“Radical Inclusion”: A First in San Francisco–Celebrating Bat Mitzvah at Glide

By Ronnie Caplane


This article is reprinted with permission of The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. Visit www.jewishsf.com.

As Bat Mitzvah ceremonies go, Jackie Groffman’s was far from the usual. Instead of a traditional ark, a Japanese-style screen concealed a Torah that lay on a table. On one of the mismatched chairs on the makeshift bima, Karen Junker, a soon-to-be-ordained pastor, wore clerical robes. And in the congregation was the Bat Mitzvah girl’s 78-year-old great-aunt, Sister Marianne, a nun.

But had everything been ordinary, the Oct. 12 simcha wouldn’t have been historic. Jackie’s Bat Mitzvah marked the first time in its 30-year history that San Francisco’s famed Glide Memorial United Methodist Church hosted the Jewish rite of passage.

“This is very exciting for us,” said Junker, assistant to Glide’s senior pastor, the Rev. Douglass Fitch. “It fits with our philosophy of radical inclusion. I’m sure God is thrilled today.”

Junker estimates that at least 10 percent of Glide’s registered members are Jewish. But why did Jackie choose to have her Bat Mitzvah at a church rather than going the traditional synagogue route?

“I wanted to do something a bit different,” explained the 13-year-old who, in her Bat Mitzvah speech, challenged congregants to dare to be leaders, not followers. But there was more to Groffman’s agenda than just reaching for the unusual. It was also spurred by Glide’s social-action programs and commitment to the down-and-out population in the surrounding neighborhood, the Tenderloin.

“Glide helps people get on the road to making better decisions,” Jackie told congregants as they sat in the sanctuary framed with banners proclaiming such values as justice, acceptance, hope, love and liberation. And besides all that, she added, “Glide is warm, welcoming and nice.”

For the past couple of years, Jackie and her mother have been regulars at Glide’s Sunday morning services. They first experienced Glide’s unconventional, rocking-and-rolling services while playing tour guide for out-of-town family. The timing was fortuitous. Jackie’s parents had just been divorced. Her mother, Rachel, was feeling alienated from the synagogue where they had belonged as a family.

“I felt disenfranchised. Everyone was happy married couples. I felt alone,” Rachel Groffman said. But at Glide she found a community that was diverse, inclusive, tolerant and accepting. She felt comfortable and at home there.

I loved it. It was a place we could retain our Jewish identity, but we also found a spiritual community where we could worship.”

Fitch supported and occasionally counseled the female Groffmans through the divorce, and provided Jackie with a strong male role model. Eventually Rachel discontinued her synagogue membership and joined Glide. Although Rachel recognizes that Glide’s services are Christian in nature, she makes a distinction between religion and spirituality.

“We chose our religion, but spirituality is innate,” explained Rachel, who became a Jew-by-choice 25 years ago and celebrated her own Bat Mitzvah 10 years ago. While she and her daughter worship at Glide on Sundays, they celebrate Shabbat (Sabbath) and other Jewish holidays at home. And Jackie isn’t troubled by what others might see as a slightly schizophrenic religious life.

“I realize that it’s a Christian church,” said Jackie, who volunteers in Glide’s soup kitchen. There are some beliefs she doesn’t share, but she focuses on the common ground. “Both worship God.”

When the time came, Rachel allowed her daughter to make the decision on whether or not to become a Bat Mitzvah. “The choice to become a Bat Mitzvah was easy,” Jackie said in her speech. “The work was hard.”

Without the educational and religious resources of a synagogue, Jackie’s mother had to find a rabbi and a Hebrew tutor. The tutor was easy. Rachel went to Patti Moskovitz, whose mother, the late Vera Kipnis, had been Rachel’s tutor when she converted.

“Jackie absorbed Hebrew like a sponge and was doing prayers within a month,” said Moskovitz, who began working with Jackie in mid-March. “She was very directed, very focused. She really wanted this.”

Through a friend, Rachel got in touch with Charles Familant, an independent rabbi who agreed to officiate at the Bat Mitzvah. He, too, began working with Jackie in March, discussing her Torah portion and other Jewish traditions.

Familant began Saturday morning’s service by explaining the significance of a Bat Mitzvah. He invited the congregation to join him in a Shehechiyanu, the prayer on doing something for the first time, in honor of both the Bat Mitzvah and Glide itself.

“The only walls are the walls of the mind,” said Familant. “Once we move through them we’re reminded that we’re all children of God.”

Last weekend, many things came together. It marked the culmination of months of study for Jackie and closed the circle that began 25 years ago, with Rachel and Kipnis.

“My mother would feed [Rachel]. They’d sit in her kitchen and work. Now Jackie comes and I feed her and we sit in my kitchen and work,” said Moskovitz. “We could feel my parents’ presence with us during this process.”

At the Bat Mitzvah, Rachel presented her daughter with the tallit (prayer shawl) that had been given to her by her father-in-law 10 years earlier, when she became a Bat Mitzvah. It had been his tallit, given to him by his parents when he graduated from Hebrew high school. It was presented with the caveat that now Jackie is the keeper of the tallit until she passes it on to one of her children.

And there was one more circle that needed closing–synagogue membership for Rachel and Jackie Groffman. Practicing Judaism, after all, requires a community to celebrate with. Glide helped with that, too, because it was through the church and the Rev. Cecil Williams, Glide’s CEO and a national advocate for the poor, that Rachel and Jackie met Moshe Levin, the new rabbi at Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco. Liking the rabbi, they decided to give the congregation a try and are now members.

For the Groffmans it was an ecumenical weekend–Friday night services at Ner Tamid and an oneg (after-services reception) in honor of Jackie’s Bat Mitzvah, Saturday morning Bat Mitzvah and Sunday morning services at Glide.

Only in San Francisco.


About Ronnie Caplane

Ronnie Caplane is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Northern Calif.