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Sun City synagogue quadruples its ‘little Jewish schoolhouse’

By Shannon Levitt | Staff Writer for the Jewish News -- Your Community Weekly serving Greater phoenix and Northern Arizona

Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley religious school students, their parents and teachers make Havdalah candles. Courtesy of Bernie Arum

When Saran Hirshman, a veteran teacher of the Chicago public school system, learned that her synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley (TBS-WV), needed a teacher/coordinator for its growing religious school, she stepped up to help even though she had been retired for several years.

Retired is a typical profile for a TBS-WV congregant. After all, Sun City, where the synagogue is located, is a planned community originally built with mostly senior citizens in mind. Still, demographics haven’t hampered TBS-WV Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan’s efforts to create an involved and multi-generational membership.

“There are hundreds of families in the West Valley with at least one Jewish parent,” Kaplan told Jewish News in an email. “We are certainly hoping to attract families who are interested in studying and practicing Judaism.”

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan and Nathan Espinoza are pictured at the Havdalah service in October. Courtesy of Bernie Arum

The synagogue’s religious school had only one student enrolled last year, and he was offered private instruction. This year, the number quadrupled making a class possible. Every Thursday afternoon, Hirshman instructs the four boys, ages 8, 9, 12 and 14, in the basic tenets of their religion.

“I was worried the age difference would be difficult but they get along beautifully and are so enthusiastic,” Hirshman told Jewish News.

Kaplan usually begins the weekly class with a focus on prayers read on Friday nights, “so that the lessons are directly relevant and participation in services is made more meaningful because of the students’ studies,” Kaplan said.

Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley Religious School students made cards for Israeli soldiers. Pictured is Nathan Espinoza and his mother, Sandra Sas.

Courtesy of Bernie Arum

The boys’ participation in services is a point of pride for everyone involved with the school.

“Rabbi Kaplan always calls the boys up to the Torah during Shabbat and explains things, which helps them feel very connected to Judaism,” Hirshman said. “Watching them do readings is lovely.”

Kaplan emphasized that taking part in services is essential for the whole family and appreciates the seriousness the boys’ parents have shown to a Jewish education.

“Judaism can be very meaningful but only if one is willing to put in the time and effort. Frequently, American religious education has degenerated into what has been derogatorily called ‘pediatric Judaism.’ We’re definitely trying to provide a spiritually meaningful experience and for that to be successful, everyone has to really want it and be really willing to work for it,” Kaplan said.

Besides religious instruction, Hirshman and the school’s four other volunteers offer singing, arts and crafts. Parents have also pitched in and shared their knowledge about different topics. For example, two volunteers’ recent lesson on the Ten Commandments “worked out beautifully,” Hirshman said.

Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley members and their children attended the first Havdalah Shabbat services and potluck on Oct. 28.

Courtesy of Bernie Arum

The lessons go beyond school and synagogue and into the students’ homes, where the families take turns hosting havdalah services, led by the boys.

“After the first one, the adults sat around and talked and the boys played games. It was really heartwarming,” Hirshman said.

So far, the boys seem to be enjoying themselves, according to Hirshman.

“It’s important that they know Judaism, the tradition and the wealth of history we have as a people,” she said.

Kaplan couldn’t agree more. He is hopeful that with his students’ involvement in the school it will expand their appreciation for Shabbat and holiday services.

He’s learning things as well.

Kaplan asked the students about their interests and how they might relate to Judaism. As a result, one student taught him things he didn’t know about the Judaic context of a couple of songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

“It was fascinating for me,” Kaplan said.

That kind of enthusiasm for his students and his congregation is exactly why Hirshman agreed to teach every Thursday, even though it means driving after dark in the winter months.

She credits Kaplan with reinvigorating her own love of attending services. Hirshman and her husband first joined the synagogue when they moved to Arizona 24 years ago, long before Kaplan arrived, but attended only intermittently. After her husband’s death, she went to a Shabbat service with a friend and met Kaplan, who had since become the spiritual leader.

He greeted her warmly and said, “Hi! I’m Dana. Would you like to go for a coffee?”

“He’s one of the most endearing people I’ve ever met, so friendly and welcoming,” Hirshman said. The congregation felt both spiritual and welcoming and she began regularly attending Shabbat services.

With a growing West Valley population and a committed congregation, she’s hopeful the school and synagogue will continue to expand. She’s looking forward to the addition of Hebrew classes and field trips to the Arizona Jewish Historical Society Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in Phoenix, the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale and other sites important to Jews in Greater Phoenix.

Kaplan is grateful for the commitment of the volunteers, the parents and the students.

“The religious school has already had a tremendous positive influence on the children, the parents, the volunteers, and through the Friday night services, to the entire congregation,” he said. JN

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