Before I wish you all a very happy Chanukah in homes filled with light and with the pleasures of family life at its richest, I’d like to tell you about the most horrific article I read in the newspaper last week. At first, I almost thought it was funny. But then, upon reflection, I realized that it was not at all funny and that, if anything, it was almost unutterably depressing. But what I’ve gleaned from my thinking about that article has something to do with the wishes I have for all of you this Chanukah, so let me start with gloomy and move on to cheerful.
The article, which I’m sure many of you also saw, appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago and featured its author’s breathless appraisal of a fabulous new phenomenon that has arrived in the Jewish world: rabbis who train children for their bar- and bat-mitzvahs on the internet. The author, I’m guessing not a member of the House of Israel, couldn’t get over how great this was. The children don’t have to waste all that time in Hebrew School. Their parents don’t have to bother being members of a synagogue at all. These rabbis will train their children (without every actually meeting them), then appear (this time apparently in person) to conduct “a bar-mitzvah” or “a bat-mitzvah” (whatever that means) in some non-synagogue setting of the child’s or his or her parents’ choosing. So the whole experience is a win-win. The kids are spared all that unnecessary learning. (One boy interviewed for the article noted that in the synagogue with which his parents were formerly affiliated they tried to make him learn his prayers by heart, presumably including at least some that he wouldn’t even have needed at his bar-mitzvah. Can you imagine!) And the parents are spared all that unnecessary expense. So everybody ends up happier and better off. And it’s not like they don’t have a rabbi at their disposal too!
What is missing, however, is the foundation upon which the whole thing rests in the first place, the experience of ushering a child into a real community formed of real people who have undertaken to create a Jewish presence in the place in which they live. One of the things we try our best to manage at Shelter Rock is to usher our bar- and bat-mitzvah children across that particular threshold into feeling that they personally are members of our congregation and not merely the sons and daughters of members. And along with that goes the sense, which we also try to foster, that the klei kodesh of our congregation are not only their parents’ rabbi and cantor, but their own as well. But, of course, none of this can happen if there is no community to come forward to the Torah for the first time in, if the experience of becoming bar- or bat-mitzvah is an end unto itself that leads nowhere at all beyond the pleasure of the moment. The experience should not be about learning any specific thing or about acquiring some useful synagogue skill, but about accepting that with adolescence comes the obligation to see oneself as a real person, as a member of the community, as someone who exists as a Jewish person in his or her own right (and not merely as the child or grandchild of such people). That, in my mind, is what it means to become a bar-mitzvah or a bat-mitzvah. And it is, or should be, the seminal experience in any adolescent’s Jewish coming-of-age.
Even more perverse, at least to my way of thinking, is an even more peculiar phenomenon also reported on in that same piece in the Times. I refer now to the concept of the on-line synagogue, one in which a bar-mitzvah or a bat-mitzvah can be celebrated with no one being physically present at all as worshipers, or rather their spectral e-presences, gather on Skype or in some other internet chat room to daven electronically (if that’s what you’d call it) somewhat in the manner of ghosts gathering for Yizkor but without the gravitas or the grandeur. That there is no halachic basis for anything like this goes without saying, not to mention the impossibility of squaring traditional Shabbat observance with any sort of Shabbos minyan that requires participants to be seated at their computers in order to participate. But leaving all of those issues aside, what strikes me as the most peculiar is that anyone would want to be part of such an undertaking in the first place. We really are our own worst enemies!
Community life is maddening. It brings together all sorts of people who under other circumstances might not necessarily wish to have much to do with each other. It requires learning to compromise, to listen to others, to accept that one pays one’s dues and gives one’s gifts and still can’t always have one’s way in every decision the synagogue undertakes. It requires dealing with other people’s parents and with other people’s children…and with a wide range of other people’s tzuris including many specific problems that most of us could be just as happy not knowing about at all, let alone feeling called upon somehow to deal with. But for those of us to whom life without affiliation in a traditional, warm Jewish community is unimaginable, it is all somehow worth it nevertheless. There is a certain sense of community, of mutual support and succor, and of acceptance that only comes from being part of a great community. In that sense, we at Shelter Rock are fortunate and blessed to have this place to call our own. I feel that way myself, considering myself much more a member than an employee of our congregation. And I’m pleased that my children feel that too…even though we only moved here when they were already in high school.
I suppose it is against these feelings of the supreme worthiness of synagogue affiliation that I read that irritating article in the paper the other week. I try to respect the work of all my colleagues in the rabbinate, but what do these people think they’re doing by leading the parents of Jewish adolescents away from synagogue affiliation, away from the warmth of community, and away from the richness of Jewish life as it can only be experienced within the warp and woof of a congregation of real people? We are not, after all, talking about providing internet-based bar- or bat-mitzvah instruction to children in Antarctica or in the Amazon rain forest who simply cannot attend “normal” Hebrew Schools, but about people who live all around us on Long Island (or nearby) every single one of whom could be a member of a synagogue. Really, could anything be more clear than that the way to produce committed, engaged, involved Jewish young people is to usher them into vibrant traditional communities? Apparently it’s not that clear to everybody. But it is perfectly clear to me…and, I hope, to all of you as well.
And that brings me to Chanukah. We, all of whom are privileged to belong to our wonderful community, should feel doubly blessed at Chanukah this year as we gather with our families and in our community to feel the light of God’s presence in our midst reflected in the clear light of the Chanukah candles. We, who have found our way to this place, need to feel not just fortunate but truly blessed to have each other in our lives…and to feel that the young people we usher into Jewish adulthood on our bimah are similarly blessed to have a community like our own in which to grow up. The thought of davening like an incorporeal phantasm in some chat room in the cloud gives me the willies. But even more than just finding the idea weird and unappealing, contemplating such a thing reminds me how grateful we must all be for what we have!