What I Learned from U-bet Chocolate Syrup

by Rebecca Hirschwerk – Director of Congregational Education

For three weeks this summer, the giggle patch arrived at RSNS every Tuesday at 5:00pm on the dot. In one arm they carried a doll and in the other a book. This was the meeting of the American Girl Book Club where each week we “discussed” the life of Rebecca Rubin-a young Jewish girl from 1914, living on the Lower East Side who navigates, in true Reconstructing Judaism fashion, living in two civilizations: her Jewish life, full of history, tradition, and family, and her secular one-school, friendships, and modern experiences.  Rebecca Rubin is one of a series of Historical American Girl Dolls,  each accompanied by a set of books exploring history, assimilation, and the joys and challenges of growing up shared by all of us no matter time or place. I still fondly remember bringing my daughter to explore these books here with Rabbi Jodie many (many!) years ago.

As we unpacked the Yiddish words from the book, we shared things that we schlep on a daily basis, learned what each of us calls our own bubbes, and compared our favorite things to nosh on. When we learned that Rebecca’s uncle had changed his name from Moyshe Shereshevesky to Max Shepardit opened up a moment to reflect on the names in our own family tapestries including how we each received our particular names. Gluing onto our poster a picture of a Russian samovar that Rebecca’s relatives brought with them on their journey to America, we thought of the sacred objects in our own families. When Rebecca drummed up the courage to sing in front of her class, we shared upcoming moments in our lives that will require similar grit and resolve. Reading about Rebecca’s struggles in school creating Christmas decorations became a moment of discovery and connection between our Jewish and Interfaith participants. And trying potato latkes (some of us for the first time!) and comparing two different recipes for making chocolate egg creams (don’t worry, they EACH had U-bet!) made the book, our shared history, and traditions come alive.

And as we were drawing, talking, questioning, playing, and eating, it struck me that what we did in that small, intimate, and exuberant club can serve as a model for how we think about education at RSNS – and not just for our youngest members- but for everyone. A vision for learning that is intergenerational, experiential, multi-sensory, and above all, learner-centered. The first question we ask in planning educational experiences at RSNS is, “How does this help strengthen our sense of belonging to each other, to RSNS, and to the Jewish people?”  Our book club reached these goals by posing questions to each other, by accessing the book through multiple lenses, and by connecting our own sense of self to Rebecca’s evolving identity as a Jew and as an American. It doesn’t get more Reconstructionist than that!

I think about some of the successes of the past year to see how they answered our essential question of belonging. In Better Together, pairing our senior members with high school students, we baked black and white cookies while sharing our own favorite desserts, fun food memories, and family recipes. (Let me know if you want to join!)  In our Small Group initiative, members gather in intimate settings to build community through a shared exploration of big topics that we can all relate to home, legacy, recharging the soul, and community. Our Synagogue School halls were physically transformed this spring into our people’s historic journey out of Egypt, across the Sea, and into freedom. Each experience brought us closer together, built our congregational community, and deepened the bonds between the Jewish people’s past, present, and future.

And while my adorable giggle patch is over for now, our posters remind me of what meaning-making can look like-colorful, eclectic, full, textural, and yes, sometimes a little messy. And I am here for all of it – especially if U-bet is involved! I look forward to another year of making meaning, building connections, and nurturing belonging with each and every one of you.

Rebecca Hirschwerk