“When I was in junior high, and all my friends were having their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, I just enjoyed celebrating with them. It didn’t really occur to me that I wasn’t having one of my own. It wasn’t until college that I really began to regret it…” With these words, Jessica Yanow, my best friend since we were eight years old, began reflecting on her own Jewish upbringing and education.
Growing up in Skokie, Illinois, it was impossible not to feel, at the very least, culturally Jewish. There was a bagel store in every strip mall, and a synagogue every few blocks. Jessica’s grandparents belonged to a Traditional synagogue, and they encouraged Jessica’s mother to enroll her in Sunday School there. Though the level of observance differed from what she was seeing at home, Jessica attended for a few years. When she was in second grade, her mother gave her a choice – she could keep attending Sunday School, or she could stop. Jessica explained, “At that age, I would guess that most children would choose not to go to any additional school. There was no discussion, as far as I can remember, with regards to later implications, like the fact that I wouldn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. So, of course, I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go to Sunday School.’”
I cannot express how much this one story has affected my rabbinate. I often hear young parents wrestling over whether or not to “force” their children to attend religious school. Likewise, I hear students bemoan the fact that they are “stuck” going to religious school every week. And, yet, I inevitably share Jessica’s story with them all, for this reason: Now that she is an adult, she deeply regrets not attending religious school, not building her Jewish identity from a younger age, and not celebrating Bat Mitzvah at 13.
Interestingly, and perhaps not consciously, Jessica found other ways of engaging in Judaism as a teen. Jessica was active in our local Kadima chapter in junior high, and then we were all board members of my temple’s Youth Group in high school. She took Hebrew as a foreign language at our public high school. She traveled to Israel during the summer before college, and then we both began our studies at Brandeis University (where feeling Jewish is unavoidable). Surrounded by Jews of all stripes, Jessica was now confronted by her lack of Jewish knowledge and personal connection to her heritage. For the first time, she truly regretted her decision to halt her religious education. Thus, she continued studying Hebrew, added three semesters of Yiddish, and read as many Jewish books as she could.
Fast-forward to now, and she is living in Phoenix, married, and mother to an amazing four-year-old son (who calls me “Auntie Marci,” which makes me giggle ALL the time). She and her husband have chosen to send their son to a pre-school at a local Reform synagogue. She hopes that they will become more involved in the coming years, and perhaps she will study towards Adult Bat Mitzvah. I asked her how she feels now that she is the parent. She delights in spending every Friday morning at the preschool’s Tot Shabbat celebration. She loves learning more about the holidays alongside her son. She was pleasantly humbled when he came home one day, looked at the family’s dormant candlesticks, and asked, “Mommy, why don’t we light Shabbat candles on Friday nights?”
Jessica is but one case, but she exemplifies so many adults in today’s Reform congregations. For a variety of reasons, we have men and women who feel detached, alienated, or lacking in some way. Some of these adults will never set foot in the temple except to send their kids to religious school and then leave as soon as their youngest child turns thirteen. However, others are longing for connection, and they wish desperately that someone would reach out to them. These folks may be intimidated by adult education offerings, fearful that their lack of learning will be a source of embarrassment. To all of these people, I say, you are welcome here! You belong here! You are a crucial part of the fabric of the Jewish community, and you needn’t be afraid!
Jewish learning is possible throughout our entire lives, whether or not we started our learning when we were young. As adults, it is our job to model the importance of a strong Jewish education – not just by sending our children to religious school, but by finding ways to continually enhance our own understanding of Judaism. Imagine how little we would understand about the world if we had stopped our secular studies at age 13! This month, the Union for Reform Judaism is highlighting various ways of approaching Lifelong Jewish Learning, and I encourage you to look for inspiring ideas and topics on their website: http://urj.org/learning/. I’m sure that, with a bit of searching, you will find something that works for you.
Oh, and, by the way, Jessica will not be giving her son a choice. He will go to religious school through Bar Mitzvah, at the very least. No doubt about it.