The holiday of Simchat Torah is most notable for the hakafah – where the congregation “parades” the Torah around the synagogue 7 times. “Parade” here should be understood as “everyone singing and dancing in no particular organized manner while one or more people carry 30-60 pound scrolls and attempt not to trip over small children”. Despite that description, it’s actually a lot of fun. As I’ve mentioned previously, Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf once said: ““For Jewish kids whose parents only take them to synagogue twice a year, I would like to cast a vote in favor of those two days being Purim and Simchat Torah, not Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
But the high point for me came right before the big song and dance number. Just before the ark is opened, many congregations participate in what I can only describe as a prayer version of “button button, who’s got the button.” A series of blessing “soundbites” – single lines from various prayers – are sung by various individuals around the room, and then rest of congregation sings the same line back. There’s no pre-arranged selection of readers. People just shout it out when the mood strikes.
So imagine my surprise when, in the middle of listening to our skilled congregants, I heard a young voice call out one of the lines. There was a small pause of surprise, and then the congregation responded. It was only halfway through this that I realized the singer was my 9 year old son. My wife was beaming, as were some of the people around me. “Who’s been teaching this kid?!?” I joked out loud, to nobody in particular. A minute later, near the end of the read-and-response cycle, he piped up again. Confident and proud, he sang a phrase I had never heard before in a tune that was unique to this particular day in the Jewish calendar.
So who’s been teaching this kid? These folks.
Just one year ago my two youngest kids started at a Jewish day school program, entering kindergarten and the second grade with little more than public school education and a few sporadic visits to Junior Congregation during Shabbat morning services. In one short year, they have gained confidence, experience and fluency in both Judaics and his general studies. My older son takes every opportunity to lead tefillah (prayer) both in and out of school. On his way down to Junior Congregation now, more often than not I hear him asking “Can I be the Rabbi this week?”. Each week at oneg, as the “old war horses of the shul” lead the the kiddush blessings, you will find my son standing along side them, cup of grape juice in hand, belting out “V’shamru”.
Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that Jews build cathedrals in time where other religions build cathedrals in space. To that I would like to add that Jewish day school programs nurture souls who will feel at home in their Judaism, not just in a particular synagogue, community or movement.