Shortly before my son turned a year old, I joined a Mommy and Me
group. The reason I joined was simple: Most of my friends with babies had gone back to work, and I was lonely and depressed.
Fortunately, I didn't have to look too far for help. At the time we
lived in Silver Lake, a hip enclave in Los Angeles rife with co-ops and nursery schools and mommy groups. After calling around, I found a class at the Hollywood-Los Feliz Jewish Community Center. The center was conveniently located just down the hill from where we lived. But I had another, more specific reason for choosing this JCC: My husband is Jewish, and I wanted my son to explore that side of his heritage.
On my first visit to the center, I was appalled. The place hardly
seemed the ideal environment for young children: a decaying two-story brick building with a concrete playground and a sandbox full of gritty dirt. There wasn't even a patch of grass, for God's sake. The school was on Fountain Avenue, a frantically busy street off Sunset near the eastern fringes of Hollywood. You had to
practically take your child's life in your hands just to negotiate a
turn into the parking lot. I also wasn't impressed by the neighborhood, with its liquor store, auto body shop, video rental place and odd mix of falling-down rental units with overgrown yards.
I was all for bohemian. In fact, we'd chosen our Silver Lake
neighborhood, with its mix of gays, Latinos, artists and young families like ourselves, precisely because of its liberal flavor. But I also wanted my son to be safe. This felt iffy.
In retrospect, these things all seem so silly, so typical of a first-time mother. They revealed absolutely nothing about the quality of the center or the incredible teachers who worked there. By the end of our first session, my misgivings had vanished. Over the next two years, the Jewish Community Center became a beloved place in our lives, a weekly ritual that my son and I looked forward to just as we did our weekly trips to Myrna's Yogurt Shop or Hard Times Pizza. When we moved to just outside Pasadena two years later, I still took my daughter to classes at the JCC in our old neighborhood.
The Jewish Community Center embodied my ideas of education and faith: loving, inclusive, engaging. Even though I'd brought my son there because he was in part Jewish,
we'd have been just as welcome if we were Catholic. Most of the parents were of various faiths;
some didn't go to church or temple at all. None of that mattered. At the end of the day, all that mattered was the vision we shared for our children: to have them learn and to play in a safe and loving place. What we got was that and more -- a sense of community. This idea of connection and rootedness is precisely why so many parents who weren't Jewish found the JCC appealing, particularly those of us who'd been shaped by the social movements of the '70s.
I'm not sure who loved the place more, my son or I. Every Monday evening a few minutes before 4:30, I'd buckle my son into his car seat and down the hill we'd fly. He seemed to always know where we were going; the minute we'd pull into the parking lot, he'd be kicking his legs against the seat and tugging on his straps to escape. I remember the pleasure of walking up to the front gate, looking through the wrought-iron bars and waving at the other mothers and fathers.
We sang Jewish songs, recited Jewish prayers and learned the meaning of the High Holidays. We also did all the other things preschoolers do: finger-painted, played dress-up, drank "bug juice" at snack time. The JCC encouraged the children to grow and play, but in an atmosphere that also wrapped them in a subtle structure. My first career had been as a kindergarten teacher, and the JCC's educational philosophy felt absolutely right to me. For my son, it was his first experience socializing with a group of children, his first lessons in tolerance. He learned the give and take of sharing. I learned to appreciate his boundless energy and fierce spirit, traits I often found exhausting if not frustrating.
One of his teachers, a chic woman with gray hair named Ruthie, had spent time on a commune in Israel. Ruthie was lively and opinionated and terribly smart. She also was great with my son, who seemed to get in frequent scraps with his little peers in the yard. Where I saw a little boy who was at times too aggressive and reckless, a child who shot down the long metal slide like a rocket, she saw a little boy who was determined and winning. "Look at him!" she'd say admiringly as my daring towhead raced around the playground on one of the metal tricycles or chased after one of the large red rubber balls. "I've never seen a kid with so much energy! Isn't he something?" Ruthie made us see our bewildering children in an expanded, more generous light.
When I look back now, I realize that it was Ruthie's ability to appreciate our children as individuals, to see their difficulties as a form of distinction, that embodies what I think the JCC was all about. It was a time of wonder and simplicity in my life as a mother, and in my son's as a small child.
This is what we must keep, hold onto as we contemplate the horror of the shootings this week at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. "This is a wake-up call to kill Jews," Buford Furrow told the FBI when the bureau took him into custody. We could allow ourselves to be frightened and intimidated by such rubbish and blatant evil. Or we could see it as our own wake-up call: to ban the sale of assault weapons in this country once and for all, for starters. But we also need to do a better job of teaching our children values like tolerance, respect and compassion. These were the lessons my children learned at the Jewish Community Center. They learned them well.
There was one thing about the center I didn't like. To get into the
gate, you had to punch in a code. I was always forgetting the code, so I'd invariably have to yell through the bars for someone to
let us in. That used to annoy the hell out of me. Now I'm glad the code is there.