Author Archives: Rabbi Rachel M. Solomin

About Rabbi Rachel M. Solomin

Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.

Parents & Bar/Bat Mitzvah Preparation

Just as pre-teens are gaining a greater desire for independence, they undertake the massive task of preparing for their bar/bat mitzvahs. Many parents who seek to be involved in the process find themselves afraid of intruding on their maturing child’s personal space and, at the same time, fearful of stranding their child at a moment when he or she might need substantial support. The following are some specific tips for parents.

What Will be Expected?

Synagogues and schools vary greatly in their bar/bat mitzvah expectations, though most require students to lead certain prayers, read or chat some text (Torah and Haftarah), and deliver a d’var Torah (homily). Some also require tasks not directly related to the bar/bat mitzvah service such as volunteer projects, written research reports, and/or attendance at religious services.
parents role in preparation of bar/bat mitzvah
Most medium and large synagogues assign bar/bat mitzvah dates according to children’s birthdates; smaller congregations usually take date requests. Ask about your community’s standards as soon as your child’s bat/bat mitzvah date is set.

When you receive the list of requirements, set a realistic timetable for fulfilling them. A child who has a busy sports schedule may find it easier to complete a community service project as much as a year early, during the summer. A child who does not want to miss summer camp in order to prepare for an early fall bar/bat mitzvah service may ask to reschedule the service for later in the school year, or may decide to start tutoring well in advance, completing all preparations before heading off to camp. Make sure to include your child in the process of budgeting time, allowing him or her to set priorities and measurable goals.

The simplest and most often overlooked method to prepare your child for the bar/bat mitzvah service is to make a habit of attending services together at least once a month, starting two years before the bar/bat mitzvah. There is no substitute for frequent exposure to the liturgy, practice with Hebrew, and the support of sitting beside a parent who takes the time to prioritize communal prayer. While attending services, talk to the rabbi, cantor, or service leader at your congregation to see if children can come up to the bimah ahead of their bar/bat mitzvah to lead a prayer.

History of the World

Jewish years are numbered according to the rabbinic understanding of when the

Creation of the world took place. Though many rabbis attempted this calculation, it was that of Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta– which declared Monday, October 7, 3761 B.C.E., to be the day Creation began–that gained currency. The following chart shows his account of the time from Creation to the destruction of the Second Temple:


Year of the Mundane Era Event Biblical Basis
 1  Creation, including that of Adam and Eve  Genesis 1:1
 130  Birth of Seth

Genesis 5:1-32, with dates of birth given relative to the age of the father.

 235  Birth of Enosh
 325  Birth of Keinan
 395  Death of Mehalaleil
 460  Birth of Jared
 622  Birth of Enokh
 687  Birth of Bethuselah
 874  Birth of Lamekh
 930  Death of Adam
 1042  Death of Seth
 1056  Birth of Noah
 1140  Death of Enosh
 1235  Death of Keinan
 1290  Death of Mehalaleil
 1422  Death of Jared
 1556  Birth of Shem
 1654  Death of Lamekh
 1656  Death of Methuselah, The Flood  Genesis 11:10-29, with some dates extrapolated from years of life listed previously. There seems to be a bit of inexactitude in the time immediately after the Flood.
 1658  Birth of Arpakhshad
 1693  Birth of Salah
 1723  Birth of Ever
 1757  Birth of Peleg
 1787  Birth of Reu
 1819 Birth of Serug
 1848  Birth of Nahor
 1878  Birth of Terah
 1948  Birth of Abraham (Avram)
 2048  Birth of Isaac  Genesis 21:5
 2108  Birth of Jacob and Esau  Genesis 25:26
 2238  Death of Joseph  Genesis 25:26
 2448  Israelites leave Egypt  Exodis 12:40-41
 2928  Solomon Dedicates the First Temple in Jerusalem  I Kings 6:1
 3338  Destruction of the First Temple  The First Temple lasted 410 years, according to the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9a.
 3408  Return from the Babylonian Exile Jeremiah prophesied a 70 year exile.
 3828  Destruction of the Second Temple  A post-Biblical chronology of kingdoms is given in the Talmud, Avodah Zarah 9a and 10a (probably basing itself on Rabbi Yossi’s Seder Olam Rabbah). Daniel prophesied 490 years from the First Temple’s destruction to Second Temple’s destruction. This results in a date for the second destruction of 67 C.E. (Daniel 9:24 ff).


Counting the Years

The Jewish calendar not only has its own unique months, but it also numbers years differently from the secular calendar. The year 2003, for instance, was roughly equivalent to the Jewish year 5763. (Specifically, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September 2003 marked the transition from 5763 to 5764).

The counting of Jewish years, as we know it today, dates from the Middle Ages. In secular texts, Jewish time is often noted as “A.M.”–anno mundo–literally, “years of the world.” (Occasionally, “A.M.” is explained as standing for aera mundi, “era of the world.”) This system of Jewish time is called the “Mundane Era” (English for aera mundi) because those who invented it believed they were calculating dates from the birth of the world.

Chronologies of the Bible and Temple

The basis of the Jewish annual calendar is ancient. The Torah speaks of the annual cycle of holy days and festivals, and it was systematized by the sages well before the fall of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
hebrew calendar
If one tries to ascertain the origin of our counting of years, however, the Bible does not seem particularly helpful. When providing a history, the Bible refers to lifetimes. For example, the Torah tells us that Abraham was 75 years old when he and his household were sent from Haran to Canaan (Genesis 12:4). In the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, dates are generally given according to the years of a sovereign’s rule.

Most often, the dates are consistent among these five books. During the time when two kings ruled the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the ascendance of one state’s king might be given relative to the years of the other king’s reign. For example, II Kings 14:1 reads: “In the second year of [the reign of] Yoash ben Yoahaz, King of Israel, Amatzyahu ruled [i.e. came to the throne] as King of Judah.”

During the fourth century B.C.E., a dating system was sought out for secular use on business and legal documents. At this time, the Jews borrowed the practice of the Greeks, who had introduced the practice of numbering time in “eras”–periods of time relative to a historical event, rather than the lifetime or rule of any one person. This new system is called the “Seleucid Era” by secular scholars and, in Jewish circles, it is known as “minyan shtarot”–“accounting of contracts.” It counts time from the year 312-311 B.C.E., supposedly six years following the arrival of Alexander in the Land of Israel.

Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Mizrahi Jews – Jewish Ethnic Diversity

For most Americans, traditional Jewish culture summons up images of Passover seders with steaming bowls of matzah ball soup, black-hatted, pale-skinned Hasidic men, and Yiddish-speaking bubbes (grandmothers) and zeydes (grandfathers). In reality, these snapshots represent only one Jewish ethnic group of many.

Shared Jewish history, rituals, laws, and values unify an international Jewish community. However, the divergent histories of Jewish communities and their contacts with other cultural influences distinguish Jewish ethnic groups from one another, giving each a unique way of being Jewish. Worldwide, Jews from distinct geographic regions vary greatly in their diet, language, dress, and folk customs. Most pre-modern Diaspora communities are categorized into three major ethnic groups (in Hebrew, sometimes called eidot, “communities”):
jewish ethnic diversity
· Ashkenazim, the Jews of Germany and Northern France (in Hebrew, Ashkenaz)

· Sephardim, the Jews of Iberia (in Hebrew, Sepharad) and the Spanish diaspora

· Mizrahim, or Oriental Jews


The Jewish ethnic identity most readily recognized by North Americans–the culture of matzah balls, black-hatted Hasidim, and Yiddish–originated in medieval Germany. Although strictly speaking, “Ashkenazim” refers to Jews of Germany, the term has come to refer more broadly to Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Jews first reached the interior of Europe by following trade routes along waterways during the eighth and ninth centuries.

Eventually, the vast majority of Ashkenazim relocated to the Polish Commonwealth (today’s Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and Belarus), where princes welcomed their skilled and educated workforce. The small preexistent Polish Jewish community’s customs were displaced by the Ashkenazic prayer order, customs, and Yiddish language.

Jewish life and learning thrived in northeastern Europe. The yeshiva culture of Poland, Russia, and Lithuania produced a constant stream of new talmudic scholarship. In 18th century Germany, the Haskalah movement advocated for modernization, introducing the modern denominations and institutions of secular Jewish culture.

Families and Jewish Differences

Even families in which every member is Jewish can be filled with religious strife. The bitterness that can emerge from well-intentioned, but hurtful words spoken between family members with different levels of religious observance can last for years. Recovering from or even avoiding this bitterness requires significant maturity and self-awareness. All the members of a family ideally should commit themselves to the Jewish value of shalom bayit, a peaceful household, in which disagreements can be set aside for the greater purpose of family love, holiness, and togetherness.

Affirming Choice

When discussing religious variation within families, it is important to recognize that all religious observance is a choice. This is as true for Orthodox family members as for those who barely observe at all. For a person who believes that God expects Jews to adhere to the Torah and its mitzvot (commandments), the will to follow those laws represents a choice, even if it is a clear-cut choice between righteousness and sin. 

jewish family observanceEvery person also has rationales for these choices. For those family members who choose to follow Jewish law (halakhah) as a reflection of God’s will, concern for less-observant family members naturally can result. Conversely, a Reform Jew who believes that ritual observance and moral law are not intrinsically linked might scoff at the idea that God cares about small details such as mixing linen and wool. 

A person must recognize their loved ones’ right to make their own choices if one wants to nurture and maintain deeper, more mature relationships. Loving someone unconditionally means just that–you love regardless of differences, not because of your similarities.

“Mine” and “Ours”

Couples experiencing religious difference are most successful when they define areas of shared and separate observances. According to Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, in The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, couples with different levels of observance often compromise on a level of kashrut that is mutually workable in the home, but observe Shabbat in different ways. Cohen and Eisen report that the compromises necessary for a shared household and childrearing seem to move closer to the level of observance of the more “Jewishly involved” spouse. A couple may decide together that they will eat in restaurants according to their own comfort levels with kashrut, but have a strictly kosher home. 

How to Negotiate Jewish Difference

Although Judaism espouses the value of shalom bayit, peace among the members of a family, Judaism can also be a source of strife for family members. Differences in levels of Sabbath and kashrut observance can make family get-togethers–particularly those surrounding holidays and lifecycle rituals–frustrating. Discussions about current events in Israel, the politics of conversion, or even a decision to send one’s kids to a Jewish day school can sour even the sweetest seder. Changes to family members’ levels of observance can also throw other relatives into confusion or leave them feeling rejected or judged.

Family conflicts arise from countless possible causes–personality clashes, old grudges, money, and the list only goes on from there. Sometimes religious differences exacerbate these other issues to the point that Judaism becomes the scapegoat for why a family isn’t getting along. Learning how to negotiate disagreements about Jewish observance and belief won’t solve deeper family issues, but it can provide a framework for allowing Judaism to become a healing medium in a fractured family.

1. Clarify Expectations

All family visits should be preceded by honest discussions about what arrangements might be needed for meals (for example, kosher food), sleeping arrangements (such as separate beds for spouses), or scheduling (like being respectful of prayer times).

hands in the middleFamily members hosting and those visiting both have obligations to be specific about what they need, what they want, and what would offend them. For instance, it would be important for guests preferring a Passover seder that continues after the meal to know ahead of time that their hosts are not planning for it. For both sides, an in-advance list of what is negotiable and what is not may reveal surprising areas of flexibility.

2. Do the Research

You can reach out to your family members by learning more about what they are doing and why. You might want to “learn the lingo” of your Orthodox sibling and read up on the difference between halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (custom). It could be helpful to listen to an audiobook for clues to why Jewish Renewal appeals to your mother’s soul or why your uncle’s recitation of Kaddish after his father died started him going to daily minyan.

Interviewing a Synagogue

Choosing a synagogue is a highly personal decision. The author recommends speaking to synagogue members and leaders to find out important information about the synagogue, and using that information as one component of deciding on a synagogue. The following is a suggested list of questions to ask.

Members of the Community

  1. Who belongs to the shul?  Is it a community of young families, empty nesters, singles, or a blend?
  1. Does the synagogue view itself as being multi-generational, or are different "interest groups" (families, older adults) more represented than others?
  1. How many family units does it have? 
  1. To which movement or denomination, if any, does the synagogue belong? How "typical" of that movement is the synagogue, and in what ways does it differ from others in that movement?
  1. How many of the congregation’s families are intermarried? How are intermarried families integrated into the community?
  1. Are openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual members welcomed into the community with their families?
  1. Where do its members live?  Is there a tightly knit neighborhood around the synagogue or are members more geographically spread-out?
  1. Who is on the professional staff (including clergy)?
  1. Where were the clergy trained?  Are they accepted members of professional organizations?
  1. How many people attend an average Shabbat service? Holiday service? Weekday lecture, adult-learning, social event, or other synagogue program?

Prayer and Worship

  1. What is its schedule of prayer services?
  1. What type(s) of prayer services are available?  (Larger synagogues may have multiple services in different styles and targeting different groups.)
  1. Is there separate seating for men and women?  If so, what kind of arrangement (mehitzah/partition or balcony) is it?
  1. Are women included in opportunities to lead services, read Torah, and perform other ritual functions?

A Moving Checklist

For many Jews, moving to a new home comes with the added challenge of getting acquainted with a new Jewish community. Though some of the advice given here may not be relevant for everyone–not everyone hangs a mezuzah on their doorposts, for instance–the following suggestions can help alleviate some of the stress of finding your way into and around a new Jewish community.

Check the Internet

Search for the website of the local (or closest) Jewish Federation. The easiest way to do this is to visit the website of United Jewish Communities, the organization linking all North American Jewish Federations, Most Federation sites feature guides to local congregations, schools, community centers, singles events, and local Jewish activities. Often, one can also obtain from the Federation a “welcome package” that includes a guide to community services or a trial subscription to the local Jewish newspaper.

jewish moving listCheck the website of the local Jewish newspaper. Most, but not all, local Jewish newspapers have their own website. Reading articles on the site will often give you a general idea of the demographics of the community, its political bent, its issues of concern, and its diversity (or homogeneity). (Links to some Jewish newspaper sites can be found by clicking here.)

Check the web for resources you know you will need to access. Most synagogues, JCCs, and day schools have their own websites. Some cities have a general website about their Jewish community and its resources. (Links to some community sites can be found by clicking here.)

If you are committed to a specific Jewish movement, check the website of the movement for local congregations. (The links can be found by clicking here.)


Does your friend’s brother live in your new hometown? Did your college buddy live there for awhile? What about the children of your father’s tennis partner? Even a mere acquaintance can sometimes give you a useful introduction to local Jewish life.  Here are some other people likely to help:

Stories of Our Ancestors

The Bible offers few details about its characters’ backgrounds and motivations. That’s where midrash comes in; one of the functions of this genre of rabbinic literature is to flesh out the characters of the Bible. 

Often, the sages of the midrash seek to provide a “back story” for a biblical personality. The sages also were compelled to explain the motivations of God and human characters, imagining their inner lives. Midrashim take roughly sketched biblical characters and make of them archetypal figures with whom we can more easily identify.

Some of the most famous midrashim are stories about Abraham and Sarah. Among these midrashim are tales so imbedded in Jewish tradition that many people do not even realize they can’t be found in the Torah.

Why God Chose Abraham

When the Torah introduces Avram (as Abraham was initially named), he is already a grown man. The Torah mentions that he was born to a man named Terah in Ur of the Chaldees, and that Avram left Ur with his father, his brother, and their collective households and traveled to Haran (Genesis 11:27-32). God’s first reported words to Avram come when God commands Avram, at the age of 75, to leave Haran for Canaan (Genesis 12).

abraham and sarahWhat was special about Avram/Abraham? What are the character traits that motivated God to choose this man over all others? Midrashic stories of Avram’s youth provide the answers. They portray Avram as possessing logical gifts and spiritual insight that allow him to see the inconsistencies between the idolatrous practices around him and the theological claims to which they are linked.

According to the Talmud (Baba Batra 91a), Abraham’s birth was predicted by the astrologers of King Nimrod, who perceived the infant as being a threat to Nimrod’s kingship. Terah hides young Avram in a cave to save him from death. Emerging from the cave at the age of three, Avram observes that there is a powerful God above nature, who created nature. It is this God who he worships.

Abraham & the Idols

In another set of midrashim (Genesis Rabbah 38, Tanna Debei Eliyahu), we find Abraham in his father’s shop, which sells idols. Abraham demonstrates to his father the absurdity of worshipping the very idols he sculpts.