Growing Up at Temple Sinai

My earliest memory of Temple Sinai is of my religious school kindergarten classroom that seemed cavernous at the time but looks so small now, in the way that time distorts the childhood landscape. My mother’s father had been a founder of a conservative congregation in Richmond, VA, and my father’s family had been members of Washington Hebrew for generations. When my parents had a family of their own they joined the more intimate Temple Sinai, a congregation so new that its building wasn’t complete and services were held in the Bethlehem Chapel of the National Cathedral.

The 70s were an unruly time and my religious school classmates and I were an unruly bunch. One of my teachers announced plans to write a book about how challenging we were, an expose whose title she took from my classmate’s sole, three-word, submission (“I am God”) for what was supposed to be an essay about our beliefs. I think we exhausted her to the point that she didn’t have the energy to write the book. Another teacher lectured us on how our assimilation and lack of religious seriousness would lead God to send another Shoah and we would all be murdered. (Did our parents complain? Nope. Parents were different in the 70s as well.) I am ashamed to admit it, but we put thumbtacks on the chair of one of our Hebrew teachers thinking it was a brilliant prank. She didn’t sit on them.

I have other memories, such as the Sunday morning when a TV set was wheeled into our religious school classroom so we could watch the signing of the Camp David accord. We had dances, for real, with live bands and kids doing naughty things in dark corners. And this: as teens we were required to attend retreats, which were the closest I got to Jewish summer camp. The joyous retreat Shabbats, the camaraderie of our group and the activities that were fun and stimulating and such a welcome break from the grind of the school week, are among my best Jewish childhood memories.

Late in life my parents returned to Washington Hebrew, to be with their extended family members. For a time, my husband Leon and I attended with them. But when our daughter Rebecca was born, we realized like my parents before us, that we wanted something different for our family. We attended a Tot Shabbat – something that didn’t exist when I was growing up at Sinai – and were immediately sold on the community and the spirit of the temple.

For me, joining Sinai as an adult was coming home.

I have one memory that seems oddly emblematic of my childhood at Temple Sinai. It was toward the end of my bat mitzvah reception, a relatively modest by today’s standards luncheon in the social hall. Most of my friends had left, and my mother was giving away the centerpieces, when my parents’ friend and Sinai stalwart Helen Heller pulled me aside and asked in a concerned voice, “Dear, do you know where your glasses are?” Because community means all the adults look out for the kids. Temple Sinai was that kind of place, where the kids created our own Jewish world under the watchful eye of adults who had known us most of our lives. Times have changed but I still think Sinai is that kind of place. L’dor v’dor.


-Deborah Lewis