Congregation Shir Shalom Hebrew school students before Shabbat in November. Parker and Brooklyn Mayer (wearing the hat and in pink) are the daughters of Christian Pastor Jason Mayer. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Steve Finley)
Congregation Shir Shalom Hebrew school students before Shabbat in November. Parker and Brooklyn Mayer (wearing the hat and in pink) are the daughters of Christian Pastor Jason Mayer. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Steve Finley)

A Sonoma Hebrew School opens to non-Jews in bid to combat antisemitism

Each Wednesday, Parker and Brooklyn Mayer return home from Hebrew school and excitedly share with their parents which letter of the Hebrew alphabet they learned that week.

Their father, Jason Mayer, enjoys hearing his daughters, ages 8 and 6, singing the songs they pick up at Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma.

But the Mayers are not your typical Hebrew school family. Jason Mayer is the lead pastor and co-founder of a 2-year-old nondenominational Christian church called Sonoma Collective, and his daughters are the first non-Jewish students in the synagogue’s Hebrew school.

This past summer, Shir Shalom, an unaffiliated synagogue, invited non-Jewish children to enroll, free of charge, when religious school resumed in September. The goal is to teach children of other faiths about Judaism in an effort to curb antisemitism, according to Rabbi Steve Finley.

“It begins with biased attitudes,” Finley told J., referring to the Anti-Defamation League’s pyramid of hate, which illustrates the factors that contribute to hateful and discriminatory thoughts and behaviors.

“You start to hear in elementary school and middle school the stereotyping and dismissing anything positive,” he said. “You might hear about a person or group and readily accept negative things that are shared. And that’s how hate grows. So we said, let’s nip it in the bud.”

Synagogue Hebrew schools traditionally educate children from Jewish or interfaith households but don’t market to non-Jewish children. Adults from other faiths, however, are finding more opportunities to study Hebrew texts and learn about Judaism. In August, Yeshiva University launched a Hebraic Studies master’s program for Christian students. In Marion County, Florida, congregants at the United Church of Christ study Hebrew at Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue that shares a building with the church.

While there is debate among some Orthodox rabbis about whether Jews should teach Torah to non-Jews, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading 20th century American Orthodox rabbi, argued that teaching non-Jews in Jewish spaces is acceptable, so long as it doesn’t interrupt normal activities in those spaces.

Jason Mayer became friends with Finley through their involvement with the Sonoma Valley Interfaith Ministerial Association, where Finley is president. Mayer said the invitation for his daughters to join Shir Shalom’s Hebrew school “made all the sense in the world.”

“Kids are very impressionable, and the more they can learn and grow in a wide array of cultures and faith traditions, I think that’s good,” Mayer said. He believes that people across faiths and cultures have more in common with each other than they have differences, but prejudices can cause people to lose sight of their commonalities.

“It’s the small differences that unfortunately create so much divisiveness and which can then lead to biases and hate and so much strife in the world,” he said.

Each Wednesday afternoon, the 13 Hebrew school students spend an hour working through the Hebrew alphabet one-on-one with a volunteer tutor who is a Shir Shalom congregant. The second hour of the day is Judaic studies led by Finley, who teaches about Jewish holidays, traditions and portions of the Torah. Throughout the year, Finley’s wife, Yaffa, teaches art and leads other activities with help from staff.

Rabbi Steve Finley (Photo/Courtesy)
Rabbi Steve Finley (Photo/Courtesy)

During Hanukkah, Shir Shalom hosted a Hebrew reading recital, a twist on a children’s piano recital. The synagogue invited all Hebrew school families, their friends and members of the Sonoma community to celebrate the students’ demonstration of their Hebrew literacy skills. Sonoma Mayor Sandra Lowe was in attendance.

On every fourth Friday evening, the students participate in a potluck Shabbat service. They help with different tasks, from setting up the sanctuary to leading parts of the service. The Mayers typically spend their Fridays on family outings because Jason Mayer leads church services on Sundays. As a result, they have yet to participate in a potluck Shabbat. But they are eager to do so, he said.

The majority of Shir Shalom’s Hebrew school families have at least one parent who wasn’t raised in a Jewish home, but who are choosing to raise their child in the Jewish tradition, according to Finley, who teaches courses on Judaism and antisemitism at Sonoma State University.

When he initially asked all Hebrew school parents last spring if they’d be open to inviting non-Jewish students to study alongside their children, he got unanimous support. Then he brought the idea to Shir Shalom’s board, which also welcomed the idea.

Finley recalled only one concern that was raised: “What if this actually takes off, and we end up having more non-Jewish kids than Jewish kids?” a board member asked Finley. “What a quality problem that would be,” was his response.

In fact, Finley hopes more parents from outside the Jewish faith consider enrolling their children via the Shir Shalom website. As he sees it, the more that non-Jews know about Judaism and Jews, the more likely they are to denounce antisemitism when they come across it.

“If we could increase the number of people that have had an opportunity to get to know the Jewish people that just might step up and say, ‘Excuse me, you’re absolutely wrong,’ that’s all we need,” Finley said.

The Mayers homeschool their daughters and their 4-year-old son. Adding Hebrew literacy and Torah study to their education, their father said, will help deepen their understanding of the Holy Bible. “The Old Testament is foundational — I mean, it’s two-thirds of what our Holy Scriptures are,” Mayer said, referring to the combined length of the Old and New Testaments.

He added that one girl in the class at Shir Shalom is preparing for her bat mitzvah. “I’m sure at some point, as they continue to be part of the school, it will come up, ‘When’s ours?’” Mayer said about his children.

When that question does arise, Mayer said he won’t “shy away” from it. “I think they are opportunities to just acknowledge that there’s various ways that people engage with [transitioning into adulthood],” he said. “To me, it’s exciting to be able to talk about those things. And I would much rather expose our kids to as much of that as we can, so that they aren’t so myopic in their view of the way things are in the world.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.