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  • Phil Musickant

Making a Difference One Student at a Time

There is the old “saw” in education that says, ‘if I can reach just one student . . .”. I had that experience when I opened an email from a parent of our synagogue Sunday school, who sent me a photo of her second grade son. Here is a mother in an interfaith marriage, the family trying to juggle two religions and cultures, and trying to raise the son as a Jew.

The photo showed her son’s work as he filled out a large, simple worksheet in his public school class that asked him to write in which winter holiday (if any) he celebrated and to draw a picture that captured that holiday. This mother sent me the photo because it showed how her son had written in “Hanukkah” and had made a wonderful drawing of a dreidel.

She thanked me—and the teachers—for helping make such an impact on her son. I replied to the email by thanking her for the kind words and by telling her that she and her husband were doing good work, too (as a parent of two twenty-somethings, I know that all parents need validation!).

There is a book titled, “The Amazing Adventures of the Jewish People.” The main idea is that during the long history of the Jewish people, there have been moments of crisis when either an individual or an idea (usually, both!) arose to help Judaism adapt and survive. For example, there was a time when even Reform rabbis refused to officiate at interfaith marriages; further damage was done because the Jewish community refused to accept these families and they were lost to the Jewish people. As my grandfather used to say, “a bird could marry a fish, but where would they live?’

Our synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha, is an example of how a “crisis” (better, “circumstance”) in modern American Judaism has led to adaptation (in this case, acceptance). Every family which has joined the synagogue in recent years is an interfaith family. So many parents have expressed their thanks that the synagogue is there for them and their children. The mission statement of the synagogue emphasizes a culture of acceptance, and as principal of the Sunday school, our mission is to be available for parents who wish to see their children have access to a Jewish education. Our synagogue—and many others in Milwaukee—have had to respond to this circumstance among modern Jewish-Americans: instead of ostracism, we welcome those who wish to create a Jewish life for themselves, without being judgmental about either where they are starting from or how “Jewish” they wish to be.

The flexibility central to the new realities of both interfaith marriages and the encroachment of the secular world is the adaptation that we need to keep these families in the Jewish community. Being born Jewish isn’t the only way to become a “member of the club.” Where once these families would have been lost to Judaism, now there are synagogues that welcome these families and individuals and help them become as Jewish as they wish to be.

Interfaith families must balance the demands of two different religions, but that is not the only challenge for these parents. Those who wish to raise their children with a Jewish education must also balance the encroachment of secular life on Sundays. As a child, when my mom took us to Cong. Sinai each Sunday, stores were closed and there weren’t any competing activities to create scheduling conflicts and stress (except Packer games!). Now, parents must decide: do I send my child to Sunday school or do I miss Sunday school because there is a soccer tournament?). Sometimes, parents decide that soccer takes priority over Sunday school (sometimes, for many weeks of the season).

Thus, I appreciate the effort parents make to connect their children with Judaism, even if the resulting knowledge and skill set is incomplete (who can say he or she is ever a finished product?).

Here are the main reasons these parents join our synagogue:

  • They want their children to learn and play with other Jewish children, since for every single one of our families, they are the only Jewish family in their children’s schools (When we wave the lulav, dance with the Torah, light Chanukah candles or hold a model seder, we are making sure that the children experience the rituals, observances and celebrations of Judaism in a communal setting)

  • They want to engage with other parents who are going through the same experience (which I see on Sunday mornings, Friday night services and holiday celebrations when parents hang out and schmooze)

  • Judaism demands both thought and action (and offers much, too!) Learning Hebrew and learning to pray and celebrate challenges the students (and, the parents love it best when their children are on the bimah in front of the congregation).

Phil Musickant grew up in Fox Point and was a member of Congregation Sinai. He participated in Habonim, Labor-Zionist Youth and Camp Tavor where he became friends with Jewish kids from all over the Midwest.

His first teaching experience was the 1972-73 school year (my junior year at Nicolet), when he came every Sunday morning to the synagogue and sang songs with the kindergarten through third grade students. He has been principal of the Sunday school for Congregation Emanu-El in Waukesha since 2001. In addition to being the principal, he is also a lay leader for Friday night services, tutors for Bar and Bat Mitzvah and spends a lot of time helping with the landscaping around the synagogue. He has been married for 27 years and have two children in their twenties.


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