Last week, we added the final (for now) video clip to the Oklahoma section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. The interview excerpt comes from a great conversation I had with Paula and Malcolm Milsten last summer at Tulsa’s Temple Israel. Malcolm, a Tulsa native, and Paula, who moved there before marrying Malcolm in 1959, have both served as temple president. In the clip below, Paula and Malcolm recall a 1984 flood that seriously damaged Temple Israel, as well as the outpouring of support from the entire city in the aftermath of the disaster.
Malcolm, like many people who have contributed their stories to the ISJL Oral History Project, remarks on his congregation’s positive relationship with other local synagogues as well as the general community. These themes—inclusion and cooperation—are common in our interviews. Where someone from outside the South might expect to find stories of isolation, I find, more often than not, exactly the opposite.
Earlier this week, Jewish parenting website kveller.com, a sister blog here on MyJewishLearning.com, published a blog post by rabbinical student Patrick Aleph critiquing contemporary b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. Aleph makes some interesting points, and his eventual conclusions are not as radical as the post’s title and opening paragraphs would imply.
It got us thinking here—and for comments on the provocative piece, we turned to our own Rachel Stern, ISJL Director of Education. Rachel, in addition to her credentials and experience as a Jewish educator, will celebrate the b’nai mitzvah of her twins, Gabe and Lainie, later this month. My conversation with her is transcribed below, lightly edited.
Josh Parshall: Let’s start with the article. What parts of what he wrote made the most sense to you?
Rachel Stern: What I think is most valid is his recognition that this relatively new construct has become this huge explosion. I mean, that definitely resonated with me, that this whole bar and bat mitzvah celebration entity has gone way beyond what it was designed for and has kind of lost its initial purpose.
American Judaism has created this construct of bar and bat mitzvah. When Aleph talks about the pop culture, I come from a community with a large Hispanic population, so it almost looks as if the Jews wanted to have their own Quinceañera, or a kind of sweet sixteen—like we asked, “What can we do to assimilate these Jewish teens into society? How can we create something special—oh, and connect it to the synagogue?” It’s clever and appalling at the same time, the way that we do it now. Using the bar or bat mitzvah as a carrot for a family is both good and evil. It’s good because it just creates another Jewish memory for kids and for a family, and it’s evil because all of a sudden it’s about the party and the gifts and—it reminds me very much of Chanukah. This minor holiday is given this major focus by Jewish families because we want it to be sexy and cool, just like Christmas. So we’ve taken something that doesn’t have tremendous significance and made it way too significant.
JP: For Aleph’s first point, he questions the efficacy of the b’nai mitzvah as a ritual. Did that ring true with you?
RS: I think he over-generalizes. There are programs that do it well. They work with parents; they set some boundaries, kind of “putting the ‘mitzvah’ back in bar mitzvah.” I think it is a little too black-and-white to call for the ceremony being done away with. If you ask most Jewish families about their most important Jewish moment, they are going to say their family’s b’nai mitzvahs. Even if the celebration is over the top, it’s a moment where parents see their kids reading from the Torah. Whether we like it or not, it’s a goose bumper for them. But there is a way to make it less problematic, a way to give it more integrity.
JP: Are there programs or people or institutions that do this particularly well?
RS: I think individual synagogues have made the commitment to create some standards and some guidelines. They’ll have almost a retreat for parents to let them know what the process looks like. There are even congregations that have the parents come together to share vendors and create some parameters for the parties so that it is kept to some level of normalcy, whatever that might mean.
This is where I’ll transition to being the parent. I’ve been joking a lot over the past few months that my kids have the great misfortune of having two Jewish professionals for parents, because the theme for their b’nai mitzvah is Judaism and the Torah. And that’s really uncool, based on the comparison to the rest of their friends. My poor kids have this obligation, by their parents’ decision, that this isn’t going to be a Hunger Games bat mitzvah or a sports-themed bar mitzvah.
JP: I want to ask you some more questions about their b’nai mitzvah in particular. Let’s look at what Aleph says about money first, though.
RS: At the end of the day, Jewish organizations, including synagogues, are having real financial problems. If we do away with membership fees, lots of congregations won’t be able to pay their bills. You can view it in a negative light, but the reality is that this group of people, who have children in religious school, are the people that pay dues and pay extra fees, which keeps the synagogue going for everyone. There are fees for religious school, and it’s a process that begins at a point and ends at a point. Again, you have to make money somewhere to keep the synagogue open.
I liken this to my congregation, which sells parking spots for the High Holidays. At the beginning I really had a problem with it. I didn’t like that the richer people at the congregation got a place to park and the poor people took the shuttle or walked or had to put together a carpool, but then when I realized how much extra money came in and offset costs of programs for everyone in the congregation, it’s harder to poo-poo it. If somebody wants to spend $250 to park, and they can pay for that, and it keeps the synagogue going, it fills a need.
I think this point was the most hot-button for me: when Aleph says that “the American synagogue is on crack, and your child’s bar mitzvah is the dealer.” I think every single congregation would work with a family that couldn’t afford it, but it is a time when the congregation has a captive audience. You have to recognize that. And if it were going into some slush fund, it would be gross, but it’s really about the operating budgets of these congregations. We could come up with ten examples that make you ask, “Really, you’re charging for that?” But you have to charge somebody something for something. Bills have to get paid.
JP: How about his last point, “we are holding preteens to an education standard we do not hold adults to,” and that this is hypocritical?
This is what I think: my whole career is devoted to Jewish education, and that means creating moments—creating a moment of memory and experience—hopefully a moment that can be built upon. Out of everything we teach these kids in religious school, much of it will be forgotten or not applied. We do it, though, with the hope for what will be remembered and what will be applied. The goal, whether it is articulated or not, is that these kids will value being part of a synagogue and going to services as adults. So, rather than judging moms and dads who may not be able to chant Torah, think about the one kid who is moved by this experience and may want to become a Torah reader for his or her congregation, or likes going back every year and chanting their Torah portion for their congregation as a memory of something that they worked really hard for. I think it creates some good moments for families and some tough moments. I think about the interfaith families that we serve. A lot of these parents are trying to get these kids ready for something, but they feel inadequate as the person who is helping their children practice and prepare. It’s a real commitment for a family. That’s not so easily written off as hypocritical.
I think a lot of parents see their kids do this and wish that they had these skills themselves. I don’t think it’s taken lightly. These are memories that some parents wish they could add to their own lives. I also think they are proud to have provided this opportunity for their kids. There will be those kids that this moment triggers something for them. For the ones who don’t find it as dramatic, it’s still an accomplishment. How many kids, growing up, have the experience of standing in front of a room of people and leading something? For some of them it’s wonderful, and for some it’s a little traumatic, but it is still an accomplishment.
Also, we all navigate these contradictions, even “professional Jews” like me. My ex-husband is a rabbi; my current husband is a very non-active synagogue Jew, but he totally remembers his Torah and Haftarah portion. And we talk about how hilarious that is. There’s this little place in his brain for it. He remembers learning it. You can view that positively or negatively.
JP: What struck you the most about his conclusion, calling for process that educates the whole family in advance of the b’nai mitzvah?
RS: I think that having families do something together, that would be wonderful. Adding integrity to the process and the learning could be great. There is room for improvement. To deny that this has lost its initial purpose would be unrealistic. If you take b’nai mitzvot away, the reality is that a lot of children will not continue coming to the schools. There will be a less educated group of Jewish kids. There will.
JP: Can you talk a little more about your kids’ b’nai mitzvah? They clearly would have a different experience.
RS: They are going to have a different experience. Yet, at the end of the day, I am not just a Jewish educator; I am a mom. So I get firsthand how hard it is to get your kids to practice, how hard it is to get your kids to go to religious school when they are in middle school and they have athletics, band, social lives and other activities. There are days when we can’t pull it off. I joke a lot that being a Jewish professional and preparing your kids for their bar and bat mitzvah is like the shoemaker whose kids have bad shoes. Everybody expects it to be this flawless process for your family, but we’re regular people who are juggling a lot of different things at the same time. The only difference is that I’m a little more qualified to get my kids ready.
There are very deliberate choices that we made. We wanted their invitation not to look like a glamour shot, but like an invitation to a Jewish moment. And their invitation, as a result, looks like a junior varsity invitation compared to the rest, and I was happy to be that example.
JP: I think that Jewish education seems so difficult in part because it has been separated from everyday lives. It seems like he’s asking families to get more Judaism in their everyday lives, and when that happens the Jewish education side is going to be less of a battle.
RS: Sure. But the bar mitzvah is something that people don’t want to miss out on. If you take it away, it will be hard to get back. It would be hard to replace it. Look, I work in supplementary education every day, so the conversation I have with kids is that they say, “I’m going to go to basketball practice instead of this.” And I always say the same thing. “Are you expecting to be a professional basketball player?” And the answer is “no.” And I ask, “Are you expecting to be Jewish your whole life?” And the answer is “well, yeah.” And you kind of leave it open ended. You have to figure out a way to create the priorities and choose the activities that support your long-term goals. That’s a lot to put on a kid, and a lot to put on a parent, but it makes you think about what you’re doing.
Everybody, in Judaism or in life, is trying to find some sense of balance between the things they are obligated to do and the things they want to do. I’ve had a big epiphany in my years as a Jewish educator. I used to really judge families, really feel like people weren’t doing enough and use the word “apathy” a lot, and now I don’t feel that way at all. I think people are doing their best. I think people make a tremendous effort in a time where it is harder and harder to do that. I think these parents that drop their kids off at religious school should get a pat on the back. Instead of recognizing what they aren’t doing, the fact that they make the effort and have made a commitment as a family deserves a little bit of recognition instead of so much judgment from us. People that have a big bar or bat mitzvah for their kids are not doing it to be schmucks. They’re not trying to have a ceremony or a moment in their family’s life that lacks integrity or Judaism. There is good intention behind it, and I think this article kind of assumes the worst.
The thing that is good about this article is that it starts a conversation. Maybe there is a congregation that will create another opportunity to reach out to families and educate them in a way that makes this more meaningful, more connected to Judaism, more spiritual.
What are your thoughts on the Kveller article, or this response?
2013 marks the ISJL’s thirteenth year of existence.
Our B’nai Mitzvah Year.*
We will go through many of the same things any b’nai mitzvah student goes through: we will study, we will learn, we will hope for meaningful gifts, we will try to be better than we were. We will stand proudly in front of our supporters and say “Today, we are an organization!”
Throughout this year, we will be marking this milestone. This month, as we celebrate the “secular” new year, our mind is on resolutions. As a thirteen-year-old organization, what should our focus be? What do we want to continue to do, and what do we want to change?
With that in mind, we start our reflective process of The ISJL at 13 with some institutional New Year resolutions:
1) Stay in shape. No spandex required – this resolution has less to do with lifting weights, and more to do with constantly lifting expectations. We want to be responsive, reflective, and ready to go, when we’re on the road, and when we’re in the office. We know we’ve had some good workouts in the past, but we have to stay active if we want to stay in shape to keep seeing results!
2) Share with others. We love having our blog, our Facebook page, our Twitter feed, our CIRCA magazine. We want to continue to share stories and strategies, not only to inform but also to inspire. We are proud to be a transformational, trans-denominational organization with a collaborative, regional approach to programming. We want to share how we do what we do, so other areas that could benefit from our approach can see what’s working here. We also love the communities and organizations we’re privileged to partner with, and want to be good partners by sharing their stories and successes, too!
3) Celebrate Southern Jewish life. We believe in the universality of the Jewish experience, and we also value the uniqueness of the Southern Jewish experience. Through histories and contemporary reflections, we want to renew our commitment to celebrate, preserve and promote the people and practices of Southern Jewish life.
4) Travel. Okay, so we already travel a lot. But with our new education partners in Missouri, and trying to share stories of the Southern Jewish experience with a wider audience … we’re expecting to rack up a lot of miles this year!
5) Eat better. Well … this is the resolution we’re most likely to break … there’s still a lot of sweets around this office, y’all. So one way we’ll honor this resolution is by sharing some of our favorite Southern-and-Jewish recipes throughout the year, which will also be included in our upcoming Taste of Torah book. Hey, those recipes will also count toward fulfilling resolution #3 – and look, resolution #2, too! This might be the best resolution of all!! (Food always wins.)
Those are our resolutions as we begin our thirteenth year. From all of us to all of y’all, Happy New Year, Shabbat Shalom – and we hope you’re resolved and looking forward to celebrating with us all year long!
* We couldn’t decide on Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and we have a lot of staff, so we went with B’Nai Mitzvah. It seemed like the mensch move!