Skyping his way to a Napa bar mitzvah

A destination bar mitzvah in Napa was made possible thanks to Skype, a mentor in Pennsylvania and a hard-working 14-year-old in New Zealand.

The Kiwi, Max Paulin, and his family celebrated his coming of age on Aug. 6 at Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa, where his grandmother is a congregant.

“I learned a lot out of it, I experienced a lot out of it and it’s been great to meet all of these new people and be involved with the Jewish community,” Max said. “To me, it’s mainly about meeting people and interacting with people, so I’m really glad that I did this.”

Max Paulin came from New Zealand to have his bar mitzvah in Napa.

Without a strong Jewish community in his hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, the idea for a bar mitzvah back in California came two years ago. Max’s mother, Julie Paulin, said it was clear from the start that Max had to really want this for himself, since it would be too hard for his parents to motivate him to do the work and connect to the experience.

Julie Paulin said the family, who moved from Oakland to New Zealand nine years ago, viewed it as a challenge “similar to climbing Mount Everest.”

“What’s amazing about it is how difficult the process was, so what he was going to get out of it was this sense that he climbed a mountain,” she said.

Max worked with Dan Eisner, former education director at the Napa congregation, via Skype for the seven months leading up to the bar mitzvah. Eisner lives in Pittsburgh now, so the greatest challenge was working out the time difference; they studied twice a week, once Max was out of school — which was 10:30 p.m. for Eisner.

The connection to Eisner came at the suggestion of Congregation Beth Shalom Rabbi Lee Bycel, who only met Max in person for the first time two weeks before his bar mitzvah. Bycel communicated by Skype with Max when the idea for the destination celebration first arose, making sure he thought Max could handle the challenge and the unique situation of becoming a bar mitzvah in an unfamiliar community.

“Technology really made this possible and Dan is a wonderful tutor and Max is a very responsive student, so it was able to work extremely well and I think those ingredients are what were able to make it happen, and if one of those was missing it wouldn’t be great,” Bycel said. “Because of his grandmother’s deep connection with the congregation, he was very embraced by our community. And in a way, it reminds us that there are many Jews living in remote places and without the kind of Jewish community we are blessed with here in the Bay Area.”

Max decided to have his bar mitzvah once he was a little older than the typical 13-year-old mark, figuring a bit more maturity would help. Without a Sunday school class of Jewish peers, Max’s connection to his bar mitzvah became very spiritual as it was a chosen personal journey, not an expected rite of passage in his community, Julie Paulin said.

A few days before the celebration, his mother said in a phone interview that it would “be more of a celebration of tolerance and multiculturalism rather than a uniquely Jewish experience, because he won’t have a cohort of Jewish children. He did it all on his own, so the people who will be there will be supporting him without very much understanding of what it took to get here.”

After months of preparation, and asking friends to hang out with his two younger brothers while he had Skype sessions, Max said he had found a deep admiration for Judaism, and mentioned that the thought of becoming a rabbi had crossed his mind.

“This is definitely not the end goal. I thought it would have been, but through this experience I’ve realized how great Judaism is and before this I thought it was my forced background, but now I feel like it’s fully a part of my identity,” Max said. “There isn’t a normal Max and a Jewish Max, they’re the same thing now.”

Dalia Jude

Dalia Jude was a J. intern in summer 2015.