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Forever Young: A Secular Community Celebration

At Boston Workmen's Circle--a century-old secular, communal organization committed to promoting Jewish culture and social justice--we celebrate a community bar/bat mitzvah each June. It's an event that celebrates the values of our community: secular Jewish identity, the preservation of Yiddish language and culture, and the fostering of thoughtful social consciousness. The celebration coincides with the graduation of our seventh grade Sunday school "shule" class, whose students have spent the year focused on individual projects and group readings, all directed at helping them answer two questions: First: "What, at this point in my life, is my understanding of my Jewish identity?" Second: "How and why and to what extent is that significant to me?"

Workmen's Circle class photo
Workmen's Circle Shule Bar and Bat Mitzvah class 2008: Owen, Kate and Sophie (front row), Max, Jake, Sara, Molly, Amanda, Julia.

I've had the pleasure of participating in each of my three sons' group bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, and have attended many others as well, including this year's on a Saturday morning in June. The ceremony began with a welcome by Mitchell Silver, Education Director of Boston Workmen's Circle (he also teaches philosophy at the University of Massachusetts), and moved seamlessly into the Sabbath ("Shabbes") candlelighting by the nine graduates. At various Workmen's Circle ritual observances, we recite traditional blessings in Hebrew, as a recognition of our ancient heritage, then in Yiddish, acknowledging the Eastern European culture of our more recent forebears, and then in English, as an expression of our contemporary sensibility:

We rejoice in our heritage and light these

Candles in the tradition of our people.

May we kindle the light of peace and freedom

Throughout the world.

Next, as reflecting the hopes and dreams of the assembled parents, a father read from Bob Dylan's "Forever Young":

May you grow up to be righteous,

May you grow up to be true,

May you always know the truth

And see the lights surrounding you.

May you always be courageous,

Stand upright and be strong,

May you stay forever young.

The centerpieces of the celebration were the personal statements of each bar and bat mitzvah in the presence of the community. One student reflected on the struggles and hardships of a great-grandfather who grew up in a shtetl in Poland and made his way to Ellis Island. Another young woman talked about the derivation of her four-part name, and the warm and deep connection she feels to her many namesakes. One student shared a contemplation that one can be Jewish and not believe in God. I enjoyed a young man's witty and self-deprecating poem about who he is now and how he got there.

Walmart Protest
Two years ago, an important class activity was protesting working conditions at Walmart.

More than one of the students talked about how being a Jew is, or should be, infused with a passion for social justice. One discussed the importance of showing others that we're not afraid of being Jewish, while recognizing that there are many ways to be Jewish. Some referred to their individual research projects, displayed on posterboard just outside the assembly hall. (A few examples: "My Grandparents' Histories in World War"; "Mordechai Anielewitz: Hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising"; "Judaism and Science"; "The History and Origins of Yiddish and Hebrew.") A number of the graduates recalled proudly their having helped to organize, as fifth graders, a shule student protest against Wal-mart's treatment of its workers. And many remembered fondly their New York Jewish culture trip, which served as both a group bonding experience and as a counterpoint to their difficult and often painful sixth grade study of the Holocaust.

Singing had an important role in the celebrations. The graduates sang the Yiddish song of brotherhood and sisterhood, "Brudershaft Lid," as well as their own group selection, Lennon and McCartney's "Revolution." And Boston Workmen's Circle's Yiddish Community Chorus, "A Besere Velt" ("A Better World")--which we have good reason to believe is the largest Yiddish chorus in the known universe--livened up the festivities with several selections from its eclectic repertoire. The graduating class teacher shared her personal observations about the special qualities or contributions each of the students brought to the group, and the parents made another statement, wishing their children well as they embarked on the road to adulthood. Finally, to rounds of applause, the students received their graduation diplomas, a last song was sung, and the kvelling (bursting with pride) throng adjourned for a community Kiddush (challah and wine).

Six of the nine families of the bar and bat mitzvah students who graduated include one partner who isn't Jewish. Two of the families have two moms and one has a single mom. I asked a number of the parents to comment on the experience of working with their child toward the bar/bat mitzvah, and also about how they felt about the event itself. Most recalled that overseeing the preparation and work on the projects and the personal statements felt, at times, like pulling teeth, but that delivery of the final products was a big payoff.

Besere Welt chorus
The adult Yiddish chorus, A Besere Welt (A Better World) sang at the ceremony.

Suzanne, the Jewish mom of a two-mom family, saw her daughter Amanda's identity as a secular Jew solidify. "I experienced a validation of raising our children within the traditions and community of the Workmen's Circle, in the eyes of my more conservative aunts and uncles. After the event I felt that our daughter had undergone a certain rite of passage." She's now certain they'll make sure their younger daughter finishes shule so that she has the opportunity to participate in her class' bar/bat mitzvah. Wendy, Amanda's non-Jewish mom, found the event very touching and heartfelt. "I found myself needing Kleenex for quite a bit of the ceremony. The kids were so composed and it did feel like a true rite of passage. I'm very glad we did it!" How does she experience Workmen's Circle, as a non-Jew? Wendy told me she finds Workmen's Circle very welcoming and she feels like she's part of the community. "I'm happy to share in all the rituals and learn alongside our kids."

Sharon, a Jewish parent, said she enjoyed the process of working toward her daughter's bat mitzvah and the community atmosphere of the party afterward. "I thought it was a lovely event and interesting that most kids spoke about being a secular Jew."

Another mom was very candid in describing her participation as a non-Jew. She told me that while she had always been clear that Workmen's Circle was the right Jewish home for her family, she felt some ambivalence about focusing so exclusively on Judaism in her kids' moral, ethical, and cultural formation. That said, she remarked that she's always felt completely at home at Workmen's Circle as a non-Jew, and that she's never felt any pressure to play down or hide her non-Jewishness. "It seems to me that the WC crowd is secure enough in its own Jewishness not to feel the need to defend against non-Jewish people and ideas, and to truly welcome all. That's the kind of non-defensive, at-ease, big-hearted Jewish identity I'd like to see take root in my children."

Just before bestowing the diplomas, Mitchell Silver, our education director and in the eyes of some community members, our "secular rabbi," shared his thoughts. He posed a question to the graduates: "Since in America today being Jewish is really a choice, why should you choose to be Jewish?" He began answering the question with a joke about a man who brings his very talented dog to synagogue, to the scowls of the other congregants; as it turns out, the dog deftly puts on a yarmulke  and tallis and begins to daven (pray) on his hind legs. A member of the congregation, who had been very dubious before, is now quite amazed, and tells the owner that he can make lots of money on TV with this remarkable dog. The owner nods and replies: "I know, but he wants to be a dentist!"

Mitchell's point, of course, was that these young people will have their own ideas about how and whether they'll continue to participate, as Jews, in our community. He then listed a number of reasons why they should: because as members of a community we celebrate our achievements, mourn our losses, enjoy and create art, discuss and debate, together; and because as secular Jews we're not exclusive, and don't ask people to give up their individuality. He told these young graduates that their parents want them to be happy because they love them, and that their parents, and the rest of us, have found that a big part of our personal happiness is working together as a community for a common vision of social justice. This led Mitchell to his concluding comment to these eager, open-eyed Bar/Bat Mitzvah graduates, embarking on this next stage of their life journey: "So, be Jewish as part of our community because it's good for you!"

Well put, I thought, and very true indeed.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Yiddish for "prayer," it's often used as a verb in English. ("I'm going to daven Saturday morning.") Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Michael Felsen

Michael Felsen has lived in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, with his wife, Tolle, for 30 years; their three boys attended the Boston public schools and the Workmen's Circle shule. A senior attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor, Michael currently serves as president of Boston Workmen's Circle and treasurer of the national Workmen's Circle organization (and he sings bass with A Besere Velt).

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