At his recent bar mitzvah, Noah Genco-Kamin managed to tell one of the most well-known stories in the Jewish canon — that of the Israelites wandering in the desert after the Exodus — in a way that no one present had heard it told before: from the perspective of a cow.
Wearing a white blazer dappled with brown felt, Noah strode up to the podium at the historic Breed Street Shul and offered a fresh analysis of the weary tribe’s mindset as they berated Moses for having no water to drink. The best way to examine the Israelites’ behavior in this tense situation, Noah had decided a few months prior, was to employ the impartial voice of their livestock.
“I had a lot of fun that day,” said Noah, 13. “A lot of people thought it was really cool. Some said they thought it was really different and strange, but mostly, people loved it.”
Noah’s theatrical account of his Torah portion is a hallmark of Raising the Bar, a program founded by New York-based Storahtelling to inject zest into the b’nai mitzvah experience. Los Angeles co-coordinators Deanna Neil and Todd Shotz guide local students to research, write and ultimately stage a dramatic interpretation of their parasha as part of their bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.
“The Storahtelling methodology revives the ancient art of targum — of translation,” Neil said, describing the archaic practice in which a designated interpreter would explain passages read from the Torah in relatable terms. “For so many people, b’nai mitzvah are just a chore. This is all about joy and having moments that are fun and memorable.”
To bring this innovative program to the West Coast, Neil, a longtime Storahtelling associate, teamed up with Shotz, who in 2005 founded Hebrew Helpers, a full-service b’nai mitzvah prep company with a penchant for facilitating outside-the-box services. Together they work with families across the Jewish spectrum — from Reform to Modern Orthodox, synagogue members and the unaffiliated — providing private, highly personalized tutoring that lets kids find their own meaning in their Torah portion.
“Our goal is to reinvigorate this rite of passage and make it more meaningful for families and congregations,” said Isaac Shalev, Storahtelling’s executive director. “If we let students find their own voice in the text, it becomes more engaging and relevant to the contemporary world.”
Here’s how it works: A student and his or her Raising the Bar mentor read through the parasha together, and the mentor prods the student to identify a core question embedded in the text. Noah, for instance, asked, “When in survival situations, do people inevitably lose their humanity?” Then they list the characters that appear in the parasha and those that would have been present but aren’t mentioned, like Moses’ wife. They also talk about modern figures who might speak to the question at hand — a psychologist, perhaps, or a Holocaust survivor. From this eclectic cast, the student weaves a narrative that sheds intimate light on oft-repeated biblical stories.
Shotz and Neil act as advisers to their students as they script the live performance, which might bring half a dozen characters to life on the bimah. And throughout this process, kids also learn basic skills, like how to read Hebrew and sing Torah trope.
This method, the coordinators believe, lets kids connect emotionally with ancient texts that might otherwise seem as arcane as trigonometry. “Students really own the text by the end of the process, more so than if they just memorize the reading and give a speech,” Shotz said. “Afterward, the kids end up saying, ‘I really know what I said up there — I really got it!’ ”
On the day of the ceremony, the service begins with the traditional morning prayers. Then the pace changes: The bar or bat mitzvah comes out, often in costume, and presents an opening scene introducing the characters that populate the Torah portion he or she will read. Members of the student’s family usually play supporting roles — but that’s where similarities between Raising the Bar ceremonies end. “The portion dictates the experience, as well as the family and the student,” Shotz said. “Sometimes it’s comedic; sometimes it’s very heavy.”
Laughter rippled through the crowd at the Breed Street Shul on Feb. 4 as Noah and his brother, Owen, 10, appeared in bovine attire. Their parents, Mitch Kamin and Susan Genco, played thirsty Israelites debating whether to rebel against Moses. When Moses — Noah’s sister Ava, 7, wearing a fake beard — called out to God for guidance, she stood up on a chair with a cell phone.
For this interfaith family, “It was a great blend of tradition and non-tradition,” Genco said. Genco, who is Catholic, said she craved a service that would be inclusive and accessible to non-Jews. Kamin, meanwhile, reveled in the significance of having his son’s bar mitzvah at the same synagogue where one of Noah’s great-grandfathers came of age. And Noah was thrilled he got to wow his peers on the electric guitar with a rock rendition of “Hinei Ma Tov.”
“The service really suited our family, it suited Noah’s personality, and it suited our experience with Judaism in Los Angeles,” Kamin said.
Eytan Rosenman’s bar mitzvah last fall was unconventional in a different way: At B’nai David-Judea, Eytan’s Modern Orthodox family staged a dramatic interpretation performed entirely by women.
Translating Ha’azinu, Moses’ last prophesy to the Jewish people before his death, Eytan worked with Neil on a script that cast his mother as a medieval Torah scholar, his grandmother as Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and his sister as a fictional Israelite girl. To navigate halachic concerns, the actresses ascended the bimah on the women’s side and made sure the performance space was slightly off-center.
Shep and Shari Rosenman, supporters of the feminist Shira Hadasha movement, saw Raising the Bar as an opportunity to give women visible and meaningful roles in the service while still honoring their Orthodox setting.
“Storahtelling could offer a sustainable model for involving women on an ongoing basis,” said Shep Rosenman, a co-founder of LimmudLA, who worked with his son for months to identify the values Eytan wanted to express as a bar mitzvah. “It certainly was unusual for us and for our community, but we had a ton of great feedback from friends. There was a lot of excitement and buzz in the room — everyone laughed and was moved by the experience. One friend said, ‘Why don’t we do that every week?’ ”
The program requires a bigger time commitment than traditional b’nai mitzvah — Neil and Shotz like to start working with students about 18 months out. But families say it’s worth it.
“There were moments of panic the night before when we weren’t sure it would play out the way it did, but it was really an extraordinary day,” Kamin said. “The glow has not worn off a couple months later, and I don’t expect it will.”