For the past 20 years I have stood at the door of Temple Beth El Religious School to welcome our students as they enter. Admittedly, not every student walks in with a huge smile on their face. A few look less than thrilled to be there and one or two may have been coerced by their parents to go that day. But by and large, most of our students are genuinely happy to be there and return my smile and greeting.
Many things have changed throughout the years. The Jewish population has spread out from the southeast side of Charlotte to all over the city, county and into South Carolina. Our families are no longer around the corner and just getting to Shalom Park can be a long haul. Another big change is the number of secular school options our families have. There are private schools, charter schools, faith-based schools, online programs, home schooling and public schools in both Mecklenburg and Union Counties. More and more, Jewish students find themselves one of very few students in- their school. In fact, our 320, kindergarten through seventh grade students, go to 70 different schools. Think about that. 70 schools. In many, there are only one or two Jewish families in the entire school.
That can be so isolating for a young Jewish child, especially in the current political environment. That means that attending religious school becomes vital. It is a safe place where a Jewish child can walk in and feel the relief of having everyone know and understand what it means to be Jewish. Not different or wrong, just Jewish. Our students are free to talk about their experiences in their secular schools with clergy and teachers who care about them and who can help find solutions.
Temple Beth El Religious School is committed to encouraging our students to make friends and to form community. Teachers set aside class time for social activities. Creating friendships and forming community is as important as the lessons we teach. Every year we take the 4th, 5th and 6th grades to a weekend retreat and our seventh grade, sheva class, on a Shabbaton to Camp Thunderbird. Amazing changes happen before our eyes. Students who may not have ever been in classes together sleep, eat and have so many fun experiences, that they come back excited and happy to see their Jewish friends every week in school. We have witnessed remarkable changes.
I think about the impact we can have on the families we serve, and I am thankful for their trust. I know that the faculty and staff are deeply committed to our students not only for what they can teach them but as role models and advisors. I am beyond grateful for the time and commitment they make every week on behalf of our children.
There is an Elie Wiesel quote that I think about when I am standing at the front door. “For me every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart every time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.” We work hard to create the smiles on our students’ faces, and I am filled with gratitude as they enter and greet me, some with smiles, some with high fives and often a hug.
As we approach the season of Thanksgiving, I want to acknowledge the incredible blessing that being a part of both Temple Beth El and the Religious School staff has been. I am thankful beyond words for the opportunity to stand at the door and smile.