Early on in the academic year (and the Jewish New Year!), I thought it would be a poignant time to remind you of why we engage in religious education.
I know what some of you are thinking: “The Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, of course!”
Sorry, talmidim (students), but the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is just one step along life’s long journey of knowing and growing. Nonetheless, sometimes it is this step that not only confirms the road already taken but affirms the one still left to travel.
That was certainly the case for the recent Bar Mitzvah of Elijah Schulman. The ceremony took place last month, August 2013, at the nearly 150-year old congregation of Mishkan Israel in Selma, Alabama. Selma is where Abraham Joshua Heschel artfully articulated the indelible words: “While marching in Selma with Dr. King, my feet were praying.”
Elijah did not grow up praying in Selma, but his great-great grandparents, Max and Hattie Erdreich, did. Elijah and his family now live in Bethesda, Maryland. He chose Selma for his celebration because becoming a Bar Mitzvah is a confirmation of continuing along a path established by those who came before you, and an affirmation to help shape the path for those who will come after you.
When the day arrived, I was with Elijah and his family in the social hall of the temple before the service. I asked if he was ready to sign his Bar Mitzvah certificate, pledging his life-long commitment to study, prayer, and acts of loving kindness. As Elijah’s pen took aim, his father, Andrew, interjected before it could hit its mark.
“What if he doesn’t agree? What if he won’t sign? Will he not be considered a Bar Mitzvah?”
I’d never been asked that question before, as – prior to this moment – the signing the Bar or Bat Mitzvah certificate had seemed merely functionary, a formality of the overall moment. So, I sat there… quiet… thinking. And, then, I answered:
“Sorry. No. I will not consider him a Bar Mitzvah, even with his Hebrew training. Because, being Jewish is more than knowing how to read Hebrew and lead a congregation in prayer. It takes a commitment to fill those words with meaning through our actions. So, if he chooses to not sign, he’ll still lead the service. He’s earned that right. But to truly be considered a son of the commandments, one has to be committed to living the words, not just reciting them.”
After a deep breath, as if inhaling the very weight of those words, Elijah signed. I don’t think there was ever a moment of hesitation; after all, in addition to preparing for the actual ceremony celebrating his Bar Mitzvah milestone, Elijah has already been fulfilling his commitment to the Jewish people through his actions.
The Mayor of Selma, George Patrick Evans, read a city resolution to Elijah during the service: “Elijah Schulman has already raised over $6,000 towards the preservation of this Selma Temple, and brought nationwide awareness of our great city… On behalf of Selma’s citizens, I present you with the Key to the City. May you always feel you’ve got a home here.”
That, my beloved talmidim, is the real reason you engage in religious education: not solely to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but to ensure a sense of belonging and responsibility to your Jewish community. For, in the near future, the keys of this home will quite literally be in your hands. The simple prayer of those who came before you is that you are willing to steer our congregations, our communities, and our world towards better and brighter things. We have great confidence you can and will do just that.
May God bless your educational journey!
Rabbi Marshal Klaven
PS – If you would like to continue to help Elijah and the Mishkan Israel congregation in the restoration efforts of their historic building, you can email Mishkan Israel’s President, Ronnie Leet.
As a Jewish professional, I am always looking for ways to connect Judaism to our lives. “Professional” Jews know that our students, congregants, and communities look to us as models for how to live a life filled with meaning and purpose.
One of the first lessons we teach Jewish children is that we are created b’tzelem Elohim – “in God’s image.” For some of us, being created in God’s image is a reminder to be God-like, showing as much kindness and compassion as we can. For others, being created in God’s image is a warning not to tattoo or pierce our bodies. For me, at this stage in my life b’tzelem Elohim is more literal: it means that God gave me my physical body to take care of, nurture, and cherish.
That’s why every day, I think about what I put into my body; every day, I find the time to move; and every day, I seek out things that make me happy. These acts not only keep me well physically, but also they also heighten my spiritual awareness. This has become as much my Jewish practice as the study of text or praying.
I am also just as much a role model for my students and staff by taking care of my body as I would be for my Jewish knowledge. I believe this very deeply: taking care of our physical selves honors a gift given to us by God, and is a very Jewish thing to do. And yet, the Jewish professional field is overwhelmed by unhealthy lifestyles, too little sleep, too little exercise, a state of imbalance and poor health. The irony in this is that research shows undeniably that people are more productive when they eat well, exercise, and get sleep.
The Jewish world closely mirrors the rest of society in the issue of weight and nutrition. And, sad but true - it’s especially bad in the South. I wonder, though, if we as Jewish leaders have an obligation to model healthy living – focusing not just on mind and spirit, but also on body. When we talk about obesity and health, emotions run deep, as this is something many people struggle with and few are comfortable discussing. So how can we, as a Jewish community, help and support each other in this arena?
What does being b’tezelem Elohim mean to you? Do you think Jewish leaders should model a healthy lifestyle?
Sometimes, being a Jewish organization in the Deep South means being perceived as an “outsider”– outside the major metropolitan areas, far from the largest centers of Jewish life. But what we know is that wherever we are, the struggles and triumphs faced by Jewish communities of all sizes are similar. South, North, East, West.
That’s why the ISJL staff was thrilled to get to contribute a think piece to E-Jewish Philanthropy about how we’re addressing Jewish education issues here in the South that are prevalent issue, and how there are no Southern solutions or Northern solutions– just communal, collaborative solutions.
If that’s not enough to catch your attention, what if we tell you that the piece is called “Giving Our Gorilla a Much-Needed Banana“?
We would love for our Southern & Jewish blog readers do join the conversation, too: do you think large and small communities can work together? Though there are cultural differences that make our regions unique and interesting, on issues of Jewish identity and education can our similarities outweigh our geographic differences?