped we could construct. The colors on the walls, the cozy and inviting furnishings, the art at eye level for the littlest learners, even the soft lighting and pleasant scents all figured into the concept. Every sense would have a role to play in an environment designed to immerse one in a setting rich with Jewish meaning.

Not only was I there to witness the incredible transformation of serviceable-but-dull classrooms into inspiring spaces devoted to wellness, creativity, art, and storytelling, but I had the exciting opportunity to try my hand at curriculum development in this unabashedly innovative environment. One of my projects involved reimagining a course on decision making for b’nai mitzvah students, who are on the cusp of many more decisions both in and out of the synagogue context—and higher-stakes ones, at that—than they have likely faced before. By showing them a model on which to structure their thought process, giving them tools to help them with tricky situations, and pointing out potential pitfalls that could trip them up along the way, I hope we will be able to give these kids confidence in their ability to take on the challenges of burgeoning Jewish adulthood.

Every single person who has stepped up along the way to help schlep, clean, sort, organize, paint, and build is a citizen of Our Village, as is every person who steps through the doors to learn and to teach. I was reminded of parashat Terumah, which lists the glittering variety of gifts that the Israelites might bring to build in the desert a sanctuary for the divine to dwell among them. I was distinctly privileged this summer to witness so many volunteers whose hearts so moved them to join in the creation of a place to nurture that most precious of gifts: the next generation.

Annalisa Stryer, a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, served as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow assisting with curriculum development at Our Village, Congregation Beth Adam’s innovative new religious school program.

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