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Publish Date: 6/2/2006

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From left: Julia Metlay, Griffin Midler and Alexius Jennings place landmarks on a map of Israel during a picnic for the Longmont Hebrew School recently.<Times-Call/Erin McCracken

Teaching heritage
Hebrew school helps prepare students for coming of age

 LONGMONT — About 14 years ago, Longmont resident Stephanie Hilvitz decided she was tired of driving her daughter every week to Boulder to attend Hebrew school.

There was nothing available closer, Hilvitz said.

She contacted another Longmont Jewish mother, Susan Horowitz, and the two hired a teacher to teach Hebrew in Longmont to five children, including three of their own.

It was the start of the first Hebrew school in Longmont.

Today, 16 children and three teachers participate in the school that Hilvitz and Horowitz started.

The Longmont Hebrew School celebrated its year-end party May 22 in Left Hand Park in Longmont with food, games and crafts.

Over the years, the school at times has served as many as 21 students, depending on the needs of the community.

“It’s so exciting,” said Hilvitz, 49. “It’s fabulous. It meant a lot to me to not have to go to Boulder, and I imagine it must mean a lot to other families.”

Today, parent volunteer coordinator Shari Karmen heads the school, which offers weekly one-hour Hebrew classes for younger children and two hours of Judaic studies and Hebrew classes for older students.

“It’s really fun because it’s laid-back, but you still learn stuff,” said Griffin Midler, 12, a sixth-grader at Sunset Middle School.

Hebrew is traditionally taught at synagogues or Jewish day schools in preparation for a Jewish child’s coming-of-age ceremony, called a bar mitzvah (for boys) or bat mitzvah (for girls).

At these ceremonies, usually 13-year-old children (sometimes 12 for girls) lead traditional prayers with a rabbi at their synagogue and chant from the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures.

In the Longmont group, children often choose the prayers and write the prayer book, and the Hebrew school teacher helps the child design the service.

There is no rabbi present and no Torah, unless a family decides to also join a synagogue in another town.

“The student services reflect who the student is,” said Kaylah Zelig, an instructor at the school. “They have come to Judaism on their own terms.”

Karmen, whose mother is from India and father is Jewish, said this is exactly what she and other members of the group want.

“This is a group that is looking for something different,” Karmen said. “We’re not members of a synagogue. We didn’t want a religious service, and Kaylah was wonderful in allowing my daughter to make her service what she wanted it to be.”

The Longmont school costs much less than traditional Hebrew schools because there is no overhead, Karmen said.

She simply divides each teacher’s salary and material costs by the number of students.

This year, one hour of weekly Hebrew classes cost $80 per student for the 15-week semester, and $150 for two-hour weekly classes.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Longmont lets the school use its building for free in exchange for a mitzvah (good deed) project such as weeding or planting trees.

The first b’nai mitzvah (bar or bat mitzvah) happened seven years ago, when four children had a combined ceremony. Now, b’nai mitzvahs happen every year.

As part of it, all of the kids select and perform a good deed to do. Sarah Frank, a fifth-grader at Hygiene Elementary, is planning to offer a camp for younger girls having difficulties, such as “growing up and feeling emotional,” she said.

“A lot of my friends are having problems like peer pressure,” Sarah said. “So we decided to have a camp that will help.”

As children have their bar or bat mitzvahs — the culmination of their Hebrew school studies — parents of younger children step up to head the school, so Karmen will step down after her youngest child, who is 10, has his bar mitzvah.

“I want (the school) to remain,” Karmen said. “I like that it’s in our community. Our community is Longmont.”

For more information about the Longmont Hebrew School, call Karmen at 303-579-8731.

Susan Glairon can be contacted at 303-684-5224 or sglairon@times-call.com.

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