School Supplement: Sunday school veterans remember good, bad and both

Fifteen years ago, David Fink, like most teenagers, felt he had better things to do on Sunday mornings than go to Sunday school, particularly during football season.

But the San Francisco teen went anyway, to please his parents.

"We were an obnoxious, cynical group, which most of the teachers did not know how to deal with," he said.

"During our last year we had a teacher who understood. One day he told us the Bible was like a novel and he expounded on that. Even at age 15 I was still impressionable, and while I didn't agree with him, I was shocked. I could hardly wait to answer my parents' question, `So, what did you discuss in class today?'"

Fink's father's reaction was noncommittal. "He said, `It's an interesting idea.' My mother, on the other hand, gasped. `He said what?'"

Attending Sunday school is usually a matter of choice — of the parents. Some kids go more willingly than others. So some have pleasant memories, some recall it as a chore, others have mixed views.

One woman remembers she enjoyed attending classes on Sunday morning after learning to deal with fierce competition. Among her classmates were the rabbi's daughter, the temple president's daughter and the younger brother of the teacher, all of whom were expected to be the best.

Ron Giteck, who taught Sunday school for 12 years in Marin County, attended a cheder in Brooklyn as a young child where the second-grade teacher was a very old man.

"One day we came to class and our lesson was to see the old man die before our eyes. We were all very young and very shocked to see this," he said.

Some time later, his parents transferred him to another less religious school, which he remembers as being more like the Sunday schools of today.

When he taught Sunday school in San Rafael, Giteck said he mostly enjoyed it. The students were "psychologically healthy, caring, came from well-to-do families, and were indulged," he said.

He primarily taught younger children, in the second and third grades, a sharp contrast to the high school students he had one year.

"I never had a [younger] kid who did not have a belief in God. They had a primitive belief that the universe was the result of something positive, something that came from God," he said.

"The high school students, on the other hand, questioned everything, were very skeptical," he said.

Occasionally, teaching brought its own rewards. "One year I had a young boy in class whose parents were divorcing. He was very upset and depressed about this and did not want to come to class," he said.

"Instead of sitting in a chair, he sat under the desk. I didn't freak out about this. I noticed, however, that whenever I asked a question, I would see a hand raised from under the desk.

"Eventually, he learned to trust me and confide in me. His mother told me that his experience in Sunday school helped him in his regular school."

The times are changing, as are Sunday schools.

"Sunday school, like other educational facilities, has become `politically correct,'" he said.

"God does not have a gender. No longer are beauty contests held for Queen Esther at Purim. I think it is dishonest to change the stories of Sholem Aleichem and the "Wise Men of Chelm" so that they are no longer about men, but now can be about anyone. The situation was much different in the 19th century and the stories don't lend themselves to adaptation so well. Today, we have women rabbis. That would have been unthinkable then."

Eric Naftaly of Daly City said he was expected to attend Sunday school, but "felt neutral about it. In the early grades, I remember that I did not want to go. Eventually, it became more of a social situation."

A teacher in the fourth grade made learning Jewish history more interesting, if perhaps a bit unusual.

"He had a good sense of humor," Naftaly said. "I remember one story he told about how Abraham and his family were buried under the name `Machpelah,' who supposedly was an Irishman and had invented whiskey. Abraham was to have won the name in a gambling game. He told a lot of stories like this," said Naftaly.

Marcia Smith, of Oakland, was also a reluctant Sunday school student.

"I tried to get out of going to Sunday school. I didn't like it for several reasons — because I had to go, it was too `cliquey,' I didn't think the teachers were too bright and we had to get up early in the morning."

Still, Smith insisted her two sons attend Sunday school.

"I didn't want to give them a choice because they were being prepared for bar mitzvah from an early age. That was a matter of fact," she said.