Split decision: Petaluma twins opt to have bar mitzvahs at different synagogues

Twins Eli and Josh Burg aren’t identical, but a quick glance at their schedules could suggest otherwise.

Both attend Brandeis Hillel’s Marin campus, where they recently entered seventh grade. Both tear up the ice at their hockey games. And both are musically inclined — Josh jams on the drums, and Eli plays piano and guitar.

So the last thing the 13-year-old pair wanted was to share the bimah at their bar mitzvahs.

Twins Josh (left) and Eli Burg at Eli’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Rodef Sholom. photos/stephanie pool

“Most of the people we know get that we don’t always want to do everything together,” said Josh, who had his bar mitzvah at Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon on Aug. 21.

Added Eli, whose service was two days prior at Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael: “It was fun to relax and watch him sweat it out.”

Deborah Burg-Schnirman and Rick Burg of Petaluma, aka the twins’ parents, are members of the two synagogues. Citing somewhat of an internal conflict, Rick said there are aspects about both streams he and his wife gravitate toward.

So instead of attending one congregation, they go to two.

“Why not take advantage of both?” said Rick, a trustee at Brandeis Hillel and lay leader representing Sonoma County with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “We participate in both and always go as a family. We don’t do anything easily.”

For the ceremonies, the boys learned sections from the same Torah portion, yet their written reflections on the verses were very different. Also, each took on a role in the other’s ceremony. Eli read Torah during Josh’s service and Josh performed hagbah (the honor of lifting the Torah) at Eli’s.

Josh performs hagbah, the lifting of the Torah, at Eli’s bar mitzvah.

Then they partied. Friends and family celebrated with Josh and Eli at a rock ’n’ roll–themed party the night of Aug. 21 at the Osher Marin JCC.

“We were very relieved and proud of course,” Rick said, “and totally exhausted. I look at families with two kids and think maybe we got off easy doing three events instead of four.”

Rick and Deborah have been members of Kol Shofar since before their sons were born. They joined Rodef Sholom once Josh and Eli started attending Brandeis Hillel Day School. A lot of their classmates also go to the Reform synagogue, and Rick and Deborah have friends there, too.

When the boys entered the fifth grade, the family opted for meetings with the clergy at both synagogues to help them decide the appropriate course for their bar mitzvah training. They asked questions about how to make the milestone unique to each boy and how the prayers and Torah reading would be divided.

After hearing the answers, the boys, who grew up immersed in both synagogues, wanted completely different experiences.

At Kol Shofar, bar and bat mitzvah students are expected to lead more of the service, which resonated with Josh.

“I wanted more work to do,” said Josh, who started preparing about six months before Eli. “I liked the decision I made. It really comes down to the different ways Eli and I look at Judaism. I’m more traditional and he’s not as much.”

Eli wanted a more relaxed bar mitzvah where he could prepare with other Brandeis Hillel students. He added that having separate services eliminated the pressure of being compared to one another.

“Josh walked away saying, ‘I definitely want my bar mitzvah at Kol Shofar,’ ” Deborah recalled. “And Eli said, ‘I want my bar mitzvah at Rodef Sholom.’ ”

And so began a whirlwind of planning, driving and studying.

The schedule went something like this: Eli walked from the Brandeis Hillel campus to Rodef Sholom for bar mitzvah training. When he finished, Deborah drove both boys to Josh’s tutor in Novato. Eli worked on homework while Josh prepped for his big day. Then, they drove to their home in Petaluma. And repeated for roughly six months.

In the thick of it, Josh and Eli met with their respective tutors once a week. That was in addition to homework, ice hockey practice, music lessons and volunteer projects for their bar mitzvahs.

“It was a lot of work,” said Deborah, who runs the Osher Marin JCC’s early childhood education centers. “Toward the end, there was a lot of who’s doing what aliyah, what’s left to be planned and which Shabbat are we going to. People all along said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ”

Perhaps the only aspect the family didn’t have to fuss over was splitting one Saturday into two services. Though they originally booked Aug. 21 at both synagogues, Deborah and Rick moved Eli’s to a Thursday evening.

It was that, or have the bar mitzvahs on two different weekends, the least appealing of the options because of out-of-town guests.

“I’m glad we did it this way,” Deborah said. “I would recommend it to other parents of twins who haven’t had time to express their differences. This honored the boys and who they are as individuals.”

Amanda Pazornik