Mike Offner
Writer and lifelong student.

The Worst Religious School Student Ever Reconnects With Judaism

I was the worst religious school student ever.

There have been a lot of bad religious school students, no doubt, but I really, really, really didn’t want to be there.

I knew it. My parents knew it. My classmates knew it. My teachers knew it. And my rabbi knew it but treated me with kindness and patience nonetheless.

I took radiating resentment, apathy, boredom, and cynicism to new levels.

I just had no interest. I wanted to be outside playing basketball, football, or baseball with my friends.

Why, oh, why, did I have to go for more school, on an otherwise perfectly fine Sunday morning, no less?

“Avadim Hayinu.” “We were slaves.”

“OK, fine, but I wasn’t a slave, and all that stuff happened a zillion years ago, and we’re all fine now, so why do you have to ruin my Sunday morning with this unthinkably boring, irrelevant, and outdated nonsense?”

Fast forward some 40+ years…

The worst religious school student in history is firmly in middle age…

My mind pictures my mother’s father in our dining room, wearing something over his shoulders and wrapping something around his arm. What in the world was Grandpa doing?

I remember Grandpa being quiet. I can’t quite picture him speaking, though I remember him and our mutual love well. I learned recently that he had a stutter, which was probably part of why he did not speak so often. Moses might have had a stutter, as I do, and as John Hendrickson has written about so powerfully.

Formerly (and perhaps still?) the worst religious school student in history, now every morning I cannot wait to get up early to find the time to read from my growing Judaism library…

“I am Jewish because we don’t celebrate Christmas.”

“I am Jewish because I lost family in the Holocaust.”

“I am Jewish because I live in fear and dread of antisemitism.”

“I am Jewish because we get bagels and lox on Sunday mornings.”

“I am Jewish because I became a Bar Mitzvah.”

Yes, all of that is true, but incomplete.

I am Jewish because that is my born identity, but also because embracing my Jewish identity and studying the infinite writings, teachings, and practice of Judaism helps me to achieve a higher level of mindfulness and peace, to be a better husband, father, son, brother, uncle, cousin, in-law, friend, and stranger.

I draw great inspiration from my beloved cousin, Rabbi Stacy K. Offner, who took care of me when I was a toddler and became one of the first ordained women rabbis as well as the first openly gay woman rabbi.

To this day, my beloved Cousin Stacy, aka “Rabbi Offner”, answers my questions with love and patience, and never an iota of condescension or disappointment that my knowledge of Judaism is but a speck of sand in the Sinai compared to hers.

I embrace my Judaism because as a young child I was welcomed into the homes of friends who were Catholic, Black, Protestant, religious and not. They could have viewed me as a stranger, but they did not. They took me in and loved me as they loved their own children — and yet I had the special benefit of never “getting in trouble” with the parents because I was not actually their child, so I could “get away with anything” (and did). In many ways, I was the “favored child,” like Jacob or Joseph.

The music of Debbie Friedman is a daily inspiration to me, both nostalgic and full of present power and meaning.

Again and again I can listen to her Mi Shebeirach, and the emotions are as powerful as the first time I heard it. Over and over, I adore And Thou Shalt Love as well as Im Tirtzu.

I follow the Israeli news closely and struggle with my place. I do not live there — is it any of my business? There is serious talk of Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Can this really happen, and what will it mean? What would the consequences be?

Do I have any business being concerned about Bezalel Smotrich? Could he and I have a constructive conversation?

Were I to introduce myself to Israeli settlers or Palestinians living in the West Bank, how would they receive me?

If I could sit down in circumstances guaranteeing safety for all and have a conversation with Palestinians in Gaza and leaders of Hamas, what would we say to each other?

When I talk and pray with the guys from Chabad in Times Square after they ask me the obligatory, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”, what do they actually think of me? What, if anything, is behind their politeness and patient teaching?

I confessed to them, “I am embarrassed to say I know so little about Judaism compared to you,” and they responded, “No, no, it is ok. It is taught that the embarrassed person cannot learn.”

Indeed, they are right. The embarrassed person cannot learn.

I am crushed by the deterioration of Black-Jewish relations, which have been foundational to my life since I was five years old. Were the works and days of MLK and Rabbi Heschel just a symbolic mirage?

Can we get back there, or was it an illusion all along?

I read Vayigash today and my mind expands with wonder and contemplation of its mysteries. It is “merely” one parshah, but are there limits on the wisdom it can impart?

To all my family, all my friends, and all strangers, Jewish or not, to all Israelis and all Palestinians, Shabbat Shalom, and to quote Pope John XXIII, may his memory be a blessing, I am Joseph, your brother.

We can better the world together, if we are committed genuinely. Have we any other choice?

About the Author
Mike Offner was born and raised in Newton, MA, and is a graduate of the Newton Public Schools, Yale University, and Harvard Law School.
Related Topics
Related Posts