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.
What’s Jewish about…
- The N’awlins phrase “Where Y’At?”
- Eating cheese grits soufflé in Alexandria, Louisiana?
- Cheering “Roll Tide” on Wednesday, “Go Tigers” on Sunday, and in between, enjoying an interfaith gathering at a Methodist Church in Pensacola Friday?
Well, those expressions and experiences were all part of the twelve-lecture, ten-day, four-state tour covering 1,200 miles that I embarked on with Dr. Ron Wolfson last month. In New Orleans, “Where y’at?” is a question that starts many conversations … and in the Torah, the first question is “Ayeikah?” – most often translated as “Where are you?” but in N’awlins, it’d be “Where y’at?”
Moments like that one, connecting Jewish learning, community, and Southern hospitality, were hallmarks throughout the trip.
There is nothing that can’t be accomplished when we keep in the forefront of our minds that all Jews are responsible for one another and share our resources, working together to make greatness happen for everyone involved. The January lecture tour of Ron Wolfson through the South, exemplified Klal Yisrael and the regional, communal programming approach of the ISJL .
The cooperative spirit was contagious, and along the way Dr. Wolfson addressed over 750 people, across four states in ten days including Jews and Christians, in tiny congregations like Gemiluth Chassodim in Alexandria, Louisiana (88 members) up to large Southern congregations like Temple Sinai in New Orleans, LA (700 members) and everything in between. The youngsters in 4th – 8th grade in Birmingham, Alabama were every bit as enthralled with his afternoon Be Like God workshop as their parents and grandparents were with the evening lecture, God’s To-Do List.
What makes Ron so brilliant is his ability to touch everyone and leave them with a renewed awareness of what it means to be made in the image of God, as well as what we can do to honor that in everyday life at home, in our synagogues and in our communities. He is joyful with everyone, greeting each individual with a handshake, which begins breaking barriers before he is even introduced.
Ron doesn’t deploy heavy handed preaching, or one definition of God. Christians, Jews, and even those without a particular faith learn from him. The overwhelming feeling at the end of each lecture – renewed and refreshed, so glad to have been there and thirsty for more!
Speaking of “more,” I am thrilled that Dr. Ron Wolfson is spending some more time with Southern communities this coming week; you can see the schedule for his Virginia tour here.
That’s where I’ve been recently … so, where y’at?
The Daf Yomi (Hebrew for “page a day”), is a program for learning Talmud. Participants study one page a day, individually or in groups, and after 7 years they have read all 2,711 pages of Talmud. Last time the cycle finished, there was a huge celebration at Met Life Stadium. Of the 90,000 people who attended, the vast majority were Orthodox Jewish men.
Despite being interested, I hesitated because I like to look at the sources through a critical historical lens—a very different approach than that used by Orthodox Daf Yomi resources. One day, I read about an Unorthodox Daf Yomi group on Facebook. After checking it out, I was inspired; I had to do it. So with the help of the Koren Steinsaltz Talmud, the JCAST Network’s Daily Daf Differently podcasts, Adam Kirsch’s weekly Tablet column on the Daf Yomi, and Rabbi Adam Chalom’s Not Your Father’s Talmud blog from a few years ago, I have read through about 60 full pages.
Through this process, I have begun to make the Talmud my own. I read the laws, discussions, and stories, and visualize how they would have applied in the Ancient Jewish world, but I can also reinterpret them to be applicable to my own life as a religiously liberal American Jew in modern times.
One of these gems is the only Talmudic mention of our current holiday, Chanukah! While the High Holidays, Purim and Passover get their own sections, Chanukah is only mentioned once, in tractate Shabbat. In it, along with many of the other laws of Hanukkah, the rabbis discuss how many menorahs each household should light:
The Rabbis taught: The law of Chanukah demands that every man should light one lamp for himself and his household. Those who seek to embellish the mitzvah have a lamp lit for every member of the household. (Shabbat 21b)
This passage echoes one of my favorite ideas of Judaism, that there is often more than one correct way to observe a tradition. I would argue further that there are many ways to lead a Jewish life, including my own non-Orthodox reading of Talmud through Daf Yomi. There is no single correct way to celebrate Hanukkah, so if you want to light one menorah for the entire household that’s great. But if you want to light one menorah for each person in the household, that’s great too. In my house growing up, we would occasionally put up decorations and occasionally give gifts. But always, each of us always lit his or her menorah, and every year we would take a family picture—including the dog—behind all of our Chanukah lights.
Many families light the candles, play dreidel, and sing maoh tzur or other songs. Other families, especially in this Southern land of fried food, revel in eating fried sufganyot and fried potato latkes. I’ve heard of some people making beignets or fried chicken! A lot of Jewish children in the South (and throughout the United States) have at least one set of non-Jewish grandparents, and some families celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, with traditions shared to acknowledge their entire family – since family, of course, is so important to us all. However you celebrate it, and however you spell it (I used a couple different spellings in this post …), have a wonderful festival of lights!
What are some of the special ways that your family celebrates Hanukkah?