Fourteen years ago, Robert Putnam wrote the social classic “Bowling Alone.” It acknowledged the loneliness in our society, the breakdown of connection to larger community and the overfocus on the self in contemporary culture.
Our tradition teaches us al tifrosh min ha zibor, or do not separate yourself from the community. We are urged not to pray, learn or try to heal the world alone but, whenever we can, to partner with the Divine Presence in those around us as we work to make a better world.
When we read the article describing a minitrend toward private b’nai mitzvah (“DIY b’nai mitzvah,” May 9), we were reminded of just how much more we as Jews need to do to teach the value of growing up, being a part of and supporting meaningful Jewish community.
We are taught that at Sinai, we received the Torah as a communal experience. The Midrash teaches that in every age, each of us has a piece of Torah that we need to share with those around us.
In a society that promotes virtual community, our 13-year-olds are far better off learning and sharing their Torah from and with other people. Private b’nai mitzvah, even if they are beautiful events, do not allow this to happen.
We are proud of the work we do at Emanu-El to prepare children for bar/bat mitzvah. It is an amazing moment for them to stand in front of a community and share their Torah. They do so in a building that was built by past generations for the future, guided by rabbis and cantors who enrich their experience, and taught by teachers supported by the entire Emanu-El minyan. That minyan rejoices with them, and it is meaningful for the people in attendance to hear their words of Torah and to welcome them into young Jewish adulthood.
Private b’nai mitzvah celebrate a moment, not unlike a secular Sweet 16, whereas at Emanu-El and other congregations they happen in the context of community. Here at Emanu-El, our b’nai mitzvah students study one-on-one with their rabbis and cantors, while also learning with their parents. They join in retreats with their fellow students, becoming a community of learners, coming on Shabbat to learn and pray with the minyan.
The majority of our students do not see their b’nai mitzvah as a culmination, but rather as one step in the continuation of their studies at the temple, with many volunteering in our religious school and joining our youth groups.
It is in the context of community that they find support when they face challenges or experience loss and where they are able to turn to friends and clergy who know and care about them. The same is true when it comes time to celebrate life’s many blessings, like standing under the chuppah or naming a child. No one is turned away from being part of this community or learning with us because of financial considerations. Jews and those who love them, all who want to help the Jewish people carry the Torah forward, are welcome.
In each generation, synagogues have grown and changed to meet the needs of the day. We are always working to make Jewish life better. Just as we stood at Sinai and made our way through the wilderness, we are most blessed when we, together as community, make our way together toward the Promised Land. Let us not bowl or daven alone, but embrace the power of Jewish community.
The synagogues of the Bay Area invite you to join with us in the amazing journey of the Jewish people, helping to transmit Torah from one generation to the next.
Rabbi Jonathan Singer and Rabbi Beth Singer are the senior rabbis at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.