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A powerful way to make a point

by Betsy Rosenthal

December 14, 2010 | 11:47 pm

With apologies to Monty Python, the day can best be described as, “And Now for Something Completely Different.” The guests started filing in, anticipating the usual bar mitzvah service at our cozy little temple — maybe the only one named for a city that carries the name of a saint: The Santa Monica Synagogue. Temple members, as well as family and friends who attended our other children’s b’nai mitzvahs, knew what to expect when they arrived. They’d find a physically small but big-of-heart place featuring an amiable guitar-strumming young cantor, Steve Hummel, and a rabbi, Jeffrey Marx, who is as good at telling shtetl stories as Sholom Aleichem.

They knew that they would witness the transformation of a boy into a leader that day. They understood that the bar mitzvah boy would not be merely a peripheral participant. On the contrary, he would be thoroughly prepared to chant his Torah and haftarah portions, offer a speech about each and actually lead the service from beginning to end, from “Mah Tovu” to the Mourner’s Kaddish, all the while instructing us when to rise and when to be seated.

As much as repeat visitors to our synagogue know what to expect from our b’nai mitzvah services, they also know what will be absent. They won’t see any roving photographers or videographers (and this goes for weddings, too). There will be no talking among the guests, and this rule goes double for the adolescent friends of the b’nai mitzvah. Nor will there be any gum chewing on the bimah. Before the service begins, the rabbi admonishes all guests to put their pagers, cell phones and BlackBerries on silent mode, and he requests that crying babies and antsy toddlers be taken out of the sanctuary during the service.

Parents’ speeches, which are preapproved by Rabbi Marx, are required to be brief. They really are not intended to be speeches, but rather blessings that we bestow upon our child. And they have to fit on a 3-by-5 index card. In other words, Rabbi Marx runs a tight ship.

So why, just before the service began, was my husband in the sanctuary, face down on the carpet, trying to camouflage power and extension cords by snaking them between the rows of chairs and firmly taping them to the carpet? And why did he then slide a laptop under his designated seat and position a projector in such a way as to keep it from standing out like a matzah ball in a bowl of tomato soup?

Our pinstriped 13-year-old, Joel, commanded the bimah. He chanted the Ve-ahavta with ease, sailed through the Amidah and gave us kvelling rights over his Torah chanting. It was all in keeping with tradition. Until, that is, clicker in hand, Joel directed the audience to the white board that had been wheeled up to the bimah.

His Torah portion had to do with God’s instruction to Moses to gather the Levites and assign them to serve Aaron and to maintain the Tabernacle. Joel addressed this directive in his speech, but he did so via a PowerPoint presentation — certainly the first ever in our synagogue.

Interpreting his portion, Joel cited the message of “Spider-Man”: With great power comes great responsibility. His graphics were simple stick figures to illustrate examples of the power-and-responsibility partnership.

People seemed to find this unique approach both enlightening and entertaining. In particular, it kept Joel’s friends focused and engaged. The PowerPoint commentary was done with the rabbi’s approval and even encouragement.

“But why?” I asked Rabbi Marx. How did we go from banning photographers and video cameras to allowing a computer projector displaying visuals on a white board during the service?

Don’t get me wrong; I was enthralled by our son’s presentation and very pleased that the rabbi was a co-conspirator in this innovative endeavor.  I was simply perplexed at how far the rabbi had permitted Joel to deviate from the strict guidelines of our b’nai mitzvah services.

“I’ve long wished that the Torah portions concerned with the Tabernacle could be accompanied by some illustration,” Rabbi Marx said. “Joel had such a portion, and after he wrote a solid speech, we agreed that pictures would enhance his message. Keep in mind, a certain amount of technology has already seeped into our services. We use microphones, and our Confirmation students have, on occasion, during their service, imparted a lesson about the Ten Commandments through a video creation. Moreover, we are a congregation that has always been open to creative ways of engaging our members, while maintaining a sense of kedusha in our sanctuary.”

“Was my son a trailblazer?” I wondered.

“It was an experiment,” he said. “Your son wanted to do this, and I was curious to learn whether it could be done in an unobtrusive manner. I’m glad we tried it. It happened to come off smoothly. Yes, it was the first of its kind, and no, it will not be repeated. There are too many variables, too many buttons to press and gadgets to malfunction, and, as it turned out, bringing in the screen was too awkward.”

Suffice it to say, it was the first and last PowerPoint bar mitzvah speech at our temple. So our son might not be a trendsetter, but at the very least, he’s shown us once again that he’s an original. Can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with for his wedding.

For more information about The Children’s Foundation, visit thechildrensfoundation.org

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