My First Hebrew Teacher
Teacher Appreciation Shabbat

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Beloved congregants, my message tonight is not primarily for you.  Oh, you are welcome to listen, and I hope that you will, but my thoughts tonight are directed toward the teachers we honor this Shabbat Eve.  It’s about the seeds that they – most often without their ever realizing it – plant in the hearts, souls and minds of their young students.  I hope that on those days when they are tired and frustrated and they think that nobody cares and what they do makes no difference, they will remember and reflect upon the thoughts I am about to share.

Shulamith Lubarr – but to me she was, is, and always will be, Mrs. Steinlight -- died shortly before Purim this year at the age of 95.  She was my first Hebrew teacher!  I have not seen her for more than 50 years, yet my memories are vivid.  She had a kind, sweet voice.  Most often she perched herself on the right side of the teacher’s desk as she conducted the class.

I was far from the world’s most interested Hebrew student.  I used to ride the carpool with my older sister when she went to Hebrew school en route to becoming only the second girl to take midweek Hebrew and become a Bat Mitzvah in the history of our Reform Congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo, in East Orange, New Jersey.

From listening to my sister and her car mates I was sure that the purpose of Hebrew school was to pass notes with the other students.  And so on my first day in Mrs. Steinlight’s class I handed a piece of paper to Henry Kazin, a shy boy sitting next to me, with these words written on it:
“Let’s pass notes.”  He held the paper up, looked at me with complete bewilderment, and Mrs. Steinlight quickly confiscated this missive bringing my career as a Hebrew School note passer to a swift end.

My other memory of that first day was that Mrs. Steinlight asked us all to tell her our Hebrew names.  About 2/3 of the class, as I remember, knew their names.  The rest of us did not.  “Go home and ask your parents,” Mrs. Steinlight instructed us.  “And if they don’t know, ask your grandparents, and tell me your Hebrew name at our next class.”

So I went home, inquired, and my parents informed me that my Hebrew Name was “Siskin Leib.”  That means, "Heart of Siskin.” Maybe I was destined by that name to intertwine my working life with Cantor Pamela Siskin.  I think things like that are more than just coincidence. 
Whether or not my so-called Hebrew name forecast my destiny or not, it did not pass muster with Mrs. Steinlight, who had lived for some time in Israel.  “That’s Yiddish,” she exclaimed with a slight wrinkling of her nose.  You need a Hebrew name.  It will be אריה.  And אריה it has been from that day to this.  I was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah by the name אריה, and אריה is the name that appears on my certificate of ordination as a rabbi and on the Ketubah certifying my marriage to Vickie that hangs in our living room.  One day, in what I hope will be the far distant future, אריה, the name Mrs. Steinlight gave me, will be the name etched into my tombstone.

As I look back, though, Mrs. Steinlight gave me far more than my Hebrew Name.  Her sweet voice was the first one that I ever heard read Hebrew fluently.  I wanted to be able to do that.  The first prayer we learned in her class was the V’ahavta, and I still remember that our first major plateau was the word, “bam” as in “v’dibarta bam.”  I struggled to get to “bam” smoothly, and still remember the feeling of accomplishment that came over me when I could finally do it.

But that first year of Hebrew was not all peaches and cream.  We were a pretty rowdy bunch of boys – yes there were only boys in our class that year -- but Mrs. Steinlight was unruffled by our rambunctiousness.  She never lost her temper, never got upset and never raised her voice.  She was gentle and calm, but she made it clear that she was there to teach, and we were there to learn.

Just recently I learned that Mrs. Steinlight in those days was in the midst of a very unhappy marriage which ended in divorce.  She never, though, let any personal issues come out in the classroom or get in the way of her teaching.

Yes, I look back on my first Hebrew teacher with affectionate, even loving feelings, but do not be misled.  These feelings are filtered through the prism of many years of reflection and acquired understanding.  Hebrew and Jewish learning became central to my being.  And now I fully realize that one of the influences that contributed to my desire to become a rabbi was Mrs. Steinlight. 

If, however, you had asked me what I thought about Mrs. Steinlight back when I was nine years old, I would have answered, “Not much.  She’s nice enough, but I don’t really care about Hebrew School.  I just go because my parents say I have to.” 

And to be sure, back then, when my parents asked me, as they frequently did, “What did you learn in Hebrew school today?”  My answer was numbingly consistent: “Nothing!”

And that is the reason I so desperately want to speak tonight about Mrs. Steinlight and what she means to me.  Through her long decades as a Hebrew teacher and her many summers of teaching Hebrew at Camp Ramah, she had an impact on many students similar to the one she had on me.  She really never knew though how vital and influential her life had been to so many.

A few years ago through one of those “more than coincidences,” I found out where she was, and I called her on the phone.  I told her many of the things I am telling you tonight.  I know that she was genuinely thrilled and touched almost to tears to hear from me.  But I also know she really had no recollection – nor should she have – of me as a young, spirited, not terribly interested kid who was in her class in 1955!

That, though, is the lot of the teacher.  We plant seeds, and we seldom fully understand in what manner those seeds will grow.  What I have learned over the years, dear teachers, is that ours can truly be sacred work.  We can change the course of lives for the better.  We can instill the bud of Jewish or Hebrew learning in a child that may one day grow into a lifelong passion.  And hopefully we keep that goal in mind as we prepare and teach our lessons.

In tonight’s Torah portion the Levites were instructed to care scrupulously for the sacred vessels of our ancient tabernacle in our people’s journey to the Promised Land.  Today, our sacred vessels are the children entrusted to our care.  Every card is stacked against us.  They come when they are tired and hungry.  They don’t often come with a burning thirst for Jewish knowledge.  They do often come with pressures from home and school about which we are totally unaware.  But they come, and for one or two precious hours, we have the chance to stoke the perhaps tiny flame of Jewish consciousness that lives in their souls.  It is a thankless job, and it is a difficult job, but we should always remember that it is also a job that can change the course of children’s lives.  In approaching our tasks we cannot ask more from ourselves than our best effort, but we should never settle for anything less. 


If we truly see our children as sacred vessels, and if we truly view our efforts as the highest of human callings, then one day, I trust, that whether you actually hear the words or not, there will be students who thank you for the impact you have had on their lives, as I thank Mrs. Steinlight – of very blessed memory – on this Sabbath Eve.


With grateful appreciation to Mrs. Steinlight’s daughter, Naomi Patz and her husband, Rabbi Norman Patz.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs serves Congregation Beth Israel of West Hartford, Connecticut.