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By JOANNE SEIFF In 1995, I enrolled in a special graduate program. I taught high school in inner-city Washington, D.C. in exchange for a small stipend and some free coursework to start a Master’s in Education.

I grew up nearby in Virginia. A few miles away, in the US capital, there were majestic old school buildings, filled with marble, slate chalkboards…and lots of violence.
There wasn’t enough money for school supplies or building upkeep. Many DC schools were known for shootings in their hallways, drug deals, fires and terrible poverty. Our program allowed burnt-out teachers to take time for more training. While they were away, grad students stepped into their classrooms to teach for a few weeks.
To support myself, I found part-time jobs. I taught music, Jewish studies and Hebrew at a Reconstructionist “Shabbat” religious school on Saturday mornings, at a non-affiliated Jewish religious school on Sunday mornings, I tutored b’nai mitzvot students and substituted at the Reform congregation’s religious school that I’d gone to as a kid. I was busy.
Recently I got an e-notice about “Re-visioning the Synagogue,” about a program in Winnipeg March 13-15. (Ed. note: The program is “Limmud”.) I recognized the photo of Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who was the rabbi at Adat Shalom when I taught at their Shabbat religious school. He wouldn’t remember me, as he led services or attended to his congregation while I taught. (The synagogue educator hired me, not the rabbi.) However, I remember that congregation and Rabbi Schwarz. We could learn a thing or two from them.
At that time, the congregation met at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, Maryland. Services were in the auditorium while kids attended religious school in classrooms down the hall. Kids also participated in services, both age-appropriate ones and with parents. Everything was temporary and required constant innovation, since the space “belonged” to Adat Shalom for only a few hours at a time on Shabbat mornings. After services and learning at what the congregation now calls “Torah School,” there was a communal oneg. Everyone ate at long tables. I often ate lunch with my students’ families. Sometimes, I ate with only eight-year-olds – the kids wanted to eat with their friends – and their teacher.
It was a warm, inclusive space. I learned a lot, even though my guitar (I taught music and led kid services) and I scarcely ever saw the inside of the adult worship service. Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb was a student rabbi then. At his first teaching session with us, he began a story. Rabbi Fred acted out a misbehaving, blasé kid, unhappy with attending “boring religious school.”
My grade 3 and 4 students were restless and raised their hands. They squirmed as the young rabbinical student plowed ahead. The kids whispered and waved frantically. Finally, I spoke out. “Rabbi,” I interrupted. He looked up. “Rabbi, we don’t feel this way about Shabbat School.” The kids nodded, smiled, wiggled and waved their hands in the air. “What if we like religious school?!”
Rabbi Fred stopped in his tracks. “Well,” he said, grinning. “I guess we need to tell a different story!” And he did.
Rabbi Fred eventually became the full-time rabbi there, but Rabbi Sid started that thriving community. Twenty years later, I remember the welcome, love, happiness, and menschlichkeit I felt. Kids and families wanted to be there. Everyone was welcome and offered lots of food at the oneg…and a place at the table. Instead of congregants reserving seats and excluding newcomers, I was often invited to sit with a family or group I’d never met before.
At Adat Shalom, I sensed everyone felt an obligation: to be welcoming, to behave Jewishly, to step up and make the world better in whatever way he/she could manage. They were constantly working and thinking about how to do more, different and better with what they had; a borrowed space, a busy rabbi and a complicated mandate to fulfill in terms of Jewish life.
That assumption of responsibility still rings true to me whenever I get to the seasonal sentence in the Amidah asking for rainfall where we say “mashiv ha ruach u’morid ha-gashem.” When I led kid services, the kids gently interrupted to correct me if I skipped the sentence or got the pronunciation wrong. We experimented with standing up and sitting down for parts of the Shema and V’ahavta to see what helped us concentrate better. We worked hard to find our own prayer spaces so we didn’t bother others.
Everybody can be a responsible participant or prayer leader. Anyone can welcome a teacher, friend or stranger to eat with them after services. As Rabbi Fred pointed out, we can “change the story.” Let’s re-vision our synagogues, Winnipeg. Let’s see if we can hear what Rabbi Schwarz says, innovate, and create a new and enthusiastic Jewish future for Winnipeg together.
In five years, I want my twins to be the ones who insist that they too love learning at shul…as long as it’s a welcoming, affirming, egalitarian and supportive place for all families, it doesn’t matter which one.
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and the mom of twin preschoolers. See more of her work on her blog: or at

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