New path to Judaism

Hired rabbis worry some, but others say they bring needed flexibility to events

February 20, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTER

It wasn't until the sixth grade that Michael Durst decided he wanted to become a bar mitzvah, but his parents didn't belong to a synagogue.

These days, that's not a problem. The Fallston family hired a freelance tutor who taught the 12-year-old his Torah passage and officiated at the ceremony marking Michael's journey into Jewish adulthood, held in the hall of a Methodist church.

Bar mitzvah ceremonies like Michael's - without years of Hebrew school, without a congregational membership, without a traditional sense of Jewish community - worry some area rabbis so much that they're rethinking their congregations' approach to the rite of passage.

Though the numbers are still small, the rabbis fear that more families will bypass synagogues and instead opt for a la carte Judaism, skipping congregational dues and instead hiring tutors or rabbis through Web sites like only when needed for life cycle events such as bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. That's particularly worrisome as the number of American Jews unaffiliated with synagogues increases and congregations struggle to maintain their membership numbers.

For Jewish children, the bar mitzvah ceremony - usually held at age 13 - marks a religious entrance into adulthood, accompanied by new responsibilities, obligations and privileges, says Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Pikesville.

"The whole point is to celebrate a new communal status. If you take it outside of the community and have a private ceremony, it becomes absurd, almost," says Schwartz, who serves on a committee examining the issue for the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. "When people have that kind of private ceremony ... there's no larger context to it. There's no sense that there's this whole larger community out there that's waiting to embrace the child."

But parents who have opted for bar mitzvah ceremonies outside the conventional synagogue system point to cost, scheduling or a lack of flexibility - challenges in a large congregation where dozens of children turn 13 every year. Interfaith couples also value tutors and rabbis who let non-Jewish relatives participate and explain the rituals to guests unfamiliar with the tradition.

Since the family didn't start talking about Michael becoming a bar mitzvah until he was a sixth grader, Michael's mother, Marcy Sherry, says working with a tutor was the only option. Many synagogues require a minimum of two to three years of education in biblical Hebrew and Jewish holidays, values and broader philosophy.

"I just knew the way the system works, that it would be difficult," Sherry says. "There's no way he could have been in with that group, by virtue of where he was in terms of study."

Joey Malin, a tutor of children from several congregations as well as independent students, says he encourages families who are members to remain affiliated. But he says one-on-one services like what he and others offer help those who can't learn in traditional classrooms - adults who go through the bar mitzvah process later in life, for example, or children with learning disabilities.

And for Jews unaffiliated with a congregation, the alternative is no bar mitzvah ceremony at all. "At least here they're going to have a very positive experience," Malin says.

Jewish boys technically become a bar mitzvah, or "son of the commandment," on their 13th birthday (girls become a bat mitzvah, which can take place as early as 12). It marks a legal status under Jewish law - old enough to fast on Yom Kippur and take charge of one's own morality - and for boys, it's the first time they don tallit, a fringed shawl, for prayer.

But the religious ceremony to assume those adult responsibilities is not an easy task. Traditions vary, but usually, teenagers give the blessing over the Torah in front of the congregation at a regular Shabbat service, read the daily passage and lead other prayers. Often, they also address the congregation about the meaning of the reading.

"Even people that read Hebrew beautifully struggle with reading the Torah because there's no vowels, punctuation or cantillation" to guide chanting of the text, Malin says.

Many people hire tutors to supplement a synagogue's classroom Hebrew instruction, either through their congregation or on their own, says Mark Oppenheimer, author of Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America.

Tutors can be more rigorous than classroom teachers, he says. "It's an even better learning experience than you would get sitting in a class in a synagogue.

"The problem comes in if that person is not guiding people toward Jewish community or Jewish learning, if he's a gun for hire."

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