New path to Judaism

Hired rabbis worry some, but others say they bring needed flexibility to events

It wasn’t until the sixth grade that Michael Durst decided he wanted to become a bar mitzvah, but his parents didn’t belong to a synagogue.

These days, that’s not a problem. The Fallston family hired a freelance tutor who taught the 12-year-old his Torah passage and officiated at the ceremony marking Michael’s journey into Jewish adulthood, held in the hall of a Methodist church.

Bar mitzvah ceremonies like Michael’s – without years of Hebrew school, without a congregational membership, without a traditional sense of Jewish community – worry some area rabbis so much that they’re rethinking their congregations’ approach to the rite of passage.

Though the numbers are still small, the rabbis fear that more families will bypass synagogues and instead opt for a la carte Judaism, skipping congregational dues and instead hiring tutors or rabbis through Web sites like only when needed for life cycle events such as bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. That’s particularly worrisome as the number of American Jews unaffiliated with synagogues increases and congregations struggle to maintain their membership numbers.

For Jewish children, the bar mitzvah ceremony – usually held at age 13 – marks a religious entrance into adulthood, accompanied by new responsibilities, obligations and privileges, says Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Pikesville.

“The whole point is to celebrate a new communal status. If you take it outside of the community and have a private ceremony, it becomes absurd, almost,” says Schwartz, who serves on a committee examining the issue for the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. “When people have that kind of private ceremony … there’s no larger context to it. There’s no sense that there’s this whole larger community out there that’s waiting to embrace the child.”

But parents who have opted for bar mitzvah ceremonies outside the conventional synagogue system point to cost, scheduling or a lack of flexibility – challenges in a large congregation where dozens of children turn 13 every year. Interfaith couples also value tutors and rabbis who let non-Jewish relatives participate and explain the rituals to guests unfamiliar with the tradition.

Since the family didn’t start talking about Michael becoming a bar mitzvah until he was a sixth grader, Michael’s mother, Marcy Sherry, says working with a tutor was the only option. Many synagogues require a minimum of two to three years of education in biblical Hebrew and Jewish holidays, values and broader philosophy.

“I just knew the way the system works, that it would be difficult,” Sherry says. “There’s no way he could have been in with that group, by virtue of where he was in terms of study.”

Joey Malin, a tutor of children from several congregations as well as independent students, says he encourages families who are members to remain affiliated. But he says one-on-one services like what he and others offer help those who can’t learn in traditional classrooms – adults who go through the bar mitzvah process later in life, for example, or children with learning disabilities.

And for Jews unaffiliated with a congregation, the alternative is no bar mitzvah ceremony at all. “At least here they’re going to have a very positive experience,” Malin says.

Jewish boys technically become a bar mitzvah, or “son of the commandment,” on their 13th birthday (girls become a bat mitzvah, which can take place as early as 12). It marks a legal status under Jewish law – old enough to fast on Yom Kippur and take charge of one’s own morality – and for boys, it’s the first time they don tallit, a fringed shawl, for prayer.

But the religious ceremony to assume those adult responsibilities is not an easy task. Traditions vary, but usually, teenagers give the blessing over the Torah in front of the congregation at a regular Shabbat service, read the daily passage and lead other prayers. Often, they also address the congregation about the meaning of the reading.

“Even people that read Hebrew beautifully struggle with reading the Torah because there’s no vowels, punctuation or cantillation” to guide chanting of the text, Malin says.

Many people hire tutors to supplement a synagogue’s classroom Hebrew instruction, either through their congregation or on their own, says Mark Oppenheimer, author of Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America.

Tutors can be more rigorous than classroom teachers, he says. “It’s an even better learning experience than you would get sitting in a class in a synagogue.

“The problem comes in if that person is not guiding people toward Jewish community or Jewish learning, if he’s a gun for hire.”

The Baltimore Board of Rabbis, an organization of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and some Orthodox rabbis, is concerned that “transactional” tutoring allows families to bypass meaningful religious education and still have a party. Elaborate bar mitzvahs have long drawn criticism in the United States as “too much bar and not enough mitzvah,” a topic addressed in last year’s movie Keeping Up with the Steins. (Mitzvah also means “good deed.”)

“The bigger question here is in suburban communities where Jews have lost a sense of geographical or cultural cohesion,” Oppenheimer says. “Are they allowing the bar-bat mitzvah to pull them in closer community with Jews, or are they treating it as one more activity of the suburban lifestyle?”

Some Jews think belonging to the community means synagogue membership, while others observe culturally Jewish activities, says Arlene Berger, a rabbinical student and the educational director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Jewish Community Group, who also tutors and officiates at bar and bat mitzvahs. “What is at issue here is how one defines community.”

Some independent tutors say they try to use the bar mitzvah preparation as a means to help families begin relationships with the Jewish community, rather than as a capstone. For example, Celia R. Barash, a Rockville tutor, says she often tells unaffiliated families about Jewish youth groups and other organizations they can get involved in without joining a specific synagogue.

Malin, who teaches as many as 150 students a year and has presided at more than 3,700 ceremonies, says he also exposes children to other elements of Jewish culture and spirituality, including holidays and kosher dietary rules. His assistance is not a shortcut – he meets with students as long as necessary to teach them how to chant the prayers.

The tutor prepares tapes so students can listen as they follow along with the text. Some students read a transliteration rather than the Hebrew version. He also reviews the significance of the Torah portion and helps them write a speech to read at the ceremony.

Malin’s Pikesville home, where he meets most of his students, is full of thank you notes and gifts from families he’s worked with. He owns a Torah that he brings to services, wherever they are held – country clubs, hotels, museums and elsewhere. Michael Durst, for example, had his ceremony at the hall of the Methodist church where his father belongs.

While Malin frequently takes on new students by word of mouth, others find their tutors through advertisements or the Internet. David Segal founded rabbirentals .com in 2000 and works with more than 70 rabbis – four in Maryland – and two cantors across the country, all associated with congregations. Tutoring and officiating at bar and bat mitzvahs “turned out to be the bulk of my business,” he says.

Most families had encountered some problem with a synagogue – double-booking a date or a disagreement with the rabbi – before coming to him. “If I’m the last resort, that’s great. I’m rarely the first resort,” Segal says.

“My goal is to bring Judaism to those who may have been turned away from somewhere,” he says.

Another rabbi researching the phenomenon, Bradd H. Boxman of Har Sinai, a Reform congregation in Owings Mills, says the number of families who opt for a service outside of the congregation remains small, though the trend is increasing. Still, Boxman recognizes that the inclination indicates a need for reform. “We as synagogues have to look at ourselves and say, ‘Are we contributing to this?'” he says. “Are fees too high, are requirements too strong?”

Families can pay thousands to belong to the synagogue and to enroll children in religious education for several years, as well as additional fees to hold the bar mitzvah. Some congregations require contributions for flower arrangements or for a kiddush, or refreshments after the service.

The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey – the most recent one available – found that 46 percent of American Jews belong to a synagogue.

For other families, it’s a question of flexibility. Stacy Pellerito of Owings Mills left two congregations because they were unwilling to let her daughter, Lauren, read a transliteration of her Torah portion even though she is dyslexic. She found Malin, and now he’s helping her son Sam prepare for his celebration in 2008.

Pellerito says it turned out well because she is in an interfaith marriage, and Malin included everyone. She says she hated Sunday school as a child, but both she and her children enjoy working with Malin.

“I’ve never read Hebrew in my life,” Pellerito says. “As we got up there we got to say whatever we wanted to say to our child … instead of reading a Hebrew prayer that I wouldn’t even know what I was reading.”

“In retrospect, the temple’s being so unaccommodating was the best thing, because we were able to design a service that had more meaning than the rote service at the temple.”

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The Baltimore Sun, USA
Feb. 20, 2007
Liz F. Kay

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This post was last updated: Feb. 21, 2007