Shattering the Chabad Hebrew School Myth

Let’s just get the formalities out of the way: I’m a Reformed Jew, and so is my husband Dave. And so, consequently, are our children. We’re also part of the Chabad community. Sounds like a dichotomy, I know. After all, how could Reformed Jews worship, educate their children and feel connected to a branch of Judaism that’s so steeped in tradition and ultra-Orthodox? It’s easier than you think.

Yes, it’s absolutely true that the Chabad movement is a branch of Judaism that adheres to a relatively strict interpretation and application of the Torah and its laws. So if you had told us seven years ago that our daughter would be bat mitzvahed at Chabad, we would have laughed in your face. We’re Reformed and Chabad is Orthodox. Apples and oranges. Theoretically, yes. Empirically, no. Despite the way we observe and practice, all Jews, in our own way, subscribe to the Ten Commandments. You know: Do unto others, honor thy father and mother, you shall not steal or murder. The basics. We all just adhere to those law and traditions differently.

The fact is, Dave and I are far more spiritual than we are religious. We understand the core beliefs that make us Jews and we choose to practice and express them in our own way. We’ve educated our children and carried on Jewish practices and traditions in a way that suits us and our family. And we’re definitely, in every sense of the term, Reformed.

So when we started looking into Hebrew schools for our kids, Chabad wasn’t even on the radar because of this underlying misconception that you have to be Hasidic to be affiliated. Wrong, wrong, wrong. We learned, almost immediately (through a friend who was, and still is, affiliated with Chabad), that the Hebrew school and the shul are mutually exclusive. You don’t have to be “members” of Chabad to enroll your children in the Hebrew school. We also learned, through the same friend, that children actually love going to Hebrew school at Chabad. They learn, they’re engaged, they’re challenged, and they’re embraced. Sold.

So we enrolled our then-6-year-old daughter in Hebrew school and never looked back. Three years later, we did the same with our youngest daughter. And in the seven years that our children have studied at Chabad, they never once balked at going to Hebrew school. Our children were welcomed and nurtured and have thrived as a result.

We actually just celebrated our daughter Riley’s bat mitzvah at Chabad with an intimate and uniquely beautiful Shabbat service followed by a Havdalah service that we tailored specifically to our family and the way we observe. Rabbi Levi and his wife Dassy (the director of the Hebrew school) helped us make to make it traditional, modern and, most importantly, meaningful. Yet never once was there an expectation that we “join” the shul or alter our family’s belief system. Levi and Dassy genuinely and unconditionally accepted our family and the degree to which we practice. Even though they are devoutly Orthodox, Levi and Dassyreceived us openly and fully.

I have to be totally honest when I say I never saw it coming either. As liberal and open-minded as I am, I supposed I still assumed that a belief system that was so vastly different from my own could unconsciously stifle a person’s ability to reach out and fully connect. I was probably as naïve as most people are when they come in contact with something or someone different — we assume that just because there are surface differences it will be challenging to fully mesh. Maybe it’s that unconscious notion that many Reformed Jews have: that we won’t be perceived as “real” Jews by more pious branches because we’re not as devout. Who knows?

What I do know is that even though Dave and I don’t attend the High Holiday services we’ve found other ways to feel connected to Chabad as a place of worship. And Levi and Dassy have gone out of their way to offer us creative ways to feel connected to their shul. Our kids attend Hebrew school, holiday parties and youth groups. And now, we’ve taken part in a Family High Holiday Service on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20 that the Tennenhaus's created specifically to accommodate families like ours who want to connect to the shul in a deeper way than just through Hebrew school. There was another Family High Holiday Service at Chabad for Yom Kippur Monday, Sept. 28.

Bottom line is, we were caught completely and wonderfully off guard at how uniquely and satisfyingly we fit in to the Chabad community. Even more importantly, we consider Levi and Dassy (and their children) close friends. We have a mutual respect and a genuine fondness for each other that transcends the kind of Jews we are. Without even trying, the Tennenhaus's draw you in simply because of who they are. And whoever you are and however you practice they have a place for you.