November 8, 2007
Congregations, rabbis try to stop the ‘Big Day’ from becoming the last day
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Nationally, the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), in partnership with STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), is conducting a pilot program, "Call Synagogue Home," in the West San Fernando Valley. Participating synagogues take part in a one-day seminar, which focuses on creating a connection with interfaith families around life-cycle events, including b'nai mitzvah.
"We are using life-cycle events, both traditional and nontraditional, to nurture and develop relationships with interfaith families and children," said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the institute's executive director. "We help congregations to see where they can say yes, as opposed to focusing on where they have to say no."
While the program is initially focused on weddings, JOI has prepared a manual about b'nai mitzvah that explains how rabbis might tackle typical problems that come up for interfaith or unaffiliated families.
One of JOI's recommendations is a more flexible residency requirement.
"We help congregations recognize that there are going to be families who don't approach a synagogue until close to the bar or bat mitzvah," Olitzky said. "They don't recognize that many synagogues have a schedule that chooses dates three years in advance and religious schools that require several years of preparation and commitment."
If a three-year commitment is what the synagogue is looking for, he suggested, then perhaps the clergy should ask people to commit for the three years after the ceremony, rather than before.
The program helps rabbis separate issues of Jewish law from those of synagogue culture, for example, where a non-Jewish parent can stand on the bimah, who can handle the Torah, who can be involved in a ceremony to pass the Torah across generations or parental blessings that do not include formulas about chosenness.
"We don't want to force synagogues to do things that are beyond their set of principles or guidelines, but we want to stretch them to their comfort level," Olitzky said.
One rabbi participating in the Jewish Outreach Institute's program is Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. As a young rabbi, Camras felt that by building walls he might be able to change the culture of the community and force the issue of conversion.
But after spending eight years overseeing a communitywide keruv (outreach) program, the Project on Intermarriage, he realized he wasn't going to change the trend to intermarriage. As a result, he is determined to reach out in significant ways to families where there is not going to be a conversion, yet still remain committed to the values of endogamy.
When it comes time for a bar mitzvah in an interfaith family, where the non-Jewish partner has committed to raising Jewish children and creating a Jewish household, he acknowledges their commitment from the bimah. The non-Jewish parent participates as fully as possible in the ceremony, presenting the tallit with the Jewish spouse and offering blessings from the bimah during the Torah service. Camras also involves non-Jewish family members by having them do readings during the service.
Building a strong identification with a synagogue may effectively hold on to those marginally committed and intermarried families who have stepped inside the institutional door. But for people who remain unaffiliated -- either because they were turned off at some point in their lives, were never turned on or are suspicious of the organized Jewish community -- other rabbis in Los Angeles are here to help out. They are reaching out both to families looking for a bar/bat mitzvah without a several-year commitment and those for whom such life-cycle ceremonies are not yet even a twinkle in their eyes.
Rabbi Stanley Levy at B'nai Horin reaches out to unaffiliated families whose children would otherwise not have a bar mitzvah. They might have been turned off by a negative Hebrew school experience, turned away because of a residency requirement or simply can't afford the expense of joining a synagogue with a building fund.
Families do not need to join Levy's congregation to go through the bar mitzvah program. The students are asked to study for two hours with Levy on Sunday mornings for a year and to work with a tutor to master Hebrew reading, chanting of the central Jewish prayers and chanting Torah and haftarah portions. But Levy noted that the expectations are suited to the child's learning ability, and "everything is modifiable." The child also spends an hour a week with Levy studying the meanings of the prayers.
Levy has relationships with a half-dozen synagogues that make their facilities available for the b'nai mitzvah, or he holds them at other locations.
Whatever the location, a child reads from B'nai Horin's Holocaust memorial scroll from Czechoslovakia. Levy believes this creates a connection with the Holocaust, and he tells his students they are doing their bar or bat mitzvah on behalf of a child who died in the Holocaust and never had a chance for one.
The Sunday morning class covers Jewish history and Torah, the Holocaust and contemporary moral issues facing teens -- entirely through film. The class also takes field trips to the Museum of Tolerance and to the Skirball Museum.
Although Levy has had some success inspiring families and children to a continuing Jewish commitment, that is not his primary emphasis.
"My major goal," he said, "is for a kid to feel at the end of the bar or bat mitzvah experience this was a fantastic experience, I learned lot about myself and Judaism, I loved being bar or bat mitzvahed and I'd recommend it to anybody."
For two other communities, Nashuva and Ahavat Torah, the focus is on reaching out to the unaffiliated, but the b'nai mitzvah of children is not necessarily part of the equation.