Ruth's name, transferred to vellum and colored to
create a stained-glass effect—a personal piece of
Hebrew art for the home.
I was the brand-new rabbi at 60-household Congregation Beth Hatikvah (CBH) in Bremerton, Washington when I showed up for the annual Sukkot program hosted by the religious school. Because many members are active-duty navy families whose children receive intermittent Hebrew education, the students are grouped by ability level—like the ninth-grade student currently studying for her bat mitzvah because her family was living in Japan, where she had no access to Hebrew school—but did
earn a black
belt in karate.
Learning from religious school director Bari Udell that all CBH students and teachers go by their Hebrew names, I asked the students to tell me about theirs. "My name is Shachar," said an 11-year-old boy. "It means 'raven,' just like my English name, Corben." "What a great name!" I replied. "But shachar means 'dawn' or 'morning,' as in the Shacharit service." (Later I had the insight: the family was probably told that "raven" could be translated as sh'chor, or "black," and the vowels had gotten confused.) A 10-year-old girl told me her name was Ofek, which meant "meadow," the same as her English name. But, I thought, ofek means "horizon," not "meadow." Unsure, though, of the Hebrew word for "meadow," I said nothing. Another name which first puzzled me was 11-year-old "CoHAVEah "—until it finally dawned on me that the girl's name was actually "CochaVAH," or "star."
Then the grandmother of 11-year-old Rachel, called Rahel at religious school, mentioned that Rachel's Hebrew name was really "Esther." And a parent confided that 12-year-old Sabrina hated her Hebrew name, Rut —the name of a beloved grandmother—because to her it sounded like part of a tree.
Soon it became apparent that many of the children's Hebrew names had been chosen by their parents as the young people entered religious school rather than given to them in a ritual ceremony, such as a brit milah (circumcision) or simchat bat (celebrating the birth of a girl). The children knew little about how their parents had chosen their Hebrew names and were often mistaken about what those names meant.
This inspired me to create lesson plans on Jewish naming traditions called "The Hebrew Names Project."
Meanwhile, I contacted the parents of children whose Hebrew names and meanings didn't match to see if the young people liked their names. I stressed to Corben's mom that Shachar was a great name, even if it didn't mean "raven," but if the meaning was important to Corben, the name with the best translation value for "raven" was Orev-Sh'chor. She predicted that her son would choose to remain Shachar, but he went with the changed name (he likes having a hyphenated name and is now called Orev for short).
Meadow selected a new name akin to meadow from a list of Hebrew words I provided. She was so excited about Nira, which means an uncultivated field, her eyes shone with pleasure when she told me.
And Sabrina, who so disliked Rut, was perfectly fine with "Ruth," as was the rest of her family.
The Hebrew Names Project lessons began with a discussion of Judaism's many naming traditions: the Ashkenazic tradition of naming after a loved one who has died (Rut 's name reflects this tradition); the Sephardic tradition of naming after the living; names found in Tanach (Avraham, Esther); names chosen to reflect a special trait (Chedvah, joy; B'racha, blessing); names that share a translation value with the child's English name (Orev); or names from the natural world (Cochavah, Nira), etc.
Children also gathered information about their Hebrew names and, when relevant, what their namesakes were like, sharing their stories in class. For an art project, outlined forms of the students' Hebrew names were printed in a large type size and transferred to vellum, which the students shaded with colored pencils to produce a stained-glass effect (adding small glittering gems, too). Each child had a beautiful, personal, frame-worthy piece of Hebrew art to bring home.
After the naming lessons, I decided it was time to hold a "Congregation-Wide Naming Ceremony" that would be open to anyone who wished to choose, add, or change a Hebrew name. Three adult women, two teens, and seven children wanted to participate. Each chose a new name with great seriousness, describing the character traits of the relative the person wished to honor, or giving another reason why the chosen name was meaningful.
The ceremony took place on the Shabbat before we began to read from Sh'mot, meaning names. In a sense we readied ourselves for Sh'mot by some of our members' claiming their new names. As part of a special Kabbalat Shabbat service, the 12 participants ascended the bimah, either individually or with their families. Each person spoke briefly about his/her namesake, and what the name meant to him/her. Congregants were wiping away tears as they listened. I gave every "name-ee" a traditional blessing (adapted as required for the occasion) which included: "Let her/him be known in Israel as…," and presented with a certificate of naming. Afterward, we all sang a rousing round of Siman Tov u' Mazal Tov, then celebrated at oneg Shabbat with a giant red velvet cake emblazoned with "MAZAL TOV!"
Afterward, Meadow told me that she wanted to use her Hebrew name all the time. Jasmine, a teen who had chosen to augment her Hebrew name B'racha by adding the middle name Eitana ("strong"), said, "My Hebrew name now feels like two parts of me combined, the Jewish part and my personality." And Jasmine's mom, Melinda, who had not been given a Hebrew name as a child, later wrote to me, "Getting a Hebrew name links me to the past, present, and future all at once."
And so, it turned out to be a kind of "happy accident" that some of the children's Hebrew names had different meanings than they had thought. It led to congregation-wide learning, honoring our ancestors, and creating new shared memories for all of us.
Rabbi Sarah Newmark is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Bremerton, Washington.