Interview with Debi Rowe

Interviewed by Nina Prays

Q1. How did your family upbringing affect your views on Judaism and Jewish education?

I am the child of a rabbi and was afforded certain experiences that not everybody could take part in. I attended Jewish summer camp since I was eight years old. The first 12 days of my summer camp life was without my family. My Dad came up to join the faculty for the second session. I got to try this Jewish camping all my own. And then I became a counselor in a Jewish camp and many of those years my father was working there too. We never worked in the same unit, but we were at camp together and I also got to see rabbis and educators and cantors up close.

I got to see Jewish people doing all kinds of very interesting things while we were at camp. For example, my father was one of the sailboat instructors. My father and my mother were ski instructors because the camp was situated on a small inland lake in Wisconsin and I think it’s fabulous to see rabbis and cantors do things that are outside of Jewish life and yet connected to it. Judaism was just infused into the fabric of my life.

And, of course, in daily life, we always lit candles. We always had a Seder.  My dad was also very active in Rotary and supported causes of social justice that were consistent with Jewish values. Once, my dad oversaw the closing banquet in Kenosha, Wisconsin. At the time, the Rotary rented space from the Elks Club, and the Elks Club did not allow blacks or Jews into their organization. And my father championed the notion that the Rotary needed to be renting space from somebody else. And he really had to push hard. He was angry that he had to push so hard.

Q2.  If you were to join a synagogue as a congregant, what would you be looking for in a rabbi and educational opportunities?

First, knowledgeable, absolutely knowledgeable. Second, the rabbi needs to be able to meet congregants, children and adults, where they are in their learning and get them to where they want to go. The rabbi, obviously, needs to be friendly, affable, and, sometimes, silly. And always approachable. And it is good if the rabbi has interests other than being a rabbi, like sports. Like my dad, teaching water skiing.

Q3. What does the idea of Jewish community mean to you?

The idea of Jewish community at its most basic, is connecting on many levels with different members of this community. So, some people you’d go to coffee with, some people you’d play Mahjong, some people you would see at services. And in that case, there is a social connection, because you and the other person are regularly together for something that’s more spiritual, and then there’s a different layer of connection between the two of you.

I think the same thing works when people study with the Torah Study Group that meets on Thursdays, for example. The same group of people meeting regularly and do something together.  Another important layer of community life is when community members do something as a group outside of the Temple organization, like go to a movie together.

Q4. What is the most important thing a Hebrew school should leave with its students?

My quick answer to that is connecting with other Jews. Also, understanding and having an appreciation for the holidays, customs, and traditions, as well as the Hebrew language, Torah, Israel and its history, and all the possible things that are in the curriculum. The academic side is important, but so is the experiential aspect – doing something with what you have learned. It could be cooking the traditional holiday foods or writing essays on Jewish topics. And all this Jewish learning and experiential activities need to be done with joy. Then, there is a chance that the students will take with them from the Jewish school, Jewish camp and then incorporate them into their lives.

Q5 What you, as an educator, would most want to bring to the culture of the synagogue or community? 

The thing that I would most like to instill in the community would be a love of doing Jewish things.  So, when children come to the Temple on Sundays, they might not even realize that they are engaging with Jewish culture, but they know that they are hanging out with their friends and having fun. And then later, as kids get older, they know that they are gaining skills. Whether it’s reading Hebrew, reading Torah, they’re gaining skills and applying this knowledge, and figuring out how to make it their own. Whether it is Jewish cooking or creating hashtags for the concepts they are learning – it is all part of Jewish education. And if this education is infused with love and joy, it will feed their Jewish identity.

Q6. What is your favorite memory from your time with Beth El?

My greatest joy has been being here long enough to see my former students, whom I remember as children, all grown up with children of their own. There are eight students in our school this year whose parents I used to teach. And for me that is a beautiful part of community life. From generation to generation. It is beautiful to watch the life cycles; death is sad, but marriage and the children – it is so awesome. It is amazing to see tiny pishers grow up to be wonderful parents who have children in my school.

Q7. Tell us a little about your next appointment.

I will be moving to Winston Salem, North Carolina, to serve as the director of education at Temple Emmanuel. The thing that I appreciate particularly about this job is that the demographics of the community are like those of Temple Beth El. It is a smallish community. This means that I get to know people’s names and form personal relationships with them. The people there were so warm and friendly when I visited for an entire weekend. And they apologized for the bad weather (snow in March).