22 October 2013

(My friend Steve Hochman is a fellow journalist and a wonderful cheerleader for Causes and Effects. Steve and I knew of each other for years (or at least I knew of him and his stellar reputation), but our friendship has very nicely grown only over the last few. I'm always happy to see him. - Melinda)

Things are a bit different today than when I had my bar mitzvah mumble-mumble years ago. (Okay, it was Dec. 12, 1969. So there.) 

At least it was different at Temple B’Nai B’rith in Santa Barbara, at what may have been the most reformed time of the Reform Judaism movement. I mean, a few years later I’d go to dinner with the rabbi before confirmation class and watch him eat a bacon cheeseburger. That’s just a shrimp cocktail shy of a treyf trifecta.

The bar mitzvah prep process was relatively trauma-free. I memorized the various blessings and did the Torah and haftorah readings from transliterations, barely versed in the Hebrew alphabet. I wrote up a sermon from the Torah portion — Solomon, an easy one. Baruch-atah-something-or-other, now you’re a man.

Well, these days I’ve got a ringside seat to a girl in the homestretch countdown to her bat mitzvah. Or, more like I’m in her corner, on her team. And frankly I’m impressed, awed, and a bit intimidated by what’s expected of her and how she’s handling it. Not only is she learning to chant the blessings and passages from the real Hebrew, but also the larger contexts of what it all means. 

There’s a series of seminars with the Wilshire Boulevard Temple rabbinical staff, not just for the kids but families of impending b’nei mitzvahs (Rabbi Steven Leder on that little matter of God — Do you believe? What do you believe? No “right” or “wrong” answers, we are assured). And following that has been a detailed look into the designated Torah portion, in this case the Vayetze — you know, Jacob’s Dream and the soap-opera saga it engenders, replete with intra-familial polygamy, stolen household gods and duplicitous sheep shenanigans. 

And the writing of the sermon to be delivered by the bat mitzvah girl is involving a lot of back and forth and multiple drafts, critiqued and edited by the rabbis before it’s show time. (The extent of the “editing” process for mine was my dad feeling the necessity of adding an arcane “alas” to my text when he typed it up from my longhand.)

Most impressive, though, is that there’s a built-in community service component — the practice of tikkun olam, which means “healing the world.” There were numerous choices, based on what other kids have done. Working with the temple’s staff she settled on volunteering at the Jewish Home for the Aging, where she has been spending some weekend days helping take wheelchair bound residents to and from concert programs on the small campus. 

And then, taking the world part literally, there’s the Twinning Program. In this optional venture, the b’nei mitzvah kids are matched up with counterparts among the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, on its website, explains that the Jewish community in Ethiopia, with roots back to Biblical times, was imperiled by famine and disease in the 1980s. The organization sent 18 missions to Jewish villages there to help with the needs. This continued as the Israeli government in 1991 mounted the covert Operation Solomon to bring Jews from Ethiopia to Israel, soon followed by Operation Moses, which among other things took a record 1,122 people in one El Al 747. 

“In Israel today, the Ethiopian-Jewish community is an important part of society,” the NACOEJ explains on its web site. “However, their struggles are not yet over. Many Ethiopian-Israeli families live below the poverty line and cannot give their children the tools they need to do well in school. They strive to build a future, despite the obstacles.

In the Twinning Program, U.S. kids approaching their bar/bat mitzvah and their families make donations to NACOEJ education programs in that community, and are assigned a “twin,” an Ethiopian child also on the bat/bar mitzvah track, with the two able to correspond and share their experiences. 

Given the state of our world, the destructive suspicions and misinformation that seems to infect so much of our conversation, simply being aware that there are Ethiopian Jews, with a noble legacy, is itself crucial if we are to have any hope — ditto for awareness of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community, which extends back to shortly after the time of Christ and that many scholars argue is the closest in practice to that of the original Christians. 

-Steve Hochman

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