In spurning synagogue, DIYers forsake Jewish soul: community

Having just finished another of J.’s breathless articles about do-it-yourself Jewish rituals (“DIY b’nai mitzvah,” May 9), I’d like to offer a brief for what remains the gold standard: Doing It With the Community.

Affiliating with a synagogue and celebrating simchas with your community is satisfying, rich with meaning and, in the case of b’nai mitzvah, far more likely to result in a durable sense of Jewish identity.

After all, stepping up to a life of mitzvot is a lot more comprehensible for young people when they are part of a community that is similarly engaged, where they can observe people of all ages living and behaving Jewishly. And after the DJ kills the music and the caterer turns off the chocolate fountain, isn’t that the point?

My daughter Hannah attended Jewish preschool, is a student at a Jewish community day school and became bat mitzvah about six months ago at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. Lest this conjure images of me with a long beard and a black coat, let me add that my wife is a Jew-by-choice and my sisters are all married to non-Jews. Not a problem; we found appropriate ways to include them in the Conservative service. And while some Jews chafe at being told that non-Jews can’t do this or that, in my experience most non-Jews are content to observe and don’t expect to perform rituals that aren’t part of their belief system.

Hannah’s bat mitzvah was, of course, a joyous occasion for our family. But in another sense, it was a completely ordinary Shabbat service. We sat where we always sit. We were surrounded by friends in a warm and familiar place. Our guests were interspersed with the intergenerational Shabbat regulars of our community, who lent their voices to the liturgy as they always do.

If anything was on display, it was our community, and Hannah’s sole challenge that morning was to show that she was ready to take her place in it leading services, chanting Torah and giving a drash.

Mission accomplished.

I’m kvelling, of course, but my point is that the entire purpose of this ritual is to mark a young person’s entry into the community of adult Jewish practice. It’s a beginning, not an ending. Pursuing the ritual in a synagogue means that there is a community in which to go on practicing.

Yes, there are policies that must be followed. We invited all of the children in both the religious school class and the day school class, as required. Let me tell you: It’s far less stressful to just invite everyone than to make Solomonic choices about which 12- or 13-year-old is nice enough to attend. Too expensive? Dial back the price per plate — the food you serve isn’t the point.

Like many of her contemporaries at TBA, Hannah was back in shul the very next week and chanting Torah again within a month. Many of them plan to chant Torah and Haftorah at our High Holy Day services this fall. While I hope that’s partly because the services are meaningful to them, I’d be content knowing that it’s because they feel a sense of belonging in a community that transcends their sovereign selves.

To this end, I was delighted when Rabbi Mark Bloom began inviting older teens onto the bimah after the president presented the traditional gifts of candlesticks, a Kiddush cup and a Tanach (Bible). These young people are there to represent BBYO, the youth organization for teens, and they make a personal invitation to all b’nai mitzvah to continue their Jewish journey in a community of their peers.

In Pirkei Avot, Hillel says, “Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” Judaism is, at its core, a communal experience, and while some people only turn up for major life events — hatch, match and dispatch — parents who want their children to continue growing Jewishly after becoming b’nai mitzvah would be wise to reject the song of the DIY sirens.

Eric Friedman of Berkeley chairs the ritual committee at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, where he also serves as vice president. He manages a team of engineers and data scientists at a consumer technology firm in the South Bay.