The archetypical human story is that of a journey. Whether the journey is made by an individual, like Esther (Hadassah, in Hebrew), who went from sheltered niece to queen and heroine, or by a people, like the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, some journeys are consequential for an entire nation. Other journeys, like the one Homer recounts in his epic poem Odyssey or those that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents tell of emigration and immigration, are personal tales.
Recently, I was asked to recount the story of my “Jewish journey” to a new career in Jewish adult education. It’s a small story, perhaps consequential only to me. But while we each follow our own path at our own pace, our lives often share common elements and on these, we build relationships.
My formal Jewish education began through no action of my own, when I was enrolled in the first nursery class of Temple Emanuel of San Jose, Calif. By junior high school, I was in a Young Judaea (YJ) Israeli folk-dancing troupe and, a few years later, I was living in Israel on the YJ Year Course program.
Many years later, sometime in the 1980s, when I was working in Annapolis, MD, I had populated the sills of my office’s mullioned windows with five or six small plants. One evening, the setting sun illuminated a particular reedy green plant with a red glow. The resulting image, I knew instantly, suggested a manifestation of the burning bush Moses saw when he first encountered God (“there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed” [Exodus 3:2]) that had to be rendered in textiles, as an art quilt.
While I’d been making things with yarn and fabric since my earliest years, I had never created a patchwork quilt. So, I took a class and made a sampler. But then I struggled to sketch the design that was burning in my mind. So, I took another class and learned that the process of drawing made my brain feel good — relaxed and refreshed. So, I signed up for more classes — including classes in figure drawing, painting and tapestry-making.
Years later, I retired from a satisfying career as a policy wonk and officer with the Federal Reserve System and signed up for a class in illustration. The instructor, a name-brand illustrator, had been born Jewish but hadn’t practiced Judaism since his parents’ generation had died off. He’d come to class enthusiastic about some idea or other – “Did you know that Buddhism teaches…?” or “There’s a Native American tradition of …” I’d respond, “Well, Judaism teaches…” He’d say, “I had no idea” – and we’d be off and running on to good discussions. By the end of that class, I’d learned two things: I have no talent for illustration, and I wanted to help adults explore Judaism.
In the intervening years, I’d started going to Shabbat Torah study at our current synagogue. In taking my turn prepping for and leading the discussion of the weekly Torah portion, I discovered that I could apply my analytical skills to Jewish texts and not be laughed out of the room. I liked learning new ways to think about these texts. I also learned that, as a discussion leader, I enjoyed inspiring others to find new ways to think about each text, to draw on their life experiences, expertise and common sense. It felt good, so I mulled over how best to repeat this feeling.
So, I took another class. Actually, I took enough classes, studied enough texts and wrote enough papers to earn a master’s degree in Jewish education in 2022 through an international program of The Hebrew University. (While I had eagerly selected the class in Jewish art, I had avoided the philosophy classes, only to be faced with two in my last term — and then I discovered that they were among the most enthralling. Who knew?)
Now I’m working to find my voice in Jewish adult education. I’m publishing essays on ReformJudaism.com and The Times of Israel Blogs and I consult. Most recently, I’ve created a class on Biblical fashion that melds art, craft and text.
Oh – and that burning bush image from the ‘80s? It’s still swirling around in my head and now I’m thinking it might best be rendered in tapestry using the same technique described in Exodus, Chapter 26 (“… fine twisted linen … with a design of cherubim [cherubs] worked into them”) to create the covering for the mishkan, the holy tabernacle.
Esther’s journey did not end with Haman’s demise. We can imagine that she served her people as queen for many years. We also know that her “journey,” her legacy, lives on in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Esther as well as in the organization named for her. Using Esther’s Hebrew name, Hadassah has been dedicated to serving the Jewish people, both in Israel and the Diaspora, for 112 years.