It was 1967. I was attending my first year of college at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. At that time there was very little surrounding the campus. A major highway, a few buildings, but that was pretty much it. this was my first time away from home. I had grown up in Massachusetts and I had come to live in a warm climate and to study Marine Biology Oceanography.
The first year at college and away from family and familiar friends catapults the unsuspecting teenager into a maelstrom of conflict. Up until now I pretty much lived the way my parents expected me to, embodying their ethic, religion, thoughts, and basic view of the world. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people from all over the country and various parts of the world. People who had different belief systems, different ways of seeing the world around them then I did. Finding one's balance in this alien world was to be very challenging and, sometimes, frightening.
I was a nice Jewish girl who was, naturally, brought up Jewish. The only anomaly was that my mother was a Reform Jew and my father remained Conservative. It was difficult as my father preferred to go to a Conservative Synagogue for services and my mother refused to go anywhere but to a Reform Temple. According to her those in the Conservative movement were hypocrites.They were neither observant nor modern.
My brother and I went to Sunday school in an old church that the newly founded Temple my mother affiliated with rented to hold services and classes. Naturally, the young congregation hoped to build their own Temple, one day, but for now the arrangement worked. They called their newly established congregation Temple Beth Am and their church location was in Framingham, Massachusetts. Framingham was only one town over from where we lived, but the drive there always seemed to take forever to me.
I must admit I hated going to Sunday school. I would have much rather been outside playing with my friends. At that time they didn't have professional teachers, but parent volunteers who would teach the children what they knew of Judaism. So, depending on the luck of the draw you either spent the school year with someone who knew something and was able to teach it to you in a fun and interesting way. Or, you ended up with someone who knew practically nothing (or seemed to know practically nothing) as they couldn't communicate or relate to young children. I always seemed to hit the later type.
Every Sunday morning was a struggle. I just didn't want to go. Every year was the same to me. Holidays were studied as they came up on the calendar and we tasted, once again, the traditional foods for that particular holiday. One day, however, I must have been misbehaving and was sent to the Rabbi's office. This wasn't good. I dreaded having to face him. Who knew what was behind his office door? The only people I ever saw go in there were adults who didn't look so happy going in and sometimes looked worse when they came out.
Slowly I made my way down the dark stairway to the even darker lower landing. A quick turn to the right and I was facing the Rabbi's office. I timidly knocked. A moment later the door opened and the Rabbi smiled down at me. He invited me to enter. I walked in.
Immediately, I was in awe. Directly in front of me was a huge, dark wood desk covered in books, magazines, papers and writing implements. There was a large window directly behind the Rabbi's desk where rays of morning light slipped in and fell across the top of the desk and into my eyes. Surrounding the walls were books. There were hundreds and thousands of books on ceiling to floor bookshelves. I looked down to see my feet covering a flower sort of design in deep reds. Later I was told it was an Oriental rug. I liked it.
The Rabbi asked me to sit down in an oversized brown leather chair facing his desk. As I pulled myself up into the chair as directed, the Rabbi walked around his desk and sat down in a similar chair across from me.
"So," he asked, "what happened?"
I didn't know what to say. I certainly didn't want the Rabbi to be angry with me but I didn't really remember what happened. Whatever it was happened so fast.
"I don't know." I answered softly.
"Come, come," the Rabbi exclaimed kindly, "you must have some idea. No one is sent to me unless they acted in some inappropriate way. Don't worry. I will not hurt you. I just want to understand, to help."
This was a new twist. He looked sincere. He had a kind and gentle smile on his smooth shaven face. He certainly didn't look mean.
"Well," I volunteered, "I guess I was talking when I shouldn't have been talking and I wasn't paying attention to the teacher."
"Ah," he exclaimed softly as he moved his head up and down in apparent understanding, "and why did you behave in this manner?"
My brain was speeding in all directions and my heart was pounding. Should I tell him the truth or make something up that might not get me into as much trouble? I opted for the truth, as I saw it.
"It's boring." I told him. "I'm tired of hearing about all the holidays over and over again. I want to learn about real Judaism. I want to learn about the Torah (Five Books of Moses). I want to know, to understand things."
"I see." The Rabbi rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
I decided not to say anymore. I waited for his reprimand, a suitable punishment. It never came. Instead, he pointed around the room at all his books and told me that he, too, wanted to learn about real Judaism. That he wanted to understand the Torah and to understand things. He told me that was why he had so many books. He read all the time trying to learn, to understand, to know. He told me that I should be patient. That it takes a lifetime of learning to understand a little. He then pulled out a couple of books from the shelf, leafed through them a bit, and then handed them over to me.
"Why don't you read what you can from these two books?" he kindly said as he handed the books to me. "I realize the words may not be easy to understand for you, but I think you would enjoy learning these things. Don't lose those books. All books are precious and have to be given the greatest respect. Knowledge is contained in books. I rarely loan out my books but I think you are trustworthy." He smiled down at me again. "If you don't understand something, please come and visit me. I will try to explain what I can. Later, we can talk about what you have read. Would this be okay with you, Chidle Rochel?"
Chidle Rochel was the name they called me in Sunday school. Sometimes I didn't recognize it as being a reference to me. I was Karen. Anyway, I nodded my head in acceptance.
"Good." the Rabbi said in obvious pleasure. "You sit here for now and look through the books I have given you. You have my permission to stay in my office today until school is over. If you want to look at any other books in here please do so, but don't take any without my permission first. Okay?"
"Okay." I replied.
The Rabbi excused himself and left me alone in his office. It was so peaceful in this place. It had the feeling of the sanctuary during prayer. It was a safe place, a place of learning. I loved it in the Rabbi's office and didn't want to ever return to Sunday school class. I wanted to stay, surrounded by all this wisdom. I wanted to read every book on the Rabbi's bookshelves so that I could learn all there was to learn and so I could, finally, understand things. I wanted to stay and talk with this Rabbi who was so kind, who treated me like a real person, and who was willing to talk to me about important things.
To me, Judaism was that Rabbi in that special room called the Rabbi's office. The smells in that room were the smells of Judaism, of learning and wisdom. All those books were as a universe to be explored. This was what I had been longing for. This was what I wanted to be doing. Not wasting my time in a class with other kids who didn't what to be there either, being taught by someone who didn't know much more than we did. I wanted to stay with this Rabbi.