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.
“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.
“a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected”
(The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English)
Over the summer, every ISJL Education Fellow visits each of “our communities” – the 6-7 congregations we each serve, throughout the region. The summer visits are brief, and may take the form of an evening program, or just an hour to meet with the religious school director or synagogue president. Though the meetings are short, they’re often far away – and that means we are in the car quite a bit.
On those long drives, it’s important to take a break now and then. As a history buff, I try to make sure that those breaks include visits to historical sites. On a recent trip, my companions and I (we often travel in groups for summer visits) decided to eat lunch in Selma, Alabama. I didn’t know it then, but the brief stop would turn into my own unexpected, unplanned pilgrimage.
Entering Selma, we drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I knew the bridge was famous, so we pulled over to take a picture. I remembered that it had something to do with a march during the Civil Rights Movement, but I wasn’t clear on the specifics. Reading the signs, I learned that the bridge was the scene of the Selma to Montgomery march and “Bloody Sunday.” It dawned on me that Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Abraham Joshua Heschel had all marched over this bridge in their attempt to create a just and free society in America. It was this bridge Heschel spoke of when he described acts of social justice as “praying with our feet.” I thought about it a little bit, but feeling touristy, I just walked over the bridge, took some photos and moved on.
Over lunch I had the idea to investigate the Selma synagogue. I knew it was there, and, after looking it up, realized it was less than a mile from where we were eating.
After a bit of searching, we spied a circular window with a large Jewish star smack dab in the middle. We parked in the grassy driveway and got out to look around. Once again, we took some pictures, walked around, and got back in the car and left.
Mulling it over later, I realized that visiting these two very different locations made up an unofficial, unplanned pilgrimage. Together, the two sites reflect the spirit of humanity, the power of dedicated people to come together and accomplish big things.
Sure, the synagogue is a beautiful old building constructed in 1899. But it symbolizes something bigger: the power of Jewish community to sustain itself and thrive anywhere. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for a European Jewish immigrant to arrive and settle in Selma in the 1890s – but I am confident that it must not have been an easy transition. It took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, to build and sustain a synagogue like this, especially in the Deep South, far away from much of the Jewish world.
Likewise, it took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, for those civil rights activists and ordinary people in the 1960s to march across the bridge, facing armed Alabama lawmen determined to stop them from creating change. Their efforts helped to develop the society we live in today.
Pilgrimages are supposed to inspire us, to help us become better people and to give us goals to strive for. My unexpected pilgrimage did just that. I hope that, perhaps, in my next two years as an ISJL Education Fellow, I can emulate the courage, chutzpah, and dedication of these amazing individuals as I help to maintain and support our Southern Jewish community.