This approach is precisely what we try to do with each of our students at Temple Beth Shalom and it is one of the most important distinctions that differentiates us from most other synagogues in the San Diego area—as well as the country at large.
Once at a recent Board of Rabbis meeting we had in downtown San Diego, some of the rabbis discussed how their congregation celebrates the Bar/Bat Mitzvah in their communities. One rabbi said that they have anywhere between 60-90 students a year and that no one student is ever allowed to monopolize the bimah since everyone is considered “equal” on Shabbat.
Yes, in a large congregation, there are bound to be logistical problems galore. However, that being said, if I were a parent of a future Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I would ask myself the following question: “Would it better serve the education of my children if my family joined a smaller congregation–one where my child would have the opportunity to do more than the perfunctory maftir or haftorah?” Simply put: Is this the best we can do for our children?
Parents ought to consider an alternative approach to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Having your child receive the specialized attention of a rabbi in a smaller congregation offers your son or daughter an opportunity to really shine on that special day in their lives without having to feel confined to a more limited role. What can possibly make a parent or community more proud than to see one of its students master an evening, morning, or afternoon Shabbat service?
Unfortunately, synagogues often get into habit of producing benai’ mitzvah as if they were producing cars on a Detroit factory line; this approach is wrong-headed and unwise. I realize that parents see these larger country-club synagogues as a symbol of their economic or social success, but isn’t time for parents to wonder: How can I help my child get the most out of his/her spiritual experience?
Yes, inquiring minds demand a thoughtful answer.
The smaller and emergent congregations deserve a second look.
Take the simple example of the Bar Mitzvah student who labors mightily toward that special day. But as a thoughtful Jew, what are some of the essential lessons we wish to instill in our young people so that they might grow up as conscientious Jews? In my experience, I encourage every youngster to give three speeches: a brief synopsis on the Torah portion, a synopsis on the haftorah reading and most importantly a personal reflection on what it means to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, aside from doing an important part of the religious service. Of course, some will do more, while others will do less. Ultimately, it is the process that is important. It is vital that no child feel as if s/he is just going through the motions. We can do better–and we must!
At Temple Beth Shalom of Chula Vista, each child has a specialized process that is tailored to each child’s individual needs. Each family gets involved with the process of preparing their child for that special day. Not only do we teach the child the mechanics of mastering Hebrew (often along with their parents!), we also focus on the spiritual and ethical challenges that make every child realize his or her given spiritual potential.
As Rabbis, we have a duty to communicate the ideas that have led to the spiritual evolution of our people is an essential task for today’s rabbinic leader. To achieve this lofty goal, a synagogue rabbi must be approachable; one must be able to draw diverse groups of people together; an experienced rabbi must promote a communitarian spirit; exude a of love of Judaism with a breath of knowledge that makes whatever the current topic being discussed, relevant and exciting. Developing the young and formative psyche of a Jewish young person must remain one of the top priorities of our religious duties. Let’s not accept mediocrity for ourselves and especially our children.
Over the years working in smaller congregations, people have marveled at what my students could accomplish–equaling their Jewish counterparts who study in the finest day schools around the country. At TBS, we get every family member involved in the rituals, prayers, and other aspects of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. At one of our more recent Bat Mitzvah programs, an entire family studied the Torah readings and read from the Torah along with their daughter. When children see that the parents are studying alongside with them, they realize what they are doing is important. Personal attention is everything. And that is what you get when your child attends a smaller congregation.
In addition to having Bar Mitzvah ceremonies for young people at TBS, we also have adult Bar or Bat Mitzvah programs for people who may not have had the opportunity to experience a Bar or Bat Mitzvah when they were 12 or 13.
Enclosed are a couple of divrei Torah written by one of my students, who left the crowd feeling awed by his spiritual message.
Bar Mitzvah Speech for 16/May/2015
The Sabbatical Year:
The portion of the Torah being read today talks about the practice of the Sabbatical year, known in Hebrew as Shemitah. The practice calls for the fields and farmland to be left to rest and be wild for the duration of an entire year at the close of seven-year cycle. But what is the intent of this rest, why take the risk of neither planting nor harvesting for an entire year? What is the greater meaning of the sabbatical year?
One works during the week, and finally takes a break on the weekend. One works for two thirds of the day and rests for one third. We all need to rest, a time to breathe and be renewed; it is a principle way of taking care of ourselves. The earth is the same and the parashat of today speaks about our ecological obligation to give the earth a break from work. During the sabbatical year, farmers in Israel left their fields untouched and relinquished ownership of any crops that would grow unattended to the passer-by who might be hungry. This allowed the land to return to its natural state so that the earth may rest.
It is the calling of every Jew to leave the earth in a better state than he or she found it, and this obligation extends into the ecological sense. To take care of the earth is to take care of ourselves. Like our bodies, the earth was not our making, but that of G-d, and it is our obligation to care for them both. The practice of the sabbatical year, reminds us that we are not owners of the earth, but rather its keepers and if we are to truly do the work of Hashem here on earth, then we must take care of it by letting the land rest as we rest after a long week of work.
I recall a story I heard at a previous Bar Mitzvah about a man who walks upon another man planting Carob trees. Upon seeing him he asks the man planting the trees “how long will it take for these trees to bear fruit?” To which the man replies “Seventy years”. The man on the road looked at the man planting the trees and proceeded to ask him “do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit?” The man planting the trees responds: “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many Carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren, so that they may eat the fruit of these trees.”
The trees planted by the man were not for his exclusive consumption; rather the trees were for the benefit of others, both humans and animals, for the generations to come. These trees were to stay like the fields during the sabbatical year, untouched and left for the world to enjoy like the earth. This attitude of conservation of the environment for others and for the future, and the idea of allowing earth to rest and return to a wild, original state, are both ways in which we can protect our home and in doing so be closer to our creator and more responsible toward nature. We have but one earth, one small delicate earth amongst a hostile universe, we must learn to take care of it and teach future generations to do so as well.
Personal Reflections on Being Bar Mitzvah:
To be a Bar Mitzvah is to become a man accountable for one’s actions and a fully integrated member of the Jewish people, culture and faith. I began this process a year ago, but began studying about Judaism over a year ago, not knowing how to read any Hebrew, and knowing very little about my Jewish heritage. I came to class every Thursday, and gave the Rabbi and myself a few headaches when I could not get the melodies right, but I kept on because I feel this, all of this, as mine and I am proud of it. This Bar Mitzvah, to me, represents the continuation of uncovering my heritage, a heritage I am absolutely proud of. It represents my return to what is the origin of my family on both sides that all but disappeared. It represents the failure of an inquisition imposed generations before me with the soul intention of eradicating my ancestors’ Jewish roots.
It represents the survival and revival of the culture and faith of my ancestors who despite being forced to be almost entirely silent for generations proclaimed loudly across the vast expanse of time, “you are a Jew!” My ancestors wrote this message in my name and in my blood and in the many fragmented traditions and beliefs that survived to reach me. It makes me a man accountable for the continuation of my culture, responsible to my community and family in keeping the imposed silence of the past at bay and proudly teaching future generations to embrace their Judaism. Although in age and life experience I have been a man for a while, today I am a man in the fullest sense, for I am a man that is one with his history connected fully to the people who contributed to my existence and proud of his heritage. If it is true that the man who does not know his past does not know himself, then on this day I break with this to become a man in all aspects.
Why I chose to return to Judaism:
I first set foot in this Synagogue in 2004 as a high school student. I was sent here by my AP English teacher to write a research essay on Judaism, she assigned me Judaism, not because I showed interest in it, but because she noticed that my last name is a Sephardic Jewish last name. I already knew that back then, but I was not interested entirely, my mind was on something else, and religion and culture was not that. Still I came over and learned about Judaism, and over the next three Shabbat services I came to I began to not just learn about Judaism, but about myself. In the following years I would return sporadically, until I reached the latter half of my college years.
Every time I walk in here, I feel at home. Every service I listen to echoes the words of my ancestors, parents and loved ones, and speaks to my inner conscience. Every time I carry the Torah, I feel it hugging me back. I feel G-d here, the same G-d my parents spoke to me about, here is where he lives, not in images, but in words and actions so embraced here and by every Jew.
I choose to return to Judaism because Judaism is mine. It is my heritage, it is the reason my name is David and my last names are Leyva and Osorio. I choose to return to Judaism because I found Israel even in my genes. I choose to return because I had never felt closer to G-d like I do here and now. I choose to return, simply because I am a Jew, a proud son of Israel, ready to do my part for the continued progress of my people and contribute to the protection and preservation of G-d’s earth and all with whom I share it. I intend to leave my faith to leave it in a better state than what I found it when I was born, for my children, my community and every generation to come.
I want to thank my parents for giving me my Jewish blood and the wonderful upbringing they gave me, my brother for being the awesome brother he is and for joining me in discovering our heritage, Ms. Marcia and her family for helping me start my journey, our community for making me feel so welcomed . I especially want to thank our Rabbi especially for teaching me, for lighting my path and helping me retrieve the culture, and faith that rightfully belongs to my family and I. Thank you for being such a great teacher, thank you for being my Rabbi.