When Rabbi Laura Geller became Temple Emanuel's spiritual leader seven years ago, she sought to add new meaning to the familiar b'nai mitzvah ritual. For Geller, a bar or bat mitzvah can offer young teenagers the opportunity to create significant relationships with Jewish adults who are not their own parents. So she has developed, with the support of the Reform movement's Experiment in Congregational Education, an innovative mentor program in which knowledgeable adults help b'nai mitzvah candidates prepare for the big day.
While working with the cantor on the formalities of chanting in Hebrew, Emanuel's 13-year-olds are also guided by their mentors through the intricacies of their Torah portions. A primary goal is to help them craft b'nai mitzvah speeches that draw a connection between the Torah and their personal lives. There's an added bonus: the teenagers discover, through close interaction with their mentors over a period of six months, that grownups, too, engage in serious Jewish study.
Temple Emanuel's first mentors all came from the congregation's professional staff, including teachers, the religious school principal and Geller herself. Despite the pressures of her other synagogue duties, the rabbi loves the magic moments sparked by one-on-one contact with a bright young student who has been asked to take Judaism seriously. "When it works, it's also quite magical for the mentors, because the students can be our teachers," Geller said. Still, it has been her idea from the start that lay congregants should participate in the mentor process. And so, at committee meetings and Torah study sessions, she has long been scouting for temple members blessed with the capacity to serve as good Jewish role models.
The pioneer in this regard has been Perry Oretzky, a CPA who is also an active member of the Temple Emanuel community. Raised in an Orthodox home and still committed to serious Jewish study, Oretzky has been mentoring six students a year for the past five years. He recalled, "When I went to yeshiva, I studied what I'm teaching now, but there was no teacher there that could help me relate to it. So I could extract a meaning, but not a valuable meaning." That's why he's determined to help his mentees see their Torah portions in terms of their own lives.
When, for instance, a parasha details the vestments worn by the high priest, Oretzky makes a connection with a teenager's own interests, and how he may need to don special gear to play a sport or pursue a hobby. A passage on the sin-offerings brought to Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem may prompt a discussion of the meaning of sin and the value of sacrifice in today's society. "Sometimes," Oretzky said, "their eyes really light up, and it's a wonderful feeling." One mother told him that her daughter "was so excited about what she'd learned that I couldn't get a word in edgewise the whole drive home. "
Marketing consultant Roy Young became involved almost two years ago, explaining, "I had something to contribute as a teacher and, by example, as a learner." As Young sees it, "I have a belief that is all too rare in the Reform community, that you don't have to be a rabbi to be an active learner and teacher." So far, he has mentored three youngsters, helping to shape their b'nai mitzvah speeches so that "the student's voice begins to emerge, and [his or her] personality comes through."
Though Young tells his mentees that he hopes to be supportive of them as adult members of his congregation, he anticipates that no long-term relationships will emerge. That's why he questions the program's efficacy as a tool for community-building. Still, his personal faith in Geller keeps him going. "In its ideal form," says Young, "I think [the mentor program] is a wonderful thing. Time will tell where it takes us."
During childhood, Victor Gold had no formal Jewish education. He does not read Hebrew, and it wasn't until three years ago, when he began attending Geller's Torah class, that he discovered the pleasures of Jewish study. Although, as the associate dean of Loyola Law School, Gold juggles many obligations, he makes time once a month to be a b'nai mitzvah mentor. It's his way of paying tribute to his mother's memory. With his own sons now in college, Gold enjoys helping 13-year-old boys prepare for the bar mitzvah he himself never had. In his words, "You almost feel like you're part of the family."
Charlotte Behrendt, too, feels a close attachment to her mentee. A newcomer to the program, she introduced herself to nearly-13-year-old Lauren Brucker by explaining that the two of them were starting out together. From their first session, Behrendt said, the relationship has been reciprocal: "I share with her; she shares with me." Because Brucker's Torah portion deals with census-taking, the two of them struggled at first to come up with an appropriate theme for a bat mitzvah speech. At last, Behrendt suggested the issue of "Who counts?" This is a pertinent question for any adolescent who has ever competed for a grade or a place on an athletic team, and it inspired Brucker to forge ahead.
Now that her speech is almost written, Brucker said, "I'm really happy that it's my words coming out to the people. I feel like a junior rabbi giving a sermon. That's nice!"
But Brucker's favorite moment with Behrendt came one Friday evening when her mother was late in picking her up from Behrendt's home. Invited to join in Sabbath rituals, Brucker found the experience exhilarating. Now, every Friday night, she lights Shabbat candles and shares challah and grape juice with her own family. When Brucker mounts the bimah on May 26, Behrendt will be an honored guest, one who feels fortunate to have made a difference in a young girl's Jewish life.