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September 20, 2014 | 25th Elul 5774

Other People's Simchas

Galilee Diary #581, July 18, 2012
Marc Rosenstein

Praised are You, O Lord our God, who has freed me from the punishment (i.e. responsibility for the deeds) of this one.
-Traditional parent's blessing at a bar/bat mitzvah

Here at Shorashim, a hilltop rural community of about 100 families (~450 people), a typical Shabbat morning service draws about 20-25 worshippers, all of them residents, with an occasional guest family staying the weekend. When a Shorashim kid celebrates a bar/bat mitzvah, the synagogue is packed (80 seats plus standees in the margins). Of course there are family and friends from outside, but the crowd is mostly us. The celebration is a big deal – besides participation in the service and Torah reading, there are skits and speeches, and usually a Kiddush lunch set up and served by volunteers. A real ceremony of acceptance into the community. Of these there are about 8-10 in a year. 

But then there are also "outside" bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, by families from surrounding communities that don't have an active synagogue, or who are seeking an egalitarian setting. These too occur once a month or less, though recently we had a wave of three weeks in a row. Awkwardly, the attendance of Shorashim congregants tends to drop on these days, and sometimes we barely reach a minyan of our own members. We should, of course, welcome these guests and try to make them feel at home and to show them our brand of Judaism. However, many of us feel that the mass of "strangers" who are just here for the bar/bat mitzvah (including the kid and family) – usually people who wouldn't think of taking a prayer book unless an usher thrusts it into their hands – sort of take over the service and make us feel like strangers. We sing. They watch. Throwing the candy is the highlight for them (recently, the barrage actually drew blood from the bar mitzvah boy). This past week there was a whole peanut gallery of the celebrant's peers who had to be shushed until they finally fled outdoors. It's a dilemma: On the one hand the regular attendees are entitled to their customary worship experience; on the other hand, a synagogue should be open for anyone – you really can't judge people's intentions, or know the impact the experience might have.

Needless to say, Shorashim is not unique in this regard. I know that most Reform and many Conservative congregations all over the world suffer from this syndrome; here in Israel, at least, it is rare to find a Reform synagogue that even has a Shabbat morning service unless there is a bar/bat mitzvah: there is no "regular" community of morning worshippers, so the bar/bat mitzvah becomes purely a family event, not a rite of passage into a community. Interestingly, early Reform tried to eliminate bar mitzvah and replace it with confirmation. The leadership felt that the bar mitzvah was at too young an age to have meaning today, and preferred confirmation as a group ceremony, at a more mature age, so that it properly was a kind of graduation. If their plan had worked, I wonder if our synagogues would look different today on Saturday morning. Did the bar/bat mitzvah kill Shabbat morning worship? Or did it save it from simply fading away altogether due to a lack of interest in a Shabbat that lasts beyond Friday evening, or to an alienation from the synagogue prayer experience?

Here at Shorashim, most weeks we're just us, and there's a sufficient core of old and new members to support a lovely, participatory service, a praying community. It is pretty stable, probably growing – but if so, very slowly. Will welcoming guest bar/bat mitzvahs do us in?

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