Over the past seven years, my family and I have made an almost bi-annual trek to Minneapolis when my niece and nephew and nephew became bat and bar mitzvahs. Our family of four was always deeply appreciative that these events were never held during the state’s infamous winters.
We were also thrilled that friends and family from coast to coast made the voyage to honor these special occasions. And while our kids eagerly looked forward to the parties that followed the service, my husband Michael and I excitedly anticipated our favorite part of the service, when my brother Scott and sister-in-law Debra addressed their child personally, passionately and yes, sometimes playfully, from the bimah.
This tradition brought tears to our eyes and joy to our hearts. This tradition made each bar and bat mitzvah unique and intimate. And this tradition is not permitted in our synagogue.
This upcoming March, our twins Jacob and Sophie will become bar and bat mitzvah. We are looking forward, as my brother and his family did, to our relatives and friends coming from coast to coast to celebrate with us. We are excited for our children to read from the Torah, to carry on Jewish tradition, and to enter adulthood (but without any additional secular privileges, as I keep reminding them). But there’s one wrinkle that keeps reminding us that the day isn’t entirely joyful: in order for us to have the service we want, we had to leave our shul to make it happen.
We did try, mind you. We pitched the ritual committee about our interest in speaking to our children from the bimah. We shared our sentiment that this element of the service is what could make each simcha feel more personal. We told about our experience in other similar synagogues (Conservative, egalitarian) where this was, in fact, the highlight of the weekly bar or bat mitzvah. We even mentioned that we thought having the parents speak to their children from the bimah would be a draw to bring in more families on Shabbat.
Of course, we didn’t just plead our case -– we listened to their concerns, too. Yes, it could lead to embarrassing “we never thought you’d be potty trained” speeches from gushing parents who didn’t have a sense of propriety. Yes, it could go on too long from parents who forgot that the day was about their child and the community, not themselves. And yes, it could and would set a precedent -– a precedent that we wanted to start, and, ultimately, one that our synagogue didn’t want to begin.
So once we were outvoted, we had a major decision to make as a family. Actually – scratch that: we had two major decisions to make. The first one was: were our values around customizing our Jewish experience, putting our personal stamp on our simcha, and elevating the role of family involvement more important to us than our value of following the synagogue’s tradition, honoring our built-in community, and fulfilling our commitment to our temple? Yes. The second one was: were we going to complain about how it turned out or were we going to simply vote with our feet? We chose the latter.
Hillel taught: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” But that is exactly what we are doing because, for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, our community is not meeting our needs. Yes, it is hard for us to know that in order for us to have the simcha we envisioned for our children, we need to take a step away from the synagogue community we had become a part of for almost a decade. It is also difficult to reconcile that many of our close, personal friends were a part of the committee that made the difficult decision that didn’t agree with. But at the end of the day, Michael and I believe that they made the choice that most closely aligned with what they thought was best for the shul (which is exactly what their job entails) -– and we made the choice that was most closely aligned with what we thought was best for our family (which is exactly what our job entails). What would make this more painful is if we stayed but complained – or even worse – stayed and kept resentfully silent.
We had a choice about what to do regarding the simcha, and we made it. We also had a choice about how to behave, and we made that one, too.
Now, when I envision the festive Purim morning celebration that we will be holding at our kids’ Schechter school next March — the first bnai mitzvah ever to be held there — we are excited to know that we are setting a precedent that the school is cautiously optimistic about (I think they’re most worried about the new gym floors holding up). We are also know that our simcha will be one that we designed to meet our values of family, creativity, meaning and yes, tradition. And finally, we know that as our children approach adulthood, we have modeled for them the importance of standing up for what you believe in without taking anyone else down.