Commentary Magazine


The Only Jewish Family in Town:
In Rural Ohio

The names Louise Laser, Foxton, and Rufus College are fictitious, but this article by the wife of an American sociologist describes an authentic experience of an Ohio town.

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When my husband accepted a position as an associate professor of sociology at Rufus College, we moved to Foxton, Ohio, with our sons, David, five, and Allen, four. For three years, from September 1956 to August 1959, we were to live in one of the few remaining places in the United States with a genuinely rural culture. Already the growth of cross-country highways threatened the area and, inevitably, commercial developers will sound the knell of Foxton as we knew it. This is a report of what it was like to be the only Jewish family in town.

Rufus College isn’t listed in any directory under that name, but it is real—one of eighteen hundred colleges in the United States. Rufus was a hundred and five years old and had been accredited eight years when we came; it was then independent, though it had begun as a church-related institution and there were still occasional skirmishes over policy with trustees accustomed to the old ways. Most of the students at Rufus came from rural workingmen’s families, or from small farms—the children of the well-to-do farmers in the area or of Foxton’s business and professional people went to the state university. The usual sociological investigations of student bodies have scarcely ever reached into obscure little colleges like Rufus. There we found the “unknowns”—including a handful of Jewish students far away from anything resembling a familiar home environment.

Mostly, Rufus students had come from high schools whose total enrollment was well under a hundred, and they were apt to be the first in their families to go to college. They arrived with little understanding of or interest in the liberal arts. The boys chose industrial arts so that they could be foremen, or physical education so as to get coaching positions, or agriculture to help them in their farming. The girls were preparing to be elementary schoolteachers. Boys and girls both reflected the fundamentalist backgrounds of rural Ohio. Smoking was almost unknown and drinking confined to an insignificant number and then only off campus. The girls were pretty in a fresh sort of way, appearing more like high school students than college coeds. They dressed simply, with lipstick their only cosmetic; the Freshman women’s council once censured students who wore nail polish.

Socially, the students were extremely awkward. A new dean of women fresh from Bryn Mawr felt it necessary after eating in the dining hall to have mimeographed a booklet of “Tips on Good Manners.” She included such items as: “Don’t eat from the serving bowl. Put your portion on your own plate and pass the dish along,” and “Peas are to be eaten with a fork.” At a fraternity dinner dance, chaperons were left standing in the foyer while the young men and their dates raced to places at the tables. Many students, accustomed to the informality and first-name basis of the farm, called their professors “Doc.” I heard a sophomore greet the sixty-one-year-old dean of the faculty with: “Say, I saw your old lady in town today.” There were not enough middle-class students to serve as models for more sophisticated manners, but younger faculty members, themselves from Ivy League colleges, assumed some responsibility.

My husband was the only Jewish member of the faculty and we discovered we were the first Jews many of these students had ever known. I was invited to the Freshman women’s dormitory one evening for a coffee hour, and when the inevitable question was asked: “What are your impressions of college?” some of the girls commented that they were having their first chance to meet “other” people. Many had never known a Catholic, some had never seen a Negro, a majority had never met a Jew. Not one had known anyone whose native tongue was other than English. One seventeen-year-old girl (obviously suffering with a case of homesickness) said: “Until I came to Foxton I had never known anyone who was not a member of the E.U.B. church.” She told us that everyone in her town of a hundred and seventy-five souls was affiliated with the Evangelical United Brethren church, and she was meeting other Protestants for the first time.

It is difficult to realize how much isolation remains, even in this age of mass communication. Rufus coeds could sing Hit Parade tunes, a few were experimenting with Italian hair-cuts, and their teen-age patter sounded not very different from what one might hear, say, in Levittown. But radio and television had brought only superficial uniformity—in personal interaction these youngsters were just about as distant from the world outside their immediate environment as their grandfathers who had been thrilled by a first look at Henry Ford’s machine. The few actual foreign students enrolled at Rufus seemed like visitors from another planet to these rural Ohioans.

As grandchildren of immigrants, my husband and I were intensely curious about this community where six or seven generations of a family had worshiped in the same church, where participants in a pageant celebrating the 150th anniversary of the settlement of the town wore the very clothes worn by their ancestors—the first settlers—merely taking them down from the attic and pressing them for the occasion. Youngsters climbed trees that had been planted by their great-grandparents. Once during a prolonged drought we asked our neighbor about his well—had it gone dry? He brought out the family Bible to show us: there had not been a water problem on his land since 1849. Listed in several hands was the record of windstorms, early frost, fire, lightning, epidemic—carefully noted along with sons gone to war and come home, births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths.

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Foxton, when we were there, had a population of eight thousand, only four hundred more in 1959 than had been reported in the census of 1920. It was thirty-five miles from the nearest railroad station, sixty miles from an airport, and the only public transportation in town was furnished by a company which maintained four taxis. Only fifty miles from a city of one hundred thousand, it had no interest in or connection with that metropolis. Foxton was not a suburb, or a dormitory town, but the county seat of a prosperous farming area, attracting shoppers and pleasure seekers from the villages round about. Hogs and sheep were the basis of the area’s prosperity, and a few farms could boast Grade A milk herds. Most of the farm families had at least one cow, and the county agent found it necessary to warn constantly against the dangers of drinking unpasteurized milk. While we were there, he had publicly condemned church ice cream socials—until the sponsors agreed to use only pasteurized ingredients, although some farmers complained that “it spoiled the taste.” In this farming country, there were as many veterinarians as medical doctors. The businessmen in town who came from farms often still maintained them with hired help.

The downtown area of Foxton ran two blocks on Sugartree Street and around the corner another block along Mulberry Street. Here were the five-and-ten, ready-to-wear, hardware and paint stores, and the prescription drugstores. The bank building, commanding the corner location, had steps broad enough to accommodate whoever felt like sitting down to watch the town go by. Around the corner was the hotel: sixteen rooms, nine baths, and an excellent dining room. The county courthouse and the Elks meeting hall were Foxton’s two biggest buildings, but its best-looking edifice was the one-story post office whose cornerstone revealed it had been built by WPA labor in the 30’s—in spite of the fact that the community had never gone Democratic even when many other farming areas deserted the Republican columns. Years ago the local garden club had planted red, white, and blue perennials around the post office, with especially thick clusters hiding the cornerstone, except in winter, when the inscription could be seen. But it was three towering feed mills and grain elevators that dominated the town’s skyline, as the farmers dominated the town.

Several of the stores in downtown Foxton bore no identifying signs and a newcomer had to look inside to see what was being sold. Some signs were misleading: the marquee of the drugstore read “Applegate’s,” but everyone called it “Conway’s” though Conway had sold out in 1941. The town’s only jeweler did business under a hardware store sign he had not bothered to change since moving in eight years before. Foxton had a movie theater whose faded decorations reflected its earlier life as a vaudeville house for road shows; during the summer months there was also a drive-in, where the third-run pictures shown in town made a final appearance under the stars.

The county was a dry one, by local option, and had several active WCTU chapters. Teen-agers sipped their cokes Friday and Saturday nights in a basement room on Mulberry Street which had been converted into a recreation hall for them; fifteen to twenty couples danced here to phonograph records. A drive-in hamburger stand and a milk bar with a few sidewalk tables, each with a juke box, offered the only other public recreation. Foxtonians, however, had dozens of organizations to keep them busy. The town had its full share of civic and fraternal associations, Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, Elks, Masons, Grange, American Legion, complete with auxiliaries; numerous church-affiliated groups, social clubs, Tuesday Book Club, Wednesday Music Club, Friday Sew & Nibble Club, athletic groups, farmer cooperatives, 4-H. A committee setting a date for a PTA meeting or a church affair would be hard put to it to find an hour when no conflict in schedule would occur.

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Engagement calendars might be full, but the pace was leisurely. In the hunting season stores opened whenever the proprietors got back with their “legal limit.” Downtown sidewalks were crowded with clusters of visiting county folk. Often, driving, you found yourself stuck behind someone who had stopped to talk to a pedestrian; if you could you pulled around, if you couldn’t you stayed there. Horns were honked to attract attention; it was only those with out-of-county licenses who tooted in anger or frustration. Generally speaking, personal visiting was easier than telephone communication. Phone service was supplied by a small company to which we paid eight dollars and fifty cents a month for a ten-party line which we could use infrequently either because it was already in use or out of order.

Foxtonians were bound by complex and far-reaching kinship ties: we were reminded that in a small town social mobility was visible in two directions. The vice president of the bank was the first cousin of a drunk who lived in a shanty back of an abandoned creek; the head of Kiwanis had an uncle who was a hired hand, as low a status as one could achieve in a land-proud county. It was impossible to live in Foxton and not be aware of shanties, undernourished and neglected children, families in need of medical care and professional guidance. Yet during a period of prosperity when the state cut down its appropriations, the head of the local welfare office was able to get almost no cooperation from the community to help families forced to live on less than half of a “minimum health” budget. Over the cash register in the store owned by the president of the Rotary Club was the printed motto: “The best place to look for a helping hand is at the end of your arm.” This seemed to express the sentiment of the rest of the town.

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I went to City Hall one of the first mornings we were in Foxton and was directed to Mrs. Hare in the treasurer’s office. She was the thin, gray-haired, erect type of septuagenarian who gives the impression she will live forever, straight-backed, vigorous, and clear-complexioned to the last. I began to introduce myself when she interrupted: “Oh, I know who you are. Your husband teaches out to the cellege and you bought Dan Fawley’s house. Lovely place. I just hope you’ll do something about those elms out front; they need tending else you’ll lose them.” Mentally I put “tree surgeon” on my list ahead of plumber and electrician—Mrs. Hare’s voice conveyed an impressive authority. She gave me a map and arranged for the testing of our well water. As I thanked her, she asked: “Do you have a church yet? I’m a Lutheran and we’d be happy to welcome you if you haven’t decided where to go.”

I replied: “Thank you, Mrs. Hare, but we’re Jewish.”

“Oh, dear,” she exclaimed with real feeling. “I’m so sorry there isn’t one of your churches in town. I believe the nearest one must be miles away.” She put her hand over mine in a gesture of friendliness. “I know what it would mean to me to be away from my church. Why don’t you just come with us Lutherans until you can get to your own church again? We have a fine Sunday school.”

Mrs. Hare was only the first of a long series of persons who invited us to their churches “until we could get to our own.” As we came to know the town we observed a constant shifting of members among the various churches, and our going (from a Conservative synagogue!) to the Episcopal church evidently would have seemed not at all strange to our Foxton neighbors. In Foxton I was reminded of problems faced by Jewish congregations when a Quaker lady strode out of Meeting one Sunday because an organ was played. The elders of one church were sharply divided because their minister wanted a choir whose members were not necessarily affiliated with his church. Another minister was battling for the right to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple whose groom was an innocent party in a divorce. Each argument led to shifts in church allegiance. After a particularly bad schism friends would say: “You’re so lucky you don’t have these problems,” and then we would tell them the story of the Jew who was shipwrecked on a desert island and built two synagogues so that he could always have one he wouldn’t be caught dead in.

Those who invited us to their churches were not consciously trying to convert us to Christianity, unlikely as this would seem in more sophisticated communities. Jews were entirely outside their experience. In Foxton the church was an important part of your life and if you liked a person you wanted him to be with you. Foxtonians understood about the few yellow or brown or black students at the college—they spoke with foreign accents, and were doubtless relatives of the heathen in far distant lands for whose conversion the Christian citizens of Foxton collected pennies. But a native white who was not a Christian? One of the faculty with whom we had become more intimate told us: “They wouldn’t let me alone. I hadn’t been inside a church since I left Baltimore fifteen years ago, but I finally joined because I got so tired of being asked why I didn’t.”

We ourselves finally attended each of the eleven churches at least once, our children going to the Sunday school classes of their age groups. A Baptist friend urged us to bring our sons again. “Certainly there is nothing in our religious instruction you would find inconsistent with your beliefs,” he said. That day our pre-schooler had brought home a picture he had colored of the Virgin Mary, and our kindergartener had been taught to sing “Jesus Loves me.” A Methodist trying to persuade us to affiliate with his church said: “I think you’ll notice our minister doesn’t talk about Christ much.” Exasperated by my own failure to explain to a Lutheran lady why I could not join the women’s group of her church, I blurted out: “I’m not a Christian!” Her embarrassed giggle was what I might have expected had I gone to the faculty-trustee formal dinner in a bikini.

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There were subtle ways in which we were reminded that Foxtonians, innocent of having ever known any Jews, shared the stereotyped image of them. My husband and I were natives of Chicago, felt our roots to be in that Midwest city, and went back there regularly to visit our families. Yet we were frequently asked: “Had you ever been west of New York before coming here?” or “Are you going home to New York for vacation?” Other parts of the stereotype, borne out by numerous incidents, meant that we were intellectuals, automatically against segregation (Foxton’s schools had been integrated only four years), and from wealthy families.

A neighboring farmer from whom we purchased our eggs told me there was “another foreign family” in town, giving the name of Polish refugees recently brought over by the Catholic church. Frequently when exchange students or visiting missionaries were in town we were asked to events honoring them, and I wondered whether this “foreign family” idea had prompted the invitation. A high school teacher told me as we were waiting to be checked out at the supermarket that she was going abroad for the summer. I made the conventional remark that I wished I were going and she said: “I know you must want to see the places your kinfolk lived.”

It was taken for granted that we were experts on Israel, and the ministers of the various churches looked upon us as a branch of the Israeli information service, telephoning even about boundaries and rainfall, or asking for the translation of occasional Hebrew words used in missionary reports. Yet rather elementary facts about Jewish taboos or customs were not known, and it was fortunate for everyone’s peace of mind that we did not observe the dietary laws. A faculty wife asked us to dinner the following Friday. Next morning she called. Did we eat meat on Friday? She set an attractive table the evening we were there and happily brought in the entree: baked ham. When I lit candles at our own table one Friday night a guest said: “Oh, I thought only Catholics lit candles.”

“Judeo-Christian,” those favorite twins of after-dinner speakers and commencement orators, were not joined in Foxton. “Christian” alone was used as a synonym for virtue, morality, wisdom, courage, duty, charity. I was asked to chair a panel discussion on voting at a local civic group; when the announcement came out it read: “Christian Citizenship.” My husband was invited to address the high school PTA on “The Christian Family.” Even those who were interested in inter-religious and inter-cultural relations failed to understand the full impact of this Christian parochialism. I belonged to a mothers’ club which included both town and farm women and prided itself on its program for international good will. One September the club had a carry-in supper to which it invited the foreign students. Standing at the table, the group sang grace. It was a pleasant grace and sweetly sung. It ended: “Bless Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.” An Egyptian student winked at a Korean and a Moslem wagged his head impishly in my direction, but I heard no comment afterward from a single member of the mothers’ club. Certainly no offense was meant by the Christian Foxtonians. It simply never occurred to any of them that their grace might not be equally acceptable to all in a gathering that included Shintoists, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews!

We wanted our younger son to be at nursery school while his older brother was busy in kindergarten. The only nursery school in town was held in the Presbyterian church and so I telephoned the minister for an appointment and went to his study. Reverend Clark, obviously a pipe devotee, greeted me through a curtain of tobacco smoke. There had never been a Jewish child in the nursery school, he said, but that was only because there had never been any Jewish children in town before. “We keep the weekday school strictly separate from Sunday school though some of the Elders look upon this with misgivings. I’ve told them I don’t approve of pounding into small heads night and day the way they do some other places.” He inclined his head toward the window and through the drapes I glimpsed the parish house of the Catholic church. Reverend Clark puffed on his pipe reflectively for a moment, then added, still looking through the window: “Although I must say he doesn’t have the trouble with his congregation that I have.” With an appreciative chuckle he got to his feet and said: “Well, let me show you the school room. You’ll find it’s really quite decent and not apt to corrupt the young.”

In the months my younger son attended nursery school he continued to recite the shema as part of his bedtime prayers—with no theological objections—and his conversations indicated no religious indoctrination of any kind. Shortly before Christmas, Reverend Clark called to announce that nursery school was being discontinued the first of the year. “I’ve been told to turn it into a daily school attached to the Presbyterians, or abandon it. I won’t be the one to start a parochial school in this town.”

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The Reverend Clark came into our lives once again. My husband’s father died and when we returned from Chicago, the Reverend was our first caller. “When I was in college there was a Jewish lad in the same dormitory,” he said, “and I got to know something about Jews from Ben. I know that when you are in sorrow you say special prayers.” He looked at us earnestly. “When Ben’s mother died he went to synagogue every morning and he told me there had to be ten men there. Now I’ll talk to the members of the church and I’ll make sure there are nine men with you every morning.” My husband explained, and I left the room, overwhelmed by the goodness and the innocence of this man. I have no doubt that if Jewish laws permitted such a minyan there would have been nine Presbyterians at the church every morning for a year.

Although we had not seen this as our role, it was probably inevitable that we should appear as representatives of Judaism. David’s kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Cable, had once taught in a school system with Jewish teachers and knew about Chanukah. She telephoned shortly before the holiday and asked whether I would bring a menorah and light the candles so that the children “would have the privilege of learning about your religion.” On the suggested morning I appeared at school with menorah, candles, and bags of treats for each child, jelly beans and peppermint sticks instead of the chocolate “Chanukah gelt” I would have liked. I repeated the story of Chanukah in the language of five-year-olds. David’s teacher told the children: “Remember that Jesus was a Jew and he celebrated this very holiday when he was a child.” Mrs. Cable then said the children had a treat for me in return. She had located a Festival of Lights song and while they were learning Christmas carols the youngsters had also been taught a melody for Chanukah “in honor of David whose holiday it is.” Now these little tow-heads stood before the menorah singing in praise of the Maccabees.

I had been home less than an hour when Allen’s nursery school teacher called to say she had heard about my appearance at kindergarten and would I come with Allen the next morning? This was followed by repeat performances at the Baptist and Methodist Sunday schools, the Grange, and a mothers’ club, punctuated by a hurried phone call I made to Chicago to air-mail us a box of candles so that there would be enough for our own family celebration. I had raised no question about my sons’ participation in the rather extensive Christmas preparation at school, yet each teacher had gone out of her way to make the boys’ holiday understood by their classmates. This was to be a feature of each December of our stay in Foxton.

A seven-year-old on the playground once said to David: “Why do you call yourself an American when you’re a Jew?”—this was the single unpleasant incident. We gave our sons the usual religious instruction at home. But some problems arose which did not center on the Old Testament. The boys began to ask: “Why is everyone else a Christian? How come there are so few Jews in the world?” It was not easy to explain (even by a sociologist to his sons!) why “everyone else” in town worshiped Jesus and we did not. We saw it as our problem to give them an understanding of Christianity which would maintain their respect for the religion of the town without lessening their regard for their own. I found myself saying things I would not have, normally. Did the boys know that the man who developed the vaccine for polio was a Jew? That this or that scientist or author or political leader or musician whose picture was in the paper was a Jew? We felt it necessary to show that not all important people were Christians—or Jews either. Once I heard myself saying: “Don’t forget all the Jews you meet when you go to Chicago.”

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Who were the eight to fifteen Jewish students at Rufus College each of the three years we were there? Most of them came from families whose fathers clerked in stores they did not own, or had some other modest white-collar job. These Rufusites could not get to college at all unless they worked their way through, and they came to Rufus from distant places because Rufus was known to offer opportunities for employment. They were truly Jews without Money and Jews without Connections. Their ambitions were modest: to be an elementary schoolteacher, a football coach, an accountant. Rufus also attracted an occasional wealthier type of Jewish student, the son or daughter of some family from the New York or Boston area. These were the ones who briefly blended into the college landscape, becoming active on the newspaper or with the dramatic group or student council. They came and went, seldom remaining for more than two semesters. Students from New York had a particularly difficult time adjusting to the situation in which they had placed themselves. A girl from Brooklyn walked into the town’s gift shop one fall and asked to see New Year’s cards. The owner, a member of the DAR, explained she wouldn’t be getting either Christmas or New Year’s cards for a few weeks. The New Yorker protested: “Not that New Year. I want some cards for Rosh Hashanah.” One afternoon in the bakery I heard another New Yorker stating in some exasperation to the counter girl that there certainly were such things as onion rolls and why didn’t they make them?

As a whole, the Jewish students got on well with the rest of the college community. Fraternities were local and there were no charter restrictions against membership on the basis of religion. One Jewish boy was pledged to the best fraternity on campus and in his junior year elected an officer, the same year another young Jew was blackballed—a right choice, it seemed to us, in both instances. The Jewish girls joined or refrained from joining sororities according to individual preferences. Dating was across religious lines. One of the New Jersey coeds went overboard for the campus beatnik, a young man raised in the Episcopal church but now boisterously atheistic.

Because of the college calendar, it was impossible for us to make the usual trip to Chicago one Passover, and so my husband and I invited all the Jewish students on campus for the Seder. Ten accepted. The problems involved in preparing a Seder in the town of Foxton can be imagined—the nearest store where special food could be purchased was fifty-five miles away. When I realized I did not have the needed lamb bone for the ceremonial plate, one of the students, who felt very strongly that the Seder would be incomplete without it, drove sixty-five miles, knocked at the door of a rabbi whose address he had found in the telephone directory, and begged the bone from the rabbi’s bewildered wife. May her name be forever blessed, she handed it over.

A few days before the Seder, the head of the college’s department of religion called on us. A birthright Quaker, Dr. Jonathan Smythe was deeply interested in the Old Testament and had been teaching himself Hebrew. He spoke frankly: attending a Seder would be an opportunity of a lifetime for him and would we extend an invitation? My husband and I had some misgivings which we did not communicate to our friend. The Jewish students who were coming had resisted any attempt to identify themselves as a religious group—although the campus had a Newman Club for Catholics and numerous Protestant denominational youth groups—and we had no desire to put them on display. But the question once asked could be answered in one way only: we told our Quaker friend he would be welcome.

When the night came, the Seder table looked festive and as the students arrived they began to fall in with the holiday spirit. Our girl from New Jersey was the last to make an appearance, and as she entered she announced: “I’ve brought a friend.” Her beatnik date was not the first red-bearded man with whom I’ve shared a Seder table, although I’ll bet no Talmudic scholar ever had such bright green eyes or freckled nose. Dr. Smythe had borrowed a hat for the evening, and from my husband at the head of the table down to our young sons who were somewhat nervously reviewing the Four Questions, all immediately became part of the occasion. Alongside Dr. Smythe’s wine glass I had set a pitcher of grape juice. A fundamentalist, he never drank anything stronger than good tea brewed in the English fashion, but not this evening. “This is my first Seder and I want to do everything you do,” he insisted. His glass was filled with wine although he must have known the entire student body and most of the faculty and trustees would hear about it before noon the next day.

We were a community of co-religionists, reciting prayers and recalling incidents deep in a common past. We were almost a family, in the sense of a large one which had acquired numerous in-laws during the year. Songs which had the same words came out with different melodies; one girl would say: “In our house we always do it this way—” and a boy would reply: “But I always thought there was only one way to do it.” There were little jokes during the reading of the Haggadah and the usual furtive turning of pages to see how long before dinner would be served. Several of the students and Dr. Smythe read the portions in Hebrew while others of us relied on the English translation. Even the beatnik took his turn, in no way breaking the mood of the occasion. We sat at table long after the last bite had been eaten, singing, and talking about Seders of the past. Dr. Smythe said: “I had never thought of Judaism as a happy religion before. I wish Quaker Meeting had more joy in it.”

“I felt proud of being a Jew tonight,” said a Philadelphia girl as she was leaving.

I echoed: “So did I.”

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We spent three years in Foxton. When the note-taking tapered off and we found ourselves increasingly distressed by the low academic level of the college rather than interested in its causes, when living away from intellectual stimulation was no longer compensated by the challenge of studying another culture, we knew it was time to go. In February of our third year our elder son brought a note from his second-grade teacher asking that we keep him from reading books because he was already too far ahead of his class. This underlined our decision to close the Rufus College chapter.

In our new city, we joined the temple and took our boys along to register for Sunday school. The director of religious education asked them: “Have you ever been to Sunday school before?”

“Oh, yes,” our seven-year-old son assured her. “We’ve been in lots of Sunday schools, but this will be our first time with Jews.”

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