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DEBATING IDENTITY: JEWS IN AMERICA

Lessons in Ethics Not Just Academic

Manhattan Synagogue's Roots Are in the Past, but Focus Is on Dealing With Issues in Today's World

April 23, 1998

NEW YORK — At Rodeph Sholom, one of the largest Reform Jewish congregations in Manhattan, the wrestling starts early.

In a brightly painted classroom, sixth-grade students are pondering the meaning of slavery in American history and the ethical questions it raises.

"It's just plain wrong to have slaves," says one student, fidgeting in his chair. "Nobody should ever have slaves."

Laura Norwitz, the teacher, nods her head and points out a discomforting--albeit rare--piece of history: "But we know that some Jews had slaves. We saw a certificate [of slave ownership] and it was signed by a man named Liebowitz.

"Some people sat at Passover Seders being waited on by slaves," she adds. "What could they have been thinking?"

There are few marquee names here at this synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and that shows the true nature of the Jewish impact on American life: On any given day, the greatest contributions are made by people living ordinary lives and trying to make sense of the society around them.

Founded in 1842, Rodeph Sholom is typical of many American synagogues that try to balance tradition with a vigorous engagement of the outside world. It's a daily wrestling match in temples across the nation--and a reminder that for Jews, questions often are more important than answers.

The New York temple is unique, however, in one important sense: It was the first American Reform congregation to open a full-time day school. Today, the school is thriving with 500 students, and it has become a model for other congregations in New York and across the country.

"At the time this began, a parochial day school was not seen as a value in Reform Judaism," said Rabbi Robert Levine. "But it's been a success. We teach students about their faith and we also prepare them to be good American citizens."

Sometimes, that learning begins on the temple's second floor. The congregation has run a homeless shelter there since 1983, and it has been an eye-opening experience for many adults.

Take Catherine Sull and her partner, Jacalyn Shaffer. They recently spent the night in the shelter along with their 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Yafit.

Jewish tradition stresses the importance of tzedakah--charity--and Rodeph Sholom sponsors a "Mitzvah Day" in the fall, where members fan out across the city performing acts of charity and compassion for others. Yet Sull says, "Our night in the shelter taught me a whole new meaning of these words."

Recently, she says, the school returned from a holiday break and the students talked about their vacations: "Some said they'd been to Disney World. Yafit talked about the shelter."

Not long ago, at a meeting of students preparing for bar mitzvah, Rabbi Camille Angel reminded the teenagers of similar experiences in their schooling and issues of ethics they had learned to debate.

"As Jews these are questions you'll be grappling with for the rest of your lives," she said. "And they're like voices in your head. The voices of God, your parents, your teachers.

"I wish you well--and may the voice be with you."

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