September 25, 2008
Friendship and freedom at Adat Chaverim
"What does it mean to be free and why is freedom so important?" was Karlo Silbiger's first question to some 20 kids ranging from 3 years to early teens.
The youth and their parents were meeting on a recent Sunday morning to check out the offerings of Adat Chaverim (Community of Friends), especially its school and bar/bat mitzvah programs.
Adat Chaverim is a small congregation of secular, Humanistic Jews, whose brochure proposes that "reason rather than faith is the source of truth, and human intelligence and experience are capable of guiding our lives."
Eight years after its was founded in the San Fernando Valley, Adat Chaverim is spreading its wings in concerted effort to attract like-minded Westsiders and broaden its services and educational programs.
The key to the congregation's expansion from some 40 current families is its move to the American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, on the exact border between the Valley and the Los Angeles basin.
The group attending the school orientation session consisted of young professional couples, averaging three kids apiece, just the kind of demographic for which any synagogue would give away half its building fund.
Mitchell and Susan Saltzman of Century City brought their three boys, ages 3, 7 and 10. The older kids had previously attended a Reform synagogue's preschool and liked it.
But, said Mitchell Saltzman, "A friend told us that his children were getting a great education at Adat Chaverim, so we thought we'd check it out."
John and Mara Glassner of Encino came with their three young daughters and said they hoped to find a Sunday school in line with their "skeptical" outlook.
Also working in Adat Chaverim's favor are the much lower membership and school fees, as compared to almost all other synagogues.
To keep the youngest kids happy, education director Silbiger passed out crayons and coloring sheets, recounting the story of Moses and the Exodus, though the dialogue deviated somewhat from the biblical version. Moses tells the pre-liberated Israelites, "God said if you don't like something, you can change it through collective action."
Also innovative is the congregation's bar/bat mitzvah program, which requires 13 preparatory projects.
These include writing reports on the work of two Jewish community organizations; attending services of the four main Jewish denominations; 15 hours of community work; planning and preparing a Jewish holiday meal; reading a Torah portion and explaining its cultural background; and writing a story using some Yiddish and Ladino words.
By the way, what does it mean to be free?
According to the bright and alert youngsters, it means that "Nobody can boss you around," "You can go where you want to go." "You have a sense of responsibility," and "You can believe in what you want to believe."
This year's High Holy Day services at AJU's Berman Chapel will be led on Rosh Hashanah by Harvard University Chaplain Greg Epstein. There will also be services on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. A Tashlich ceremony is set for 11 a.m. on Oct. 5 at Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino. For more information, call (818) 346-5152.