Outreach group’s thriving one-day-a-week Hebrew school splitting a L.I. community
fighting to hold onto Jews.
Rarely has a single day — one day less of Hebrew school instruction a week, to be exact — so polarized a Jewish community. But in the desperate fight for Jewish souls playing out in the Long Island town of Oceanside, Chabad of Oceanside’s one-day-a-week Hebrew school, now in its 10th year and drawing a big crowd of students, is tearing the community apart, the town’s leaders suggest.
Charges are flying. Conservative and Reform rabbis say Chabad is undercutting educational standards and giving bar and bat mitzvahs to youngsters with precious little Jewish training. Also, they claim, Chabad is running a Hebrew school as a competitive business and destroying a sense of community in Oceanside.
Chabad leaders counter that their school — which now has 170 students — is catering to the needs of unaffiliated families and is more attuned to the realities of the modern Jewish family than dues-heavy, building-fund-laden synagogues. And, they argue, its kids are receiving a “positive Jewish experience,” one “infused with love.”
Even the head of the New York Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Charles Klein, a more-or-less neutral arbiter, has weighed in: Chabad’s appeal, he has found, is to Jews “who for the most part are looking for less, not more. ... Chabad is creating a mindset that undermines the synagogue Hebrew school.”
Chabad’s presence, and success, in Oceanside is taking place as demographics are shifting on Long Island’s South Shore. Jews have left the area in droves, so the fight for those who remain — many of them unaffiliated and often not ready for an intense Jewish commitment — is a high-stakes one.
Ten years ago, when Chabad set up shop in a private home on Carrel Boulevard in Oceanside, the Reform synagogue, Temple Avodah, ran a two-day-a-week Hebrew school. So did the Conservative Oceanside Jewish Center. As Chabad began to attract more unaffiliated families for whom a one-day-a-week Hebrew school — at a bargain-basement price of $600 a year and no synagogue dues — better meshed with their lifestyles, the Reform temple felt the pressure. Three years ago, Temple Avodah cut back to one day, trimming instruction time from three hours over two days to two hours and 15 minutes. The Reform temple charges $1800 in synagogue dues and another $600 for Hebrew school.
Chabad’s presence even prompted the Young Israel of Oceanside, an Orthodox synagogue, to take the rare step of opening a Hebrew school, even though most of its members send their children to day schools. The Hebrew school meets only one day a week, with no shul membership required.
“Ideally we will have children go to Hebrew school from when they are 5 1⁄2 years old,” says Young Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Muzkat, whose school has 10 students, down from 25 a year ago. “But if someone comes to me a month before he is 13 and says he wants a bar mitzvah, I would honor that. I would prefer to postpone it a month or so, however, so he can prepare for it. ...
“Some may say I’m creating a bar mitzvah factory. That may be true, but we want to open our doors to people. I want them to connect to their Judaism post-bar mitzvah.”
Today, only the Conservative Jewish Center of Oceanside has kept its Hebrew school at two days a week, and its rabbi — who seems to have the most to lose in the battle — is angry. Since Chabad’s emergence in Oceanside, Rabbi Mark Greenspan has seen his Hebrew school enrollment plummet from 230 students in 2001 to 70 today. Its fees are $1500 for shul dues and another $750 for Hebrew school.
“Chabad has led to a diminution of Jewish education in this community,” said Rabbi Greenspan. “I still have a two-day Hebrew school and I’m under attack from my members [to cut back to one day a week]. ... I’m not blaming Chabad for everything bad in the community, but Chabad was a catalyst.”
As Oceanside’s rabbinic leaders try to best position their Hebrew schools for the changes taking place there, the case of the Wohlgemuth family may be instructive.
The family’s twin children, Michael and Lauren, had attended the Sunday school for second graders at Oceanside’s Reform synagogue, Temple Avodah. They switched to Chabad’s two-hour Sunday morning religious school the following year rather than attend Temple Avodah’s two-day-a-week program for third graders.
“A family friend said she was sending her child to Chabad and suggested we do the same because there would be less stress with after-school activities,” Wohlgemuth explained, noting that his family is not Orthodox.
He said he met with Rabbi Levi Gurkov, the Chabad’s spiritual leader, and was told that many Jewish families send their children to Chabad’s Sunday school “because they didn’t want to pay membership dues” and Chabad does not require dues payments.
But after two months at the Chabad school, Lauren began complaining that she was not learning anything and wanted to return to Temple Avodah. The following year, Temple Avodah cut its religious school from two days a week to one and the twins returned there.
“If they had done that a year earlier,” Wohlgemuth said of Temple Avodah, “we probably would not have switched.”
Rabbi Uri Goren, spiritual leader of Temple Avodah, said his 178-student Hebrew school has a set of standards for bar/bat mitzvah students that far surpasses those at Chabad. He recalled that when the parents of a 12-year-old girl wanted to join his synagogue right before she turned 13, she was ill prepared even though the family said she had attended several years of religious instruction at Chabad.
“She didn’t read Hebrew or know Jewish history or the holidays, so we said she would have to delay her bat mitzvah until she met our standards,” he said. “At first her parents objected, but I said a bat mitzvah is not a Broadway show production, not something that just involves memorizing Hebrew. So she had her bat mitzvah close to her 14th birthday, but by then she had learned something and was a little more mature.”
But Jason Sultzer believes the Chabad Hebrew school has been just the ticket for his family.
He has been watching his 3-year-old son at the Chabad preschool and has found “a caring and nurturing environment that makes it feel like you’re dropping your kids off at their grandparents’.”
“We’re not Orthodox; we’re secular Jews,” Sultzer, 38, said of his family. “We don’t keep Shabbat and we’re not kosher, but Chabad instilled those important values in us. Little by little we’re growing more and more towards what should be done. ...We’re big supporters of Chabad.”
At the Chabad of Oceanside on a recent Sunday morning, parents picked up their children after their two hours of religious instruction. Classes meet in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse on Oceanside Road West that Chabad bought and partially renovated six years ago.
While parents waited, the class of pre-bar mitzvah boys finished a discussion about the Shema prayer and Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith, while the younger students cleaned up after baking cookies while learning the proper blessing to recite before eating them.
“Initially what brought me here was the fact that it welcomed all families and didn’t charge an arm and a leg to teach my children about their heritage,” said Laurie Schweitzman of Oceanside. “I would have fit into the Reform temple but it was too expensive. They would have charged $1,500 the first year but about $3,000 every year thereafter. Here, they charged $600 for Hebrew school; I didn’t see that money was as much of a factor here.
“They feel that all Jews are entitled to a Jewish education. My husband and I are Jewish but we had little Jewish education, and the rabbi’s wife gave my son private lessons on her own time after he missed some classes.”
Schweitzman added that although her son doesn’t enjoy public school, “he likes it here — shockingly. They talk in a fun way, not so much related to the book.”
Peter Roth of Oceanside said he and his wife enrolled their twin 11-year-old sons there because “it’s a comfortable place. ... There are no airs about what’s going on here. Other [synagogues] are cliquish and clannish; it’s easy to get outside the loop. I’m not looking to impress anybody.
“They do a good job here and my kids enjoy it. What they come home and talk about is what they should be learning — culture, holidays and family traditions.”
Rabbi Gurkov, Chabad’s spiritual leader, readily acknowledges that he has disrupted the status quo in Oceanside. But he insists it’s in a good way.
“When I came to Oceanside I placed a phone call to every rabbi here,” he recalled. “Some were receptive; some were not because they felt I was coming to shake up the community. They had had a great run, and now someone new was coming and they couldn’t do their job and their sermons by rote anymore.”
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon of the Chabad of Long Island insisted that Chabad “didn’t start Hebrew schools for the purpose of competition. It was in response to the Jewish families we were serving who wanted us to help their children create a positive Jewish identity that would last a lifetime.”
In developing the program, Rabbi Teldon said, Chabad had three objectives in mind: ensure that the youngsters who attended had a “positive experience,” charge only enough to cover expenses, and accommodate youngsters’ busy schedules.
“We wanted to take away the excuses people normally have for not being affiliated,” he explained. “So to compare other Hebrew schools to a Chabad Hebrew school is like comparing apples and oranges, because we have a different modus operandi and a different goal in mind. Our goal is to give a child a positive Jewish identity, knowledge of his Jewish roots and knowledge of Hebrew.”
Part of what is at play in Oceanside involves a debate about what a teenager should know Jewishly before becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. And part of it is more ephemeral, involving the nature of community and a spirit of togetherness that often binds small towns, where students often move from shul-based Hebrew schools to denomination-based youth groups and onto Hebrew high schools.
Rabbi Gurkov at Chabad and Rabbi Muzkat at Young Israel share a similar philosophy when it comes to educating bar and bat mitzvah candidates. The moment a child turns 13, they believe, the child should have a bar mitzvah by being called for an aliyah on Shabbat, Rabbi Gurkov said, “even if he can’t read the Hebrew [prayers] fluently” or must read them in transliteration.
If the child would prefer, the bar mitzvah may also be held on a weekday, he said.
“We don’t tell him to wait,” until he completes a course of study, Rabbi Gurkov stressed.
Rabbi Mark Greenspan of the Conservative Oceanside Jewish Center strongly disagrees. He doesn’t believe a bar mitzvah is something every Jewish child should have at all costs.
“I believe that every Jewish child deserves a Jewish education,” he said. “The bar mitzvah is a wonderful thing but is not the ultimate goal. There’s a basic division [with Chabad and Young Israel] in terms of our understanding of what it’s all about. For me, bar mitzvah celebrates that a child has the intellectual tools to participate in Jewish life and has made a personal commitment to being Jewish. There is nothing sacred about 13. You can have a bar mitzvah at 13, but that is not going to promote Jewish life.”
Rabbi Klein, who heads the New York Board of Rabbis, insisted that what is happening across Long Island “is not a Chabad issue; it’s really what has become of the Jewish community. Are we going to have a critical mass of people who are committed enough to synagogue life and to their children being committed Jews over a long period of time? Our challenge is how to reach the Jewish community, how to spark the kind of interest and commitment that synagogue life and Jewish life are based upon.
“There is a great deal of pressure on synagogues to lower the bar and to lessen the demands and the requirements because it appears that is what people are demanding. Most rabbis I know are trying hard to maintain a level of integrity in our Hebrew schools and the level of education our kids are getting and not be influenced by those who have lowered the standards.”
For Rabbi Greenspan, Chabad’s influence in his town has been profound. The once “great community” of Oceanside, he charges, has begun “imploding” because of Chabad.
“Chabad does a great job when it comes into places where there is no Jewish community,” Rabbi Greenspan continued. “But when it walks into an established Jewish community, it upsets the balance and that is not always for the better. ...
“There was a time when there was a sense of cooperation and collegiality in communities like this,” he said. “But when you start making synagogues into competitive businesses — where there are no values — there is something seriously wrong.”
Soshie Gurkov, the principal of Chabad’s Hebrew school, said, “The only way to understand what it is to be a bar mitzvah is to have some formal Jewish education. And so we want to infuse our Hebrew school with a love and a passion for Judaism. For a lot of kids once they are bar mitzvah they don’t do much [in terms of Jewish studies or practice]. So if this is going to be their only Jewish experience, we want it to be something positive.
“Maybe their two-day curriculum is best,” she added of the Oceanside Jewish Center. “But parents say the kids have a heavy load from school and that they couldn’t commit to two days. For them, this is what works.”
Back at the Chabad of Oceanside two Sundays ago, Stuart Kaplan said he opted against sending his two children to the Oceanside Jewish Center because its Hebrew school meets two weeknights each week.
“We’re a family of two working parents,” he said, “and trying to get there to pick them up. ... I possibly would have considered it [the Oceanside Jewish Center] if its Hebrew school were on Sundays only.”
His wife, Meryl, said that at the urging of her 5-year-old daughter, she has begun lighting Friday night candles. She said her daughter likes Hebrew school so much, she “probably would” have enrolled her at the Oceanside Jewish Center if she didn’t work full time outside the home.
“I feel she’s not getting enough here,” she said. n
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