Changing Lives in Charlotte
Shalom Park Freedom School
scholars playing chess,
Picture this: 50 summer campers, mostly Hispanic
and African-American elementary school children, are eating a kosher breakfast
served by a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi. The campers are reading books in a
Conservative temple’s religious school classrooms. Jewish volunteers are leading
afternoon activities. The program is being coordinated by an African-American
Pentecostal preacher. And more than half of its expenses are underwritten by a
Reform congregation, Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Welcome to the Shalom Park Freedom School in Charlotte.
A national program of the Children’s Defense Fund, Freedom Schools® offer
nearly 10,000 low-income children in the U.S. intensive literacy education in a
summer camp environment: two-and-a-half hours of reading and literacy in the
morning, complemented by traditional camp activities in the afternoon, plus
breakfast, lunch, and a healthy snack. Whereas over the summer most low-income
students lose two or three months of reading ability, more than 50% of the
“scholars” (as the children are called) typically gain a full year of reading
comprehension at the 15 sites in Charlotte operated by a local nonprofit,
Freedom School Partners.
In 2010, Rabbi Judith Schindler of Temple Beth El sought to create the first
CDF Freedom School program sponsored by a Jewish community. She reached out to
eight Jewish agencies in Shalom Park, a 54-acre campus home to Temple Beth El,
Temple Israel (Conservative), Charlotte Jewish Day School, Levine Jewish
Community Center, Jewish Family Services of Greater Charlotte, Levine-Sklut
Judaic Library, the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, and the Foundation
of Shalom Park. Everyone signed on. Coordinating logistics among eight agencies
was complicated, but in the summer of 2011 the Shalom Park Freedom School opened
On a typical day, the 50 scholars eat breakfast in the Charlotte Jewish Day
School cafeteria and use the school’s playground, gather in the Shalom Park
Foundation’s assembly room, receive literacy instruction in Temple Israel’s
religious school classrooms, participate in the Levine-Sklut Library’s story
time, and carry well-stocked backpacks supplied by the Jewish Federation’s Lions
The program also resonated with the larger Charlotte Jewish community. So
many volunteers signed up, an overflow of callers had to be referred to other
Freedom School sites. Among the volunteers were unaffiliated Jews who connected
to the Shalom Park community for the first time because of their commitment to
Last July, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman visited
Charlotte for Jubilee, a gathering of 1,800 scholars and 600 community leaders
from North and South Carolina, and witnessed the strength of the Shalom Park
program firsthand. She later wrote: “I hope that many other communities will be
inspired to follow this example.”
Congregations interested in establishing such a program in their Jewish
community are encouraged to contact Temple Beth El member Judy Seldin-Cohen: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jews of Astoria
Holding the challah for motzi.
In 2009, HUC-JIR rabbinical students Mara Young and Cassi Kail became
enthralled with Astoria, a multicultural area of Queens, New York where they
lived. The only thing missing was a Jewish community—so they started a minyan
called “The Wandering Jews of Astoria.” The group’s first Shabbat service
and vegetarian potluck, in Young’s home, attracted half a dozen people. Two
years later, through a combination of social networking (including Facebook,
Twitter, and the area’s popular website whyleaveastoria.com) as well as word of
mouth, the minyan has grown to over 100 people. Jews of all types, many
of them in their 20s and 30s, all gather for Shabbat services and a potluck
dinner at members’ homes as well as for social events with Judaism creatively
integrated into the festivities.
Rabbis Young and Kail (both have since been ordained and work in URJ
congregations) believe that other communities seeking to reach younger Jews
might benefit from experimenting with this model, which offers a
hyper-personalized approach to religion. “We did not create a minyan and
say ‘this is how we do things; join us if you do it the same way,’” Rabbi Kail
says. “We welcomed both Jews and non-Jews as they are, and worked with them to
make sure they were comfortable and open to everything the community had to
The minyan’s leadership is voluntary and un-hierarchical (no titles).
Meetings are held in open forums, with the entire community invited. And because
of the group’s pluralistic nature, its siddur weaves together multiple
traditions. Not every liturgical tradition or theology is addressed at each
egalitarian service, but the organizers make sure that participants feel
included. One of the more traditional worshipers commented: “Parts of the
service should make us feel a little bit uncomfortable, and this discomfort is a
good thing. It symbolizes the struggles we all have with God, while pushing us
to ask more questions and try new approaches.”
Co-creating a Bat Mitzvah
Tallit: The Ties that Bind
Mel with his granddaughters
Claire (left) and Alicia
“I couldn’t imagine all the good that would come from my simple request,”
says Naomi Ruben.
Her daughter Claire was becoming a bat mitzvah at Cincinnati’s Isaac M. Wise
Temple, and Naomi wanted to involve her own parents/Claire’s grandparents in the
experience leading up to the celebration. But how could they, living 1500 miles
away? She wrote them a heartfelt invitation: Could they find a way to connect
with Claire as she prepared for her special day?
A chemist by training, Claire’s grandfather Mel Gallant, a member of Aspen
Jewish Congregation in Aspen, Colorado, had discovered his artistic side later
in life. In his 40s he taught himself to sculpt and created life-like head
sculptures of several family members. After his “clay” period, he tried his hand
in oils; later, Rya rugs (a number of his abstract rug designs won awards at
local art shows); and then abstract wooden sculptures (now sold to collectors).
Committed to continuing his artistic growth and nurturing his relationship with
his granddaughter, Mel called Claire and offered her a choice: he would purchase
a bat mitzvah tallit of her choosing, or he would collaborate with her on
designing her own tallit that she could proudly wear during her bat
A stunned Claire accepted the invitation to collaborate with her grandfather.
As for Mel, after he hung up the phone, he said to himself, “What have I done? I
don’t know how to make a tallit! What do I do now?”
He spent months reading and testing different dyes and paints until he was
able to paint silk consistently with sharp edges. Claire asked that the stripes
in her tallit be colored blue (symbolizing the second day of creation,
when the “waters above” were separated from the “waters below”), green
(representing the third day, the creation of vegetation), and brown (meaning the
Earth); and grandfather and granddaughter worked together on their width and
placement. Mel painted a picture of Jerusalem for the atarah (collar) per
Claire’s request, and designed a Star of David and Claire’s Hebrew name, which
were embroidered on a reinforcing square at each of the inside four corners.
Meanwhile, Claire studied the methods and prayers of how to tie the
tzitzit. When the tallit arrived, Claire carefully made the proper
knots, reciting the blessing each time. And on the day of her bat mitzvah, she
wore her co-created tallit with pride.
Inspired by the experience, Mel co-created a tallit with another
grandchild, Alicia, for her bat mitzvah service at Congregation Keneseth Israel
in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And for the wedding of Naomi’s brother Lawrence and
his fiancé Amy, he co-created with them a chuppah displaying a Star of
David bordered by flowers.
“I feel a strong sense of accomplishment and quiet pride at having made three
art pieces with so much meaning to my granddaughters, my son, and me,” Mel says.
“I extended my presence in Claire and Alicia’s lives, bonding with them in a way
that words alone would not have done— and they will feel my loving caress
whenever they put on their tallit. And I incorporated Lawrence and Amy’s
joy and love for each other into the chuppah. I visualized the future and
saw their children standing under it. I had a sense of immortality.”