I grew up in a suburban community of New York City. Being Jewish meant being a part of the majority where I was raised. As a child I thought most people were Jewish. However, unlike other Jewish families, we never went to synagogue and I never went to Hebrew school. My father, a psychiatrist, professional violinist and devout atheist, never considered sending me or my brothers to the local temple. My childhood revolved around music. In my case, twice weekly cello lessons since the age of 7 and practice sessions of at least 90 minutes on the other four days of the week (Sundays were not required).
When I turned 11, my mother insisted that I receive some Jewish education. She found a cantorial student living in the area who came to our house once a week to tutor me in Hebrew language, prayers, holidays, traditions, life cycle and history. I looked forward to those sessions and, after two years, he performed a Bar Mitzvah ceremony for me in our backyard. Everyone who attended thought it was great!
Years later, the combination of my spiritual journey as well as my musical passion led me to study to become a cantor. To be a cantor, in addition to a strong Jewish educational background, one must possess a fine singing voice and musical competence to be able to direct choirs and create musical programming. My father was somewhat stunned, but probably had seen it coming.
Following graduation, I served a large congregation in which there were up to 85 B’nai Mitzvah a year. There was no such thing as a child being the only Bar Mitzvah on a Shabbat morning. All the children were paired and, occasionally, tripled. I prepared the children from soup to nuts, in other words, from the basic prayers through to their D’var Torah. I worked alongside an older rabbi who was set in his ways and, clearly, rather burned out with all the Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Every Shabbat morning Bar/Bat service was the same. There was no room for creativity, no allowance of different customs incorporated, the prayer service was always the same and the rabbi’s speech to the youngsters rarely varied.
After a while, I, too, became bored by the whole affair. This wasn’t what I had experienced as a child. Why couldn’t these families experience the meaningful, spiritual and personalized Bar Mitzvah I had as a child instead? No wonder people complain that the families are more interested in the party than the religious aspect. I’d feel the same way if this is what I got from a spiritual experience!
While at this pulpit, I received a call from someone who had been a guest at a Bar Mitzvah there. “Cantor Broden,” she said, “I am friendly with one of your congregants and heard about the way you worked with their child. I am not Jewish but my husband is, and I was wondering if you ever do private Bar Mitzvahs? My son has never attended Hebrew School.”
That was the beginning of a parallel career conducting private Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. It gave me the opportunity to create the ceremony that the families wanted and the fulfillment of being able to do more than just be “the singer” but to lead the whole ceremony. No matter how well I sang at my temple at a Bar Mitzvah, I rarely felt good about the service. Now, in my private Bar Mitzvahs, I would leave a ceremony feeling as though I had really created something special and the positive feedback truly meant something to me.
My personal path took me along different routes. Now, I have come full circle and returned to providing what I consider a vital service. For interfaith families in particular, the choice to raise children with both traditions at home is not as hard as to say, “This is the religious school our children will attend.” I agree with Jewish clergy who feel that educating children at both Jewish and non-Jewish religious schools sends conflicting messages. But, what of the families who light the menorah on Hanukkah, participate in Passover seders but have chosen not to send their child to a Jewish religious school? Reform synagogues will often deny Bar or Bat Mitzvah to any child who has not attended religious school from the third or fourth grade on, yet Bar Mitzvah is something that a Jewish child automatically becomes, according to Jewish law, by reaching the “age of majority.”
Perhaps in my middle age I’ve become too accepting, too liberal socially and religiously. Perhaps I am wrong in believing that we don’t lose Jews to intermarriage, but we lose them because what we are offering (or not offering) doesn’t connect with them.
What I offer is an alternative to Bar/Bat Mitzvah as the culmination of many years of religious school study and synagogue attendance. I love to perform creative, meaningful, explanatory, joyful B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies for people who cannot have one in a temple or find that option unappealing for a variety of reasons. Working with me, families can create their own creative ceremonies utilizing poems, readings, specific songs, or references to a deity that may be more appealing to their own beliefs. I also make suggestions based on my experiences, and, utilizing an excellent software program, am able to create a professional ceremony tailored to the desires of the family.
There are no "rules" in my ceremony. Torah blessings may be recited by the non-Jewish partner or guests just as they would normally be done by Jews. While every Shabbat has a specific Torah portion associated with it, I believe that a child and the family can choose to recite from and speak about that specific portion or, simply, choose another one. Why? Because many parashot (Torah portions) come from sections of the Torah dealing with very antiquated laws and rituals. For a child to speak about the message of his/her reading, it is ideal for the child to be able to connect with the content.
Many synagogues do not allow parents to address their child at the service, and others don't let non-Jewish relatives participate in the service. I used to tell parents that this was policy "in order to avoid any inappropriate remarks that a parent might make" as I could not tell them that the rabbi couldn’t abide any inclusion that would make the service any longer. At my ceremonies, parents, family members, guests--Jewish or not--are all welcome to speak to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child publicly.
A kosher Torah scroll is prohibitively expensive, yet a non-kosher one is dramatically less expensive and I have acquired one of those. What makes it non-kosher? Just as kosher meat which becomes non-kosher if sliced by a knife which also is used to cut cheese, so does a scroll become non-kosher if the scribe has misspelled a word or two. This is an imperfection that is well worth the price.
A synagogue is not considered an exalted holy place the way a church is viewed in Christianity. In Hebrew we call a synagogue a Beit Kenesset which means "a place of assembly." Holiness in Judaism is achieved through communal prayer wherever Jews are gathered. The basement of a home is equally as holy as a synagogue’s sanctuary. There is nothing irreverent about having a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony in a home, country club, restaurant or backyard. Judaism is truly a portable religion, a religion that needs no home, only the voice of the people. It is for that reason that we are still here today.