This past Pesach, my mother told me a secret. She had never been to a Seder as a child. Even though her family ran a kosher butcher shop in Miami, she did not attend a Seder dinner until she met my father and joined his family for Passover when she was 18 years old. After my parents divorced and my father drifted away from Judaism, her level of confidence that she could prepare a proper Seder was about as thin as a piece of matzah. So, for several years we joined friends for Pesach and gratefully left much of the cooking and preparation to them. But this year, we were on our own.
In the end, we put together a perfect Seder. It turned out to be easy, because my mother had – knowingly or unknowingly – planned for this contingency well in advance. She had sent me to Jewish Day School as a child.
I often wondered exactly why my mother worked so hard to send me to Herzl Jewish Day School and later Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy, both in Denver, Colorado. When I realized that she had never searched for the afikoman as a little girl, never opened the door for Eliyahu, never asked the Four Questions, it became clear to me why she did it. She wanted me to have what she never did: a proper Jewish education. She knew that she couldn't provide it for me, so she did the next best thing. And we both benefited from it. Much of what she knows about Judaism she gained from doing my homework with me, going to school events, and asking questions. The school became the key to Jewish learning and activity in our family.
By the time I graduated from high school and went to Stanford University, my Jewish identity was already an inexorable part of who I was. By my senior year I was President of the Jewish Students Association. Part of my job was to recruit incoming Jewish students and get them excited about being part of the Jewish community at Stanford. All too often I would receive blank stares from Jewish freshman. I would invite them to a Shabbat dinner or to help build a Sukkah. They'd say, "Well, my parents are Jewish, and I went to synagogue sometimes, but I'm not really into the Jewish thing." We worked hard and registered many successes, but oftentimes we were up against a wall of skepticism, apathy, or worse, plain ignorance.
For me, it was different. Thanks to my own Jewish education, I feel at home in almost any synagogue, I know the tunes of songs and prayers, I can read Hebrew fluently, and I can explain holidays and customs to non-Jews – and frequently Jews – who are curious. My early education gave me the tools I needed to choose my own level of religious observance. But more importantly, I had the opportunity to analyze, contemplate, and internalize the core values of my faith.
Jewish learning has impacted the choices I have made well beyond my day school years. After graduating from Stanford, I worked on Capitol Hill as a Press Secretary and later for a Presidential campaign. On Capitol Hill, one of my very first tasks was to draft a letter on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Again, my deep respect for Jewish history and my understanding of the political situation in Israel formed a basis from which to proceed. Jewish values of social justice, civil rights, and tikkun olam inform my political and policy positions and influence the causes in which I choose to become active. Much of it can be traced back to my day school education.
The good news is that I am not alone. Many of my cohorts from day school have remained active in Jewish causes into their adulthood, and many of us have remained close over the years, despite time and distance. One of my old schoolmates is working for AIPAC in New York. One studied Yiddish in Lithuania. A few have served in the Israeli Army. And one is now teaching math and social studies to a new generation of Jewish children in our old high school, Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy. We all have varying degrees of observance and we each bring our own individual perspective to our religion and our relationship with the state of Israel. But the one thing we all share is a commitment to our faith and to our people. It is hard to imagine any of this without our shared experience in Jewish Day School.
In an odd twist of fate, I now have a ten year old little sister who is currently attending the same Jewish Day School I did in Denver. I am working to help her and my mother move to California as I prepare to attend law school at Stanford in the fall. The first priority? Finding a Jewish Day School for my sister so she can continue her Jewish education. The rest – a job, an apartment, dance and drama classes – will come later.
It is time and effort well spent. I knew this to be true as I watched
my little sister search for – and find – the afikoman. I felt it when I
saw her open the door for Eliyahu. And I swelled with pride when she
recited – perfectly – the Four Questions. It was a perfect Seder.
Written by Cody Harris