Beth Gilbert is a freelance writer.
Dolphin Skins in the Desert and the Making of a Miraculous Bar Mitzvah
This article originally appeared in Reform Judaism magazine and is reprinted with permission. Visit urj.org/pr
When Aaron Mason Washauer asked for a Jewish education, it was far from your typical request. Mason, as he likes to be known, lives with his mom and step-dad--both of whom are Christian--in the tiny community of Pittsburg, Kansas, thirty-five miles from the nearest Reform synagogue in Joplin, Missouri.
The son of a Jewish father and a Baptist mother (they divorced when Mason was a preschooler, and his dad moved out of state), Mason decided at the age of 12 that he wanted to pursue Judaism. He'd previously been enrolled in Sunday school at his mother's church, but he says it wasn't a good fit. "My mom felt I needed religion to help me develop morals," Mason recalls, "but I got tired of hearing the Gospel every week. It didn't make much sense to me. And I can't stand religions that try to impose their beliefs on others. I decided I wanted to learn more about being Jewish."
Mason's decision pleased his paternal grandparents, Lou and Jan Washauer, members of Temple Sholom in Chicago. They had worked diligently to keep their grandson in touch with Jewish life. "We tried to plant seeds by exposing him to everything Jewish we could think of--without stepping on his mother's and stepfather's toes," says Jan Washauer. When he was little, they mailed him candles at Hanukkah, invited him to their seder, and took him to services whenever he visited. When he was old enough for summer sleep-away camp, they sent him to the UAHC's Olin-Sang-Ruby Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
Sometime after Mason's enrollment in Baptist Sunday school, Mason's stepfather Dana told the Washauers that Mason wanted to start going to Jewish Sunday school. "Dana said, 'I think there's a Jewish church over in Joplin,'" recalls Jan Washauer. "I said we'd look into it."
On their next visit with Mason, the Washauers drove to Joplin in search of the synagogue. They found the United Hebrew Congregation (UHC), an old Moorish-style temple with a membership of about three dozen families and a religious school of about a dozen students. The doors were locked and no one was around, so they wrote a note and slipped it under the door.
"We said our grandson lived miles away and wanted a Jewish education. We explained the situation and asked for help," says Lou Washauer. It felt, they said, like sticking a message in a bottle and tossing it out to sea. "We weren't sure if we'd get an answer."
They did. "When we hear of a Jewish child who wants to come to Sunday school, we make every effort to see that he gets here," says Paul Teverow, director and teacher at UHC's religious school. "We are a small Jewish community. We can't afford to overlook anyone."
The following autumn, Mason stood under a tallit (prayer shawl) with the congregation's 6- through 10-year-olds to be consecrated. "I smile whenever I think about it," says Jan Washauer. "There Mason was, this great big kid with those tiny little children."
Then Mason's Jewish education began. "It felt a little funny at first," Mason recalls. "I felt like I didn't know anything. And that was frustrating. But I caught up over time. And people in this temple community are so friendly. They love me and they love my mom, too. I believe they appreciate that she's this nice woman, raised Baptist, who's letting her son do this big thing."
Another challenge was figuring out how to get Mason to and from Joplin on Sundays. Stephen Teller, a teacher in the religious school who lived in Pittsburg, volunteered to help. So Mason's stepfather drove the short trip to the Teller home; then Mason made the seventy-mile round-trip drive with Teller, his wife Nikki, and their son, Jamie, 13.
At school, Mason learned about Jewish history and culture and studied Hebrew. Then, when he was 14, a rabbinical student asked him why he hadn't become a bar mitzvah (assumed the rights and responsibilities of an adult Jew). "I remember that day very well," recalls Mason. "I said, 'Well, I don't know. I don't think I'm ready.'"
The rabbinical student replied, "The other kids don't know more than you do. I think next May will be a good time."
"My grandparents were like, 'Hey-yeah!'" says Mason.
The date was set--May 25, 2001--and the preparations began. Paul Teverow, also a history professor at Missouri Southern State College, drove from Joplin to Pittsburg about five times that summer to tutor Mason. "I was happy to do my part," says Teverow. "I was very impressed to see that level of commitment in a young boy. Mason was curious about what the prayers meant and was very good at Hebrew sight-reading. He has a natural capacity for languages."
When the school year resumed, Eileen Kollins, assistant regional director of the UAHC's Midwest Council and a graduate of the Reform Movement's Sh'liach K'hilah/Synagogue Associate program, prepared Mason via phone sessions and in person. "He asked a lot of really good questions about his Torah portion--such as how did they find dolphin skins in the desert?" she recalls. "Once, after a particularly good session--he was prepared, interested, and enthusiastic--I told him how great he was doing, and Mason replied, 'Will you do me a favor? Will you call my grandparents and tell them I did well?' He realized how important this was to them, too."
As the Bar Mitzvah date drew near, Kollins started asking Mason to participate in services--which often meant not one, but two weekly round trips to Joplin. "Without fail, his stepfather drove him," Kollins says. Mason led a handful of services prior to his Bar Mitzvah. "I started to get to where I just couldn't wait," he says. "Kids at school were being ridiculously nice to me. They all wanted to come to my Bar Mitzvah since they'd never been to one. Some of my friends came to services with me and a whole bunch of them started talking about converting."
Nearly four years and thousands of miles later, Mason is a Bar Mitzvah. "I distinctly remember the Bar Mitzvah service and the sweaty palms," Mason recalls. "But my party was a blur--except for my friends putting me up on a chair. I'm going to be confirmed in the spring. I love confirmation class. Our new student rabbi is awesome--very laid back and open to discussion." As part of confirmation, Mason will help lead Friday night services as well as perform both a community and a congregation service project. The class will also take a trip to New York City to explore Jewish roots and culture. "We'll probably do a lot of eating as well," says student rabbi Emily Ilana Losben. "It's not easy to get traditional Jewish food in Joplin."
Now a sophomore in high school, Mason has made all-state in classical music. A member of his school's marching band, he plays so many instruments--among them tuba, trombone, and baritone horn--it's easier to count the ones he doesn't play. He's now putting together a klezmer band for the temple's talent show.
"Judaism makes sense to me. It seems right," he says. "I like that we're encouraged to question things. You don't have to believe everything in the Bible as fact. We can have viewpoints. I believe some of the stories in the Bible are truth and some are people's ideas about what was happening at the time--and that's not always the truth. I also love learning to read another language. I want to continue going to Sunday school. I just want to keep it all going."
So do Mason's grandparents. "Well, I think he'd make a great rabbi," says Lou Washauer. His grandmother is a bit more philosophical. "I would love a lot of things for Mason," she says. "But most of all, I'd like to see him maintain his Jewish identity and become a mensch (good person). Judaism is a religion of miracles, and I believe this is one."
Yiddish term for an honorable, decent person, usually means "a person of integrity and honor," someone of good character and a deep sense of what is right. Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.