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B'nai mitzvah out of the box
Marla Cohen

Finding alternatives to synagogue simchas
When Mark Haber became a bar mitzvah in 2005, he, like so many boys before him, donned a tallit, led the service and read from his Torah portion about Noah.

In keeping with the theme, perhaps, nature arranged a downpour. The family celebrated afterwards with a party.

On the surface, Haber’s bar mitvah was much like his friends. Except that Haber’s simcha took place in a tent in his New City backyard, and the road he traveled before the ceremony was markedly different.

Haber, 18, who just completed his freshman year at George Washington University, never attended Hebrew school. He never belonged to a synagogue. Instead, from the time he was in elementary school, he studied one-on-one with tutors, learning Hebrew, then prayers, then a Torah portion. He studied customs, history and Judaics.

And he enjoyed it.

“What I went through was very personal, one-on-one with a rabbi and his wife,” says Haber who studied with Rabbi Harvey Daniels and his wife Karen, a Suffern couple who tutor students for independent bar and bat mitzvahs.

“Everything was more conversational,” says Haber. “It was more ‘let’s talk about this, how do you feel about that? What does this passage mean to you?’

“I thought it was very intriguing. It was a lot more interpretational,” he says, than what his friends related to him of their Hebrew school experiences.

Haber, a thoughtful, articulate young man, found a great deal of meaning in his studies. He enjoyed them and in a certain sense, has pursued them, taking a class this past year in college on the Hebrew scriptures. He enjoyed how much of his Hebrew and learning came back to him, often unexpectedly, when he’d recognize from the English text he was studying, something he’d learned from the Hebrew with Daniels.

While not a trend to which anyone can attach figures, the independent bar or bat mitzvah, that takes place outside the context of the synagogue has definitely become another fixture of Jewish life. According to the tutors and programs that accommodate people seeking them, the reasons for needing one are as varied as the people seeking them. They range from the parent’s not wishing to replicate their own bad experiences in Hebrew school, to interfaith couples seeking a ceremony for their child but who feel outside of the Jewish communal structure, to those who find the Hebrew school schedule too daunting a time commitment combined with all of their child’s other activities. Some are seeking an education and ceremony to better accommodate their child’s special needs, and others simply find that synagogue does not speak to them or meet their own needs.

For Haber’s parents, Ian Haber and Nicole Doliner, it was a combination of things. Doliner, who has a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, may not be halachically Jewish, but she was raised a Jew nonetheless. With Jewish youth group experience, some college Hebrew education, and a visit to Israel behind her, she felt strongly identified with Judaism, if not profoundly religious. Her husband, Ian Haber, had a more typical Hebrew school experience that he did not remember as fondly.

When they looked for a synagogue, however, Doliner got put off hearing that her husband would be the member and she, as a non-Jew, would not.

“I wanted to say to them, that you are losing people, people who want to come in,” says Doliner, who chairs the Clarkstown Democratic Committee and is a fiscal analyst at the Rockland County Legislature. “I could have been someone who would come in and be a contributor, in terms of what I do for community volunteering. Finally, I decided it was their loss.”

She began Mark with a private Hebrew teacher around the time most of his peers began Hebrew school. Eventually, he needed more and that need led them to Rabbi Harvey Daniels, who served as rabbi at the now-defunct Conservative congregation Ramat Shalom in Spring Valley from 1979-1985. Since 1987, he and his wife, Karen, have been tutoring anywhere from two to eight students annually who seek a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony outside of the synagogue setting.

Relying on word of mouth, Daniels says the service he conducts would be traditionally recognizable, including a large part of the Saturday morning service and seven aliyot during the Torah reading. He helps the family create a personalized prayer service that last about an hour and 45 minutes. The bulk of it is in Hebrew transliteration and Daniels sees the ceremony as an opportunity to educate, so he injects commentary, explaining to an often unaffiliated crowd, what exactly is going on.

Students train nine months to a year with him, studying Hebrew with his wife, while he does Torah study.

“I’m proud of the service,” says Daniels. It’s not only traditionally appropriate, it encourages a lot of participation and involvement.”

And uninvolved is what he is trying to avoid. When families come to him, they have often tried other tutors, or found traditional Hebrew school not fulfilling their needs.

For those who do not belong to synagogues, he finds that the parents themselves have had negative experiences, or they just aren’t that interested in belonging to a shul. But for some reason or another, be it grandparents or peer pressure, or simply something “kicking in,” they want a simcha.

But if a bar or bat mitzvah represents coming of age and taking on certain mitzvoth or commandments within the context of the Jewish community, is one that takes place outside of that structure in keeping with the mission, so to speak?

“There is definitely a conflict,” says Rabbi Hayim Herring, the former executive director of STAR, Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, and now an independent consultant. “It’s a particularly American ethic, not even a Western one, that it’s my private ceremony and I can do with it what I want.”

That’s just in line with how American parents go about getting the things they want or feel they need for their children. It’s very difficult to articulate to a family who has not previously been engaged in synagogue life why they need to do a simcha within the context of a community, he says. For those who attend synagogue, they have their friends, their family and the extended group of the synagogue. For those who don’t, they just don’t see the role that third group fulfills.

Nevertheless, just because these families are unengaged from Jewish institutions doesn’t mean they are unengaged Jewishly.

“Typically the first think they say to me is ‘I’m not religions, just so you know,’” says Rabbi Reuben Modek, who runs Hebrew Learning Circles, a Jewish educational program that works with small groups or individuals in Rockland, Westchester and Orange counties. “But I don’t believe that. If you’ve come to me, you’re thinking about this. People don’t have much of an appreciation of what they already do.

“It’s very real,” said Modek. “A lot of people consider themselves Jewish in their own way. For some it’s a chaverah or a JCC [connection]. I was very influenced by the chaverah movement and this is an extension of my own experience.”

Modek began Hebrew Learning Circles 10 years ago to serve students who do not find what they are looking for in Jewish studies through traditional routes. The program offers a study curriculum, as well as a mitzvah component, where a child chooses various responsibilities to take on from different categories such as “Daily Living in My Home,” “Emotional Skills,” Traditional Adult Roles,” “Jewish Ceremonial Skills,” to name a few. The idea is that they take on tasks while engaged in Jewish study, to reflect their increasing maturity.

Lisa Lewis had spoken to Hebrew schools and engaged a private tutor for her son, Evan, to study with before she found Hebrew Learning Circles, which she ran into at the health food store, Back to Earth, in Nyack.

The Bronxville resident had grown up in the Bronx and Monsey, completely uninvolved in Jewish institutional life. She attends synagogue on the high holidays but other than that, she sees herself as “one of those Tibetan Jews” who find spiritual succor outside of the organized Jewish world.

“I’m very Jewish, don’t get me wrong,” says Lewis, who felt strongly that Evan should have a sense of who he is and where he comes from.

“I think it’s important. I couldn’t give him any kind of religious sense,” says Lewis, an architect who designed the ark used in Evan’s ceremony. “I can give him some sort of spiritual sense, I’m not sure I’ve done that yet…I want Evan to have a feeling of what Judaism is. I want him to feel attached to our heritage and who we are.”

Lewis, a single mother, couldn’t see herself juggling the demands of Hebrew school. The
The family had about 90 guests at a country club. They designed their own prayer book, as all of Modek’s students do, and Evan read from parsha Behar.

“I absolutely loved it,” says Evan, who found Modek patient and thorough, willing to spend an entire lesson explaining a confusing topic. It created for him a connection to the Jewish world that he did not have before.

“When we got in depth and learning about our heritage or the context behind the Hebrew, it really sparked my interest,” says Evan. “We plan to have periodic meet-ups [in the future] just to learn more about things I couldn’t learn in the course, like the meanings of holidays. Yes, we plan to go further.”

For his grandmother, Myrna Lewis, who has seen others in her family of Evan’s generation go to Israel on birthright trips and one even stay to serve in the army, it was a very proud moment.

“There’s something inside of us,” she says of that Jewish spark. “My parents weren’t interested and they did it for my brother, have a bar mitzvah….But I’m very, very proud to be a Jew and for the world to see Evan accomplish this.”

Some people don’t start out seeking an independent bar or bat mitzvah. Susan Eisner was intended to have her daughter, Jamie Moelis’ bat mitzvah at the synagogue as her son, Josh’s had been.

But Eisner was divorced and having trouble with the payment schedule. She found the synagogue unwilling to work with her unless she paid her fees up front. As an attorney, she was willing to write and sign a contract stating the date by which she’d pay.

“I understand they are a business,” she says of the events which took place about six years ago. “I was a family there for years…. I was willing to sign paperwork and do whatever to make them comfortable. I just did not have the cash.”

Instead, Jamie, who had been “in Hebrew school forever” ended up working with Rabbi Harvey Daniels and his wife, who worked with her daughter for about four months. They had the event at Restaurant X, setting up a separate area for the service.

“He conveyed as much as he could in that short period of time,” says Eisner. “She did a beautiful job. My son had a much larger Hebrew role [at his bar mitzvah] but you know, you have to compromise sometimes.”

For the Kaye family, the compromise was on scheduling. Jordyn, now 17, was involved in so many after school activities, including playing both soccer and softball for school, and dance, that something had to give.

“There was a problem with missing [too much Hebrew school], and it wasn’t really right,” says her father, Andy. They were looking for a place to have the event, and when they settled on the Congers catering hall, Towne and Country, decided why not hold the service there too?

“I really liked the idea of doing it on Friday night,” said Kaye. “It didn’t tie up people’s whole weekend.”

They found Rabbi Justin Schwartz, who agreed to tutor Jordyn. She had been attending Hebrew school since fourth grade. Since opting for an independent simcha, people have approached Kaye, people who were in the same predicament or those whose kids are struggling in school and need some other study option.

Schwartz, the rabbi they worked with, finds that financial reasons, time constraints and learning issues can frequently drive people from a synagogue setting, but that they are not the only ones. Sometimes it’s just that they want it to be a “family affair and not a big production” fraught with competition and peer pressure.

“They want something more personal,” he said. “They want the child to have a more meaningful relationship, with the family, with the rabbi.”

For those really seeking something out of the box, there are other options. Westchester native Rabbi Jamie Korngold, also known as “The Adventure Rabbi,” will tailor an outdoor experience to meet someone’s bar or bat mitzvah expectation. Though run out of Boulder, Colo., the program has worked with people all over the world, including in the New York region, Chicago, Bangkok, London and others.

Study is done with Korngold or an associate via the internet phone service Skype. The actual bar or bat mitzvah can take place anywhere, with the idea of taking the ceremony outside as a way of creating a more spiritual setting.

The people who come to Korngold, she says, are usually searching for something they haven’t found in their synagogues.

“People are searching for a community and they’re looking for a take on Judaism that’s meaningful and relevant and accessible,” she says. “They’re looking for something different. And we’re so skilled at creating community quickly in our organization and I think people are just really hungry for community and for meaningful connections and for relationships and they know they can find that with us.”

Synagogues, though, should be taking note of the trend according to Rabbi Hayim Herring. He has worked with many in trying to meet the needs of their congregants in a fast-changing Jewish world. They have a lot to offer in terms of support and education after the event. The synagogue’s strengths are a built in social component, and one of the last places you can still have a multi-generational community, something that can be very “rich and deep,” he says.

“As someone who works with synagogues, I totally get the struggles they are experiencing,” he says. “The ones that are dealing with it are looking at the structures of their educational programs and trying to compromise, how they can be more accommodating through social media and technology.”

What is surprising is that many people who are considered off the Jewish radar find it so compelling to pursue a bar or bat mitzvah at all. As Modek noted, parents often want their children to “believe in universal values of goodness” but they want them to understand this through a Jewish filter.

“I want my son to know who he is,” is a familiar refrain, he says.

For someone like Nicole Doliner, who had her son pursue years of independent study when she couldn’t find a synagogue that met her needs, it was a way of giving her son a deeper Jewish education than she had, and yes, to help him figure out who he is. Her daughter Sarah, who just completed her sophomore year of high school, also studied with Daniels. The only real difference: No back yard. They held it at The View on the Hudson in Piermont, rather than leave things to weather and chance.

“I never had a bat mitzvah, and my husband, Ian, hated Hebrew school. That he finished is a miracle. Maybe if you can’t have something, maybe you want it?

“I wanted to give my kids a basis, a foundation. What they choose to do with it when they grow up is their choosing. But as a parent, I felt it was my duty to give them a foundation.”

July/August 2011