All the Children


On the eve of Simchat Torah, many synagogues auction the three major honors of the day, with proceeds benefiting the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. Two honors, hatan Torah (for the one called to the final reading in Deuteronomy) and hatan Bereshit (for the one called to the first reading in Genesis), usually receive the highest bids. The third, kol hanearim — supervising the blessing of all minor children as a tallit is held over their heads, while the honoree receives the next-to-last aliyah in Vezot Haberakha — can be a close second.

One year, however, the auction for kol hanearim in my synagogue was unusually competitive. When finally over, I asked the man who fiercely bid the highest why he vied for this honor.

Surprised by my question, he replied as if it were self-evident: “The one who supervises scores of little children crowded under the tallit, reciting the same blessing Jacob uttered over his grandchildren, is himself guaranteed Jewish grandchildren. Could I want less for myself?”

These words come to me again and again, whenever I contemplate the unique Torah portion, Vezot Haberakha, the only parsha not identified with a specific Shabbat. Rather, it is reserved for the joyous Simchat Torah holiday, with its unique kol hanearim ceremony, and as such deserves close analysis.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 42a, referring to Vezot Haberakha, provides a provocative comment: “Our rabbis taught: A minor who is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah…. What could be meant by Torah? Rav Hamnuna replied, the Scriptural verse [Deuteronomy 33:4], ‘Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.'”

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, an early 20th century commentator, questions why the Talmud chose this particular passage as the first Torah verse that a parent must teach a child. Epstein suggests that by referring to Torah as a morasha, an inheritance of all Jews — young and old alike — it rejects the notion that only mature adults are obligated to observe Torah. An inheritance is age blind, and so too is the Torah.

The word morasha, however, may contain another dimension. An early 19th century German scholar, the Ktav V’Kabblah, notes that the usual word for inheritance is yerusha, not morasha. In fact, morasha is best translated as “a possession” rather than “an inheritance.” The difference is crucial. One receives an inheritance without individual effort, but one attains a possession through personal exertion. Torah, in other words, requires personal exertion rather than effortless lineage. The only way to become fluent in Torah is to work at studying Torah.

Ketav Sofer, a 19th century scholar, remarks that “morasha kehillat Yaakov,” “a possession of the congregation of Jacob,” meaning that no Jew is an island. No Jew can observe all of the mitzvot of the Torah, for the 613 commandments don’t all apply to any one person. Some only apply to Kohanim, others to Leviim, some to women, while others only to those who live in Israel. Only as a part of the congregation of Israel can we become complete Jews.

Certainly, these lessons are themes that the beautiful kol hanearim ceremony emphasizes.

First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.

Second, kol hanearim suggests that Torah requires effort. Neither children nor adults will acquire knowledge unless they work at studying Torah. If they put in the effort, they will be rewarded with the greatest gift: the Torah itself.

And, finally, we must appreciate that a Jewish life must include the community of fellow Jews. The children are blessed as part of an entire group — part of a future community — because Torah can’t be lived in isolation. Instead, our blessing emphasizes the need for everyone to be involved with the Jewish community, for only together do we comprise the congregation that both Vezot Haberakha and Simchat Torah celebrate.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 9, 1998.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.

All the ChildrenAll the ChildrenAll the ChildrenAll the Children


On the eve of Simchat Torah, many synagogues auction the three major honors of the day, with proceeds benefiting the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. Two honors, hatan Torah (for the one called to the final reading in Deuteronomy) and hatan Bereshit (for the one called to the first reading in Genesis), usually receive the highest bids. The third, kol hanearim — supervising the blessing of all minor children as a tallit is held over their heads, while the honoree receives the next-to-last aliyah in Vezot Haberakha — can be a close second.

One year, however, the auction for kol hanearim in my synagogue was unusually competitive. When finally over, I asked the man who fiercely bid the highest why he vied for this honor.

Surprised by my question, he replied as if it were self-evident: “The one who supervises scores of little children crowded under the tallit, reciting the same blessing Jacob uttered over his grandchildren, is himself guaranteed Jewish grandchildren. Could I want less for myself?”

These words come to me again and again, whenever I contemplate the unique Torah portion, Vezot Haberakha, the only parsha not identified with a specific Shabbat. Rather, it is reserved for the joyous Simchat Torah holiday, with its unique kol hanearim ceremony, and as such deserves close analysis.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 42a, referring to Vezot Haberakha, provides a provocative comment: “Our rabbis taught: A minor who is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah…. What could be meant by Torah? Rav Hamnuna replied, the Scriptural verse [Deuteronomy 33:4], ‘Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.'”

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, an early 20th century commentator, questions why the Talmud chose this particular passage as the first Torah verse that a parent must teach a child. Epstein suggests that by referring to Torah as a morasha, an inheritance of all Jews — young and old alike — it rejects the notion that only mature adults are obligated to observe Torah. An inheritance is age blind, and so too is the Torah.

The word morasha, however, may contain another dimension. An early 19th century German scholar, the Ktav V’Kabblah, notes that the usual word for inheritance is yerusha, not morasha. In fact, morasha is best translated as “a possession” rather than “an inheritance.” The difference is crucial. One receives an inheritance without individual effort, but one attains a possession through personal exertion. Torah, in other words, requires personal exertion rather than effortless lineage. The only way to become fluent in Torah is to work at studying Torah.

Ketav Sofer, a 19th century scholar, remarks that “morasha kehillat Yaakov,” “a possession of the congregation of Jacob,” meaning that no Jew is an island. No Jew can observe all of the mitzvot of the Torah, for the 613 commandments don’t all apply to any one person. Some only apply to Kohanim, others to Leviim, some to women, while others only to those who live in Israel. Only as a part of the congregation of Israel can we become complete Jews.

Certainly, these lessons are themes that the beautiful kol hanearim ceremony emphasizes.

First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.

Second, kol hanearim suggests that Torah requires effort. Neither children nor adults will acquire knowledge unless they work at studying Torah. If they put in the effort, they will be rewarded with the greatest gift: the Torah itself.

And, finally, we must appreciate that a Jewish life must include the community of fellow Jews. The children are blessed as part of an entire group — part of a future community — because Torah can’t be lived in isolation. Instead, our blessing emphasizes the need for everyone to be involved with the Jewish community, for only together do we comprise the congregation that both Vezot Haberakha and Simchat Torah celebrate.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 9, 1998.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.

Tzedakah for Chanukah


The Chanukah wish lists of six needy local Jewish families
will be filled by generous families from Rancho Santa Margarita’s Morasha
Jewish Day School.

“These families have been financially disadvantaged for a
long time,” said Charlene Edwards, social services director for Jewish Family
Service of Orange County. “They asked for things our children take for
granted.”

On Dec. 4, in time for Chanukah, Edwards was scheduled to
collect gift baskets filled with wrapped toys and clothing, along with gift
certificates for groceries, movie tickets and haircuts. The cumulative
contributions from students, parents and faculty likely tallies $1,500, said
Robin S. Hoffman, the school’s Jewish studies coordinator. “We’ve been
inundated in the last week.”

The Chanukah effort is one of the first outcomes of
Morasha’s involvement with a three-year national research project of Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Its Rhea Hirsch
School of Education selected eight schools to participate in Jewish Day Schools
for the 21st Century, a project to demonstrate how schools can serve as a
Jewish learning catalyst for an entire community, said Eve Fein, Morasha’s
director.

As part of the project, a 25-parent panel, which has met
regularly over the last year, settled on enhancing certain Jewish values.
Morasha’s parents chose tzedakah (charity).

“So often, kids never see the end result,” said Kathleen A.
Canter, of Aliso Viejo, a panel participant who has two children in the school.
“We wanted the whole school community involved. It’s powerful when it’s visible
to all.”

Eastward Ho!


Helped by a pair of hefty donations, a Jewish elementary school in southern Orange County is folding its tents, so to speak, and reestablishing camp where a sizable proportion of the county’s population – including its Jewish population – is settling.

Morasha Jewish Day School, currently located in Aliso Viejo, is finalizing the purchase of a new 4.3-acre site in Rancho Santa Margarita, about 12 miles east of the school’s current location. The move will place the K-6 school of 75 children where many of its students live and where a large amount of new development is occurring.

The school, founded in 1986, is housed in portable buildings, which it will move to the new site in preparation for the new school year in September. Future plans include the addition of grades 7 and 8, permanent buildings on the new site, and, during the next 10 years, expansion of the student population to about 300 from its current 75.

“We feel we’re going to be the day school for South County, where all the growth is,” said Eve Fein, Morasha’s director. An architect has already drawn up plans for permanent buildings, and, finances permitting, the school may break ground for the first of those buildings as early as June 2001, Fein said.Even without the demographic impetus to move, the school was on borrowed time at its current location. Its portables are on land owned by Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation, and the temple is in the process of selling the parcel.

Morasha’s board of directors had already raised about $500,000 toward the new site when it received a pledge of $250,000 from the Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Orange County and a similar grant from the Samueli Family Foundation, which is based in Irvine. Both pledges will be fulfilled when escrow on the land closes, probably in early summer.

“This is the type of large community need program that we feel we should be giving grants to,” said Anne Firestone, executive director of the Community Foundation. “We have a commitment to education, so this fits right into our priorities.”

The Federation grant is the largest ever made by the Community Foundation. Morasha honored the foundation’s president, Michael S. Gordon, at its annual luncheon on May 21. The Samueli Family Foundation is a philanthropic project of Henry Samueli, co-founder of Broadcom Corporation, an Irvine company that designs, develops and supplies devices to facilitate high-speed digital transmissions.

Morasha had been in talks for approximately a year with Congregation Eilat, a Conservative synagogue in Mission Viejo, about buying the land in Rancho Santa Margarita as a joint venture. The synagogue, currently housed in a building that its education director, Elliot Fein, called “too small and not well constructed,” also wanted to move to the burgeoning and affluent southeast sector of Orange County. The synagogue raised about $700,000, but that wasn’t enough to participate in the land purchase, said Fein, who is married to Morasha’s Eve Fein. The congregation would have had to sell its Mission Viejo complex and meet in portable buildings on the new site, which was unacceptable to its members, Fein said, adding that Eilat will continue its capital campaign with an eye toward either upgrading its current facility or relocating elsewhere.

Like its larger counterpart in Irvine, Tarbut V’Torah, Morasha, whose name is Hebrew for “heritage,” is a community day school that welcomes children from families across the Jewish spectrum of observance. The school’s literature describes an emphasis on critical thinking skills and rigorous academic preparation in the general studies curriculum and an emphasis on relevance to daily life in the Jewish studies component. Most of its graduates go on to local public schools.

Although Morasha has a kosher kitchen and students participate in daily worship, Eve Fein said, “We promote liberal Judaism, and we promote egalitarianism.” Morasha will take out loans and continue to raise funds to achieve its short- and long-term goals. “We’ve done an incredible amount of fundraising from the Jewish community,” Fein said, calling Morasha “a small but mighty school that’s really got the community behind it.”

“We are strong supporters of Jewish education in Orange County, and Morasha serves a dual purpose: it serves the changing demographics of south Orange County, and it provides an alternative approach [to Jewish education],” said Mike Lefkowitz, executive director of the Samueli Family Foundation. “We believe they’re doing it the right way.”

For more information about Morasha Jewish Day School, call (949) 362-6500 or visit the school’s Web site, www.morasha.org

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