May 28, 2018 – Rabbi Susan Leider

A Love for a Language, A Passion for a People

Take it from me, someone who learned to decode (read phonetic) Hebrew in my mid-twenties:  it just takes some time and repetition.  I still remember sitting in the back of the synagogue, slowly decoding the first few words of the Amidah, (the silent standing prayer).  In the time it took everyone else to complete the prayer, I felt triumphant if I correctly decoded eight words!  But with time, I too was able to speed up my reading, to understand it, to read Hebrew literature, to navigate in Israel and to feel that this language is truly my own. 

One of my favorite things that I do at Kol Shofar is to teach Hebrew decoding as a part of the Judaism 101 in partnership with in the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program.  I share the privilege of learning two and half hours a week with adult students over a span of eighteen weeks here in our building.  This class incorporates an unbelievable amount of material – holidays, Jewish values, history, prayer lifecycles and the skill of decoding the Hebrew language.

But one of my favorite parts of the class is when we go around the table and I listen as students learn to decode Hebrew (to read out loud without comprehension).  For those of you who know how to decode, or to read and understand Hebrew, you might ask me, “Why, Rabbi Leider, do you like teaching such a fundamental and basic skill?”

This is indeed a skill acquisition that requires repetition, dedication and time and evokes no small amount of frustration on the part of the learner.  But I derive great reward from it.  Whenever one of my students converts and I am their sponsoring rabbi, I accompany them to meet with the bet din, the rabbinic court that effects this lifecycle moment.  I am also present when they immerse in the mikveh.  I remember the first time when I stood witnessing the conversion of a student whom I had taught to decode Hebrew.  When this person read the blessing for immersion, it was substantially different for me.  As I heard the Hebrew come out of her mouth, I felt the pride and joy of a teacher who was there from the first “bet” to the last “taf.” 

It is a lot of work to learn this first step of cleaving to a new language.  Decoding comes first and then the increasing comfort with the prayer book follows as a new “reader” acclimates to services and feels a part of the community in a new way.  Comprehension comes later and understanding the beauty of the shorashim, the roots that form the building blocks of Hebrew and lend a nuance that simply doesn’t exist in the English language.

I was reminded of the importance of my teaching decoding in the Intro Class, when I once read a thought-provoking article by David Hazony in the Jewish Daily Forward.  (  Here Hazony passionately lays out his case for American Jews learning Hebrew.  He exhorts all of us to delve into this rich language, allowing ourselves to form more meaningful relationships with Jewish tradition and with Israelis and with Jews all over the world. I urge you to read the article and to consider how what he says can shape your Jewish journey.  If we ask this skill of those who convert to Judaism, then we can create a community in which all Jews can feel comfortable coming forward to claim their language – Hebrew.  The fact that so many American Jews are not familiar with Hebrew is what he calls the “800-pound falafel ball sitting in the room.”

Inspired by our recent celebration Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, I hope that you will consider how you will make more room in the rhythm of your life for Lashon Kodesh – this sacred language that blesses our books, our lips and our peak lifecycle moments.  It is yours to grasp and yours to share.  Save the date – our next Judaism 101 class begins on October 11!

If you want to learn more about this class come join us Saturday, June 23, as we honor the Jews by choice at Shabbat at Kol Shofar, starting at 9:30 a.m.

Judaism 101 at Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon, CA

With  Rabbis Leider and Steinberg
in partnership with the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program

Thursdays, 6:30 – 8:30 pm

Sundays, 9:30 am to 12:00 pm


1 10/11/18 Beginnings: From Creation to the Edge of the Wilderness
SU 2 10/14/18 The World of the Bible
TH 3 10/18/18 Heart of Many Rooms: Understanding Jewish Diversity 
SU 4 10/21/18 Holy Days: The Wheel of the Jewish Year
TH 5 10/25/18 Shabbat: Palace in Time
SU 6 10/28/18 When Do I Bow? & Other Questions About Jewish Prayer
TH 7 11/1/18 Passover: The Jewish Master Story
SU 8 11/4/18 God: Encountering the Holy
TH 9 11/8/18 Talmud: Argument for the Sake of Heaven
SU 10 11/11/18 Starting Over: The High Holy Days  
TH 11 11/15/18 Kashrut: The Original Soul Food
SU 12 11/18/18 Philosophers, Poets, and Mystics: The Jewish Middle Ages
TH   11/22/18 No Class – Thanksgiving
SU   11/25/18 No Class – Thanksgiving Weekend
TH 13 11/29/18 Marriage, Love & Kosher Sex
SU 14 12/2/18 From Birth to B’nai Mitzvah: Raising a Mensch
TH 15 12/6/18 A Time to Mourn: Traditions for Death, Grief, & Healing
SU 16 12/9/18 Out of the Darkness: Stories from the Holocaust
TH 17 12/13/18 Israel: Dreaming of Deliverance
SU 18 12/16/18 The Jewish Mission to Heal the World
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