AUGUST 10, 2017 – Rachel Jacobson is synonymous with Jewish education on the North Shore. For the last 40 years, she has taught at nearly every level of Hebrew School at reform, conservative and orthodox congregations. A native of Jerusalem, she moved to Boston to attend Hebrew College and Boston University, and moved to Swampscott in 1977 with her husband, Nathan. The couple has three children, Daniel, Eric, and Emily, and a grandchild, Ella.
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How was it to grow up in Jerusalem just years after Israel was established?
I come from a family of 12 children, and my mother adopted four more after I was born. My parents were from Rabat, Morocco, and they came to Israel in 1948 after the war. They lived in tents, or ma’abarot – temporary housing – in Pardes Hanah. When they left Morocco, it had to be done secretively because they were not allowing Jews to leave at the time.
I was born in 1952. My father was a plumber. We lived in Baka in Jerusalem, and the neighborhood was extremely poor. We had dirt roads, no trees, no grass, and the railroad to Tel Aviv was 10 feet away from my front door. But life was awesome – we were so poor and didn’t know it. Walking to school in the morning, our feet dug in the mud because there were no roads. Back then in Jerusalem, only the main roads were paved. The rest of them were dirt and mud.
We spent hours endlessly playing with the neighborhood children using our imagination to create new games each day. The houses were very small, and there were a lot of children, and our parents encouraged us to play outside. The mobile library truck would arrive once a week and we could take out books. The ice truck would arrive once a week because we needed ice boxes to keep the food cold. My father dug deep holes in the ground to keep the cheese and milk cold.
What was Shabbat like in Jerusalem as a child?
Friday night Shabbat dinners were unforgettable. All of the excitement for Shabbat started on Thursday – we’d clean the house for Shabbat, my father went shopping at the shuk at Mehane Yehudah to buy extra special food that we only could afford for Shabbat. Then, all the family sat at the Shabbat table: brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces; every inch of the table was taken up by the family. We ate, sang, laughed, and felt happy to be together and my father would tell stories about rabbis and miracles and Jewish culture. My parents were religious and Shabbat observant.
I had a very strong family – we were taught about Jewish values, and they were our number one focus. We were taught to respect one another, to help the poor, to help friends, to welcome people. Our front door was open for anyone. Even the people who worked on the railroad across from my house used to receive a tray of hot tea, cookies, and sandwiches from my mother.
You lived through wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973. And you were also a soldier in the Israeli Air Force during the 1973 war. How did those wars impact your life and upbringing?
I don’t remember much about the 1956 war. In 1967, I was 14. But I remember the happiness and the excitement the country felt after winning the war in six days. It made Israelis feel like we were unbeatable. It went to our heads. We started to believe that our army was unbeatable. 1973 was a big surprise and lesson to learn from. It was a very scary time for all of Israel. I served in the Air Force during the war, and I witnessed many sad moments. I saw sadness and anxiety in the faces of almost every soldier. There was a lot of confusion in our mind and anger against the government in not preparing the army for the war.
Could you talk about your teaching career?
Hillel hired me in 1977. I was a second- and fourth-grade teacher for about five years there. I also started teaching at Temple Israel in Swampscott at the same time until it closed. Over the years, I taught at just about every Jewish school on the North Shore: Chabad and Shirat Hayam in Swampscott; Temple Emanu-el and Temple Sinai in Marblehead; Temple Shalom in Salem; Temple Ner Tamid and Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody, and also Chabad in Peabody. I was on the staff of Y2I and joined our teens on their journey to Eastern Europe and Israel.
Now I teach preschoolers at the JCC and Shirat Hayam. I teach the children about the beautiful country called Israel, “Ivrit To Grow On,” and about Jewish holidays; and to love the Hebrew language through songs, dancing and acting. I also teach an adult education program at the JCC in Marblehead. I teach Jewish culture, Israeli history, and Jewish cuisine.
You survived cancer.
I had breast cancer 20 years ago. I went through chemo, and when people ask me about my cancer I said it was a gift from God. I feel like I have had two gifts in my life: growing up poor and getting cancer. It taught me that you can overcome any obstacle in life, including the worst disease. I enjoy every day, I feel like the 20 years that were given to me as a gift, and each day is a gift. It taught me to love life and not take living in this world for granted. It taught me to wake up and thank God.
Just one third of American Jews affiliate with a Jewish institution, and a significant amount have little Jewish identity. What can be done to keep our kids Jewish?
Parents need to join in Jewish programs and connect with other Jewish families and celebrate Jewish holidays, and celebrate Shabbat at home. They need to send their kids to Jewish summer camp. They need to visit Israel whenever they can. And what’s most important for Jewish identity is storytelling. Kids need to know their Jewish history and their heritage. They need to learn about their grandparents. At dinnertime, kids need to be with their parents and talk with their families. This builds Jewish values, which are extremely important in a Jewish home. Kids will learn to do mitzvoth, or good deeds; they need to learn to help each other, love each other, and to respect.