Rosh HaShanah begins on the first and second days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. The subtle sighting of a new moon, juxtaposed with the urgent blast of the shofar, will usher in the Jewish new year of 5780.
But as Rosh HaShanah approaches, with its apples and honey, new fruits, and round challahs, I find myself also preparing for a different new year: the school year. Although my husband and I have been empty-nesters for quite awhile, I suddenly am immersed in backpacks, spiral notebooks, glue sticks, and protractors. That is because the Refugee Assistance Group at Congregation Shomrei Emunah (my synagogue in Montclair) has embarked on a Back-to-School drive, enabling 18 children from “our” six Syrian refugee families in Elizabeth to get a head start in September.
My husband, Andy, cochair of this group, compiled a list of school supplies based on the Elizabeth Public School’s website recommendations for grades K-12. He asked congregants to purchase these items or to make a financial contribution.
In less than two weeks, our synagogue lobby and office looked like a warehouse the week before Chanukah. Once the deliveries ceased, it was time for Judith, Mike, Andy, and me to tear open the cartons, sort the items, and fill each new backpack. Time was of the essence. Not only did the kids need the supplies by the start of the school year, they also needed the vouchers we were providing to help defray the cost of buying school uniforms.
Stuffing backpacks sounds like a tedious job, but honestly, there was a sense of wonder to it. What pictures would 5-year-old Riyadh draw with his new colored pencils and markers in kindergarten? Would they be of distant memories of a shattered life in Homs, Syria, or of his safe apartment near downtown Elizabeth?
Would 6-year-old Kresten, already a veteran of the public schools, understand that writing her ABCs on the wide-lined paper is the first step toward building a life in America? And would Riyadh and Kresten’s parents save each precious school paper and picture in one of the new colorful binders, to be treasured as a keepsake for years to come?
Each new supply has a magical potential. The child-sized scissors for Masa and Huthaifa’s tiny fingers — what shapes will they cut as they make artwork to decorate walls and refrigerators? The equations and diagrams that will fill Haitham and Hebah’s college-lined notebooks — will they set the foundation for achieving their goal of becoming doctors?
We filled backpacks with practical items, such as staplers, Post-it notes, pens, and pencils; the Syrian children and their parents filled them with dreams and good wishes.
Lamees told me about 14-year-old Shahid, who will be starting high school.
“I am very excited about my daughter and happy because it is a new study stage, and my daughter is very happy. It is a new step to form friends and teachers. Shahid started arranging her school needs and changing things in her room. Her wish is to become a pediatrician. I wish her progress, success, and excellence.”
Teenager Hayat is nervous and excited to start high school. She reflected on her summer school activities and explained to me, “My English is OK. All the teachers at school are nice and helpful. They try to make the students understand. I will never forget about them.”
She continued, “I try all my best to reach my goal by learning English. And you know, you don’t have to be great to start. You can’t start to be great; it might take time.”
Hayat is right. Her insight resonates with me as I prepare for Rosh HaShanah. One cannot start out great on the High Holidays. One needs humility. It takes time to reach the goal of becoming a better person. Through the painstaking work of prayer and teshuvah (repentance) and with both joy and trepidation, I will embrace the New Year.
May God inscribe us all in the Book of Life on Rosh HaShanah and seal us in the Book of Life on Yom Kippur. And if God needs a new pen, some paper, and a glue stick, I know some Syrian students who would be happy to share.
Merrill Silver is an ESL teacher at JVS of MetroWest in East Orange.