I was in North Mississippi, visiting my husband’s family for the first time over Thanksgiving when I first heard about “the blind.” Being Jewish and from the North I had never heard this term, but after lunch we drove through the eerily empty and beautiful delta fields out to his father’s duck blind. It was a camouflaged hideout, made to fit eight people and two dogs. They had flooded the field to attract ducks flying south for winter and filled the water with elaborate decoys that, with a flip of a switch flapped their wings, signaling to ducks flying overhead that this was a safe place to land. When I asked about the small camp stove, I learned that the space served more as a clubhouse on early weekend mornings than a place for serious hunting.
I was reminded of that blind when I first spotted this beautifully crafted decoy in our museum collection. Created as a commemorative piece, it’s not bound for the flooded fields, but lives in our collection instead, as a symbol of both Jewish and Southern heritage.
This duck comes from a synagogue in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vickburg’s Anshe Chesed dedicated their first house of worship in 1870. Like all great southern celebrations, the program began with a parade from the B’nai B’rith hall to the new temple, led by a police escort and Jaeger’s Brass Band from New Orleans. The congregation spent over 100 years in the building until the late 1960s, when they decided to move out of downtown and build a smaller temple. Their original building was torn down.
Before the old synagogue came down, though, congregants wanted keep something to remember it by. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to honor an important southern institution than to manifest it in this traditional art form.
Congregants Benji and Betty Lee Grundfest Lamensdorf had a set of these wonderful decoys carved from the wood remnants of the temple, and one of them made its way into our collection. They serve as a reminder of what Jewish life once was, and still is in Vicksburg. The congregation, now over 160 years old, has shrunk significantly, but they still hold lay-led services and social gathering on most Shabbats. You might say these birds of a feather have done a great job sticking together, and we hope they continue to do so for many more Shabbats to come.
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?
By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox community, so when I came to work at the ISJL, I knew that I would need to modify my Shabbat observance. During my interview, I remember thinking that my compromises would be well justified by the chance to share meaningful Jewish experiences with our partner communities. Though I anticipated that this would be difficult, I have been surprised to realize that changing my practice is the easy part. The biggest challenges for me have been the contradictions between my new experiences and the mindset that I developed in day school—beliefs that I never realized were so ingrained in my thought.
The biggest struggle has been reconciling my views on intermarriage. The belief in my community at home, at least among my teachers, is that intermarrying is the worst thing a Jew can do. It is better to separate completely from those who have intermarried, become more insular, and focus on perpetuating Judaism, than it is to accept such a transgression and risk the erosion of traditional Jewish identity and practice.
I don’t think I ever truly believed that this was the best response to intermarriage, but I realized one day during a webinar with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky from the Jewish Outreach Institute that I had been deeply affected by what I heard when I was younger. My mind latched onto Rabbi Olitzky’s words, understanding that the way to include Jews in Judaism is to accept those who intermarry, embrace their spouses and help them teach their children how to be Jewish. My body, however, was tense and uncomfortable. The thought kept cropping up—that intermarriage will bring about the end of Judaism.
I understand why the community I grew up in was so insular. It is easy to believe other Jews are less Jewish if you don’t know them, haven’t spoken to them, haven’t seen them be Jewish. On a recent community visit, I spent the weekend with a family in which only the father is halachically Jewish. The mother, who referred to her own family as interfaith, and I had many conversations over the weekend about religion and Judaism. Three years ago this woman knew very little about Judaism; now she is the only teacher in her children’s religious school. She has gone out of her way to understand Judaism and figure out the best way to teach it to her children as well as the other children in the community. During one of our conversations she again referred to her family as interfaith. We both laughed out loud, recognizing how absurd it was that she should still separate herself out, still hesitate to claim a stake in the Jewish faith. I was impressed with this woman and her awareness that some people just could not get over the fact that she is not halachically Jewish.
I understand the reasoning behind halachic Judaism. I understand that Orthodox conversion is important for halachic and traditional reasons. However, I cannot accept the stark lines we draw and the barriers we place between different factions of what is supposed to be one people. I don’t think that the Orthodox should change their standards and tell their children it is OK to marry anyone they want, but now I also don’t believe that people should only be considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish or they had a conversion with a beit din and went in the mikvah.
I knew that spending two years at the ISJL would challenge me, and truthfully I was looking to be challenged. My experiences on the road have fundamentally changed the way I think and who I am. Now I feel like I am trying to live simultaneously in two worlds, but I am not sure if that is really possible.
What are your thoughts on pluralism, and the “multiple worlds” of Judaism?