Author Archives: Lindsey Bridwell

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Parshah Connects Us

The author and her brother had the same Torah portion two-and-a-half years apart. (Provided)

The author and her brother had the same Torah portion two-and-a-half years apart.
(Provided)

I may have been first, but I wasn’t the best. Nearly 10 years ago, I stood on stage and uttered the first word of my Haf’torah at my bat mitzvah: “HALO.”

Sounds like hello, doesn’t it? I felt like I was saying hello to the world of Jewish adulthood. As an over-enthusiastic yet semi-tone deaf bat mitzvah girl, I sung out my Haf’Torah portion with a jubilant smile stretched across my face. Although my bat mitzvah was pushed forward by a month because of my rabbi going on sabbatical, I lucked out because I recited the shortest Haf’Torah of the year. It might not have been long, but no one could have rocked Acharei Mot Kedoshim like I could. Or so I thought.

Two and a half years later, my brother, Daniel, was up to bat. Since he was born in February, he feared that if his bar mitzvah took place near his actual Hebrew birthday, it would get snowed out. With only five other students in his Hebrew school class, he had his pick of portions. Looking through the list, he realized Acharei Mot Kedoshim was open.

Since he’s a quiet kid, many people had low expectations for his big day. However, Daniel had a dirty little secret: he has perfect pitch. When it came time to chant his Haf’Torah, Daniel opened his prayer book, took a deep breath and belted out his first word: “HALO.”

The note resonated to the back of the sanctuary, and every single person in the room perked up in their seat.

After his perfectly executed Haf’Torah portion, the rabbi joked during his sermon, “I’m not going to say who did a better job, Allie or Daniel.” His bar mitzvah tutor turned around to me and said, “He did.” Putting my own pride aside and beaming as the proud big sister, I had to agree.

Fast forward another two years, and my Orthodox cousin, Gershon, began prepping for his bar mitzvah. Then a student at Baltimore’s Talmudical Academy, Gershon could have singlehandedly chanted the entire Torah on his big day. But, incredibly, Acharei Mot Kedoshim fell on his Hebrew birthday. He captivated the crowd at Ner Tamid in Pikesville with his rapid-fire, perfect recitation of his Haf’Torah, plus every single line of his Torah portion.

Watching from the women’s section, I could not help but think back to that memorable day five years earlier when I had belted out the same portion. I now share this Haf’Torah portion with two of my closest relatives. As he finished his portion, he placed a football helmet on his head as everyone in the pews bombarded him with hard candy in celebration.

Even though we all chanted the same portion, each one of us put our own personality into it. While I won the award for perkiest bat mitzvah girl of all time, Daniel’s musical flair and Gershon’s passion for Orthodox Judaism made each recitation unique. From standing center stage at my own bat mitzvah to playing a supportive role as proud sister and cousin, sharing the portion made me feel even more connected to my Judaism. All three of us went on to continue our Jewish studies, and we became closer as a result.

We have all come a long way since the first time we said HALO. When I was 17, we visited Israel together for the first time. My grandfather, Marty Waxman, who devoted his career to raising funds for Israel and the Jewish community, had always dreamed of taking his grandchildren to Israel and planned a wonderful, three-generation trip for us. Falling in love with Israel, I spent the past year living in Tel Aviv reporting for The Jerusalem Post, and Gershon is currently studying at Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

During my time in Israel, I befriended a cantorial student named Allie Fox. Yes, another Allie F. We began talking and soon realized that she also shared my bat mitzvah portion. From close friends to family, my portion has grown bigger than me. Ten years ago, I was a beaming bat mitzvah girl. Now, I am a proud Zionist and Jew.

HALO world, here I am!

afreedman@jewishtimes.com

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Bat Mitzvah: The Real Deal

102414_insider_real-dealOnce upon a time when my now 18-year-old daughter was 12 and preparing for her bat mitzvah, she received a package of materials from our synagogue. One of the items in the package was a book called, “Putting God on the Guest List.” I suppose the well-meaning clergy [as well as the three rabbis who wrote the book] were giving us a hint. They knew that pre-teens and their parents could benefit from some a reminder of the true significance of the Jewish coming-of-age ritual. I don’t suppose my daughter was the only one in her b’nai mitzvah class who received “the book” but never opened it. And I’ll admit it — neither did her father or I.

I tried encouraging her to take a look at the book, but when she rolled her eyes in that way that pre-teens do, I didn’t push it. By the time we began planning our daughter’s bat mitzvah celebration, she had already been on the ‘b’nai mitzvah circuit’ for months. As most parents of day school children will attest to, their children attend bar and bat mitzvot nearly every weekend for a good 18 months or so. If memory serves, our daughter, one of the youngest in her grade, was the 48th of 50 classmates to become a bat mitzvah. By then, she had seen enough of these affairs to know exactly what she wanted her celebration (and her dress, hair and shoes) to look like. The only problem? She wanted it to look like a wedding.

As we tried (in vain) to convince her of the merits of holding the celebration at a casual outdoor venue, an ice-skating rink or even a separate room in a local diner, I was met with tears and slammed doors. Attempts to focus her on the religious aspects of the event, and her required mitzvah project, seemed futile. My husband and I wondered, “What have we done wrong? This is what we get after all those years of day school? ” On several occasions we threatened to cancel the whole thing, unless she changed her attitude.

Right about now, dear reader, I am sure you are thinking that our daughter was/is a spoiled brat, and her parents, overly indulgent, were unable to set limits. I would never suggest that I am a perfect parent. In fact, I’ve had my share of troubles in the limit-setting department. My children, though loveable, aren’t perfect either. But in reality, this sort of behavior was not typical of our daughter. She was generally kind, respectful and grateful for what she received and even mindful of keeping within the family budget.

In speaking with my friends, I found that many of them were experiencing similar struggles with their own b’nai mitzvah-age children.

According to Joan Grayson Cohen, senior manager at Access Services at Jewish Community Services, there are several reasons why children may lose sight of the main event and exhibit unpleasant behavior when it comes time for bar and bat mitzvah planning. Some of these reasons may be developmental, while others may be societal, she says.

“At this age,” says Cohen, “kids are very involved with their peers. They want to be part of the group, and get invited to things. The social aspect is so significant. Kids who aren’t getting invited are trying so hard to figure out why. ‘Where do I fit in,’ they’re wondering. They are not feeling so secure. So they want to have a party that everyone wants to come to, everyone’s talking about it. They want to have what he or she had, wear what others are wearing.”

And it’s not always only the kids who are trying to fit in, or to stand out. Anyone who has seen, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” — a 2006 comedy about a family trying to outdo their neighbors by throwing the most elaborate and expensive bar mitzvah party in the neighborhood — knows that even parents can succumb to insecurities and competitive impulses. It’s only natural. “In our society, bigger is better,” says Cohen.

Not only do some parents and children feel pressure from the people they know, but they are also influenced by the materialistic, frequently ostentatious society in which all of us live. It’s a culture that has brought us b’nai mitzvah celebrations costing many thousands of dollars, featuring bands bused in from New York City or Washington, D.C., extravagant giveaways, sushi bars and scantily-clad dancers, who become role models for the girls and eye candy for the boys.

“It’s a sign of the times,” says Cohen. But not all is lost. If parents are thoughtful, creative and prepared for the issues that are likely to arise in planning their celebrations, Cohen believes they can take steps to ensure that the true meaning of b’nai mitzvah is not lost in the shuffle.

“Maybe pick a time and place that matches the message you want to give to your child and others,” she suggests. When it was time for Cohen’s three daughters (twins and their sister who was about one year older) to become bat mitzvah, Cohen said they shared their bat mitzvot.

“I didn’t let them have a theme. The theme was the bat mitzvah. Instead, I let them choose the colors. For our centerpieces we had tzedakah boxes,” she said. “Each girl was named after a [deceased] relative so we created a booklet that was placed on each chair that told about the people the girls were named for, and what those people were like. Then we wrote about each girl and how she had some of the namesake’s special characteristics,” Grayson Cohen says. “There are many ways to keep the event Jewish.”

As for my family, after some fits and starts, the bat mitzvah came off without a hitch. We managed to make some compromises, although we could have made more. Our daughter performed beautifully during the service, and it was a thrill to watch and hear her read Torah. At the party, we danced the hora, and the room was full of ruach. It was a deeply moving occasion for our immediate and extended families. Our daughter was proud of her accomplishment and came away from the party feeling like a princess. She was very grateful and made sure to tell us so.

Several years later, when she was a counselor in training at Camp Louise, we received a heart-warming letter from her. She wrote us something like this:

“Dear Mom and Dad:
I think I have found my calling. Today we went to do a community service project with some underprivileged girls. I can’t believe how hard their lives are. I was so sad. I think I want to work with kids like that after college.” The letter confirmed what deep down, we already knew. We had raised a caring and compassionate young woman. We are so proud of her.

sellin@jewishtimes.com

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Destination B’nai Mitzvah

102414_insider_destinationKaren Feuerstein wanted her daughter to feel special on the day she officially became bat mitzvah, so she decided to break the mold and host her daughter’s coming-of-age ceremony at a tourist destination.

In March, Karen and her family will travel east from their home in Bethesda to the National Aquarium at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The family belongs to a synagogue in Montgomery County, where their daughter has also attended religious school since she was 3, but when they discovered all the restrictions for hosting the ceremony at the synagogue — limited dates available, little family participation — they decided to think outside the box.

“We decided not to have our daughter’s bat mitzvah [at our home synagogue] because, quite frankly, it became too stressful, and I feared that the end result would not be a meaningful experience for my child and our family,” she says. “In a large congregation like the one we belong to, the ceremony is less about the child, and more about welcoming that child into the community.”

At first they planned a cruise for close family in which the bat mitzvah would take place, but when it proved impossible for the whole family to commit to five days at sea, the decision was made to host the ceremony and celebration in Baltimore.

In the months leading up to the big day, Feuerstein’s daughter has been working regularly with Cantor Glenn Sherman, a Florida-based cantor who has made a business out of catering to children and families who want to host their ceremony in a non-traditional setting.

“It’s a nice alternative for people who don’t belong to a synagogue who are like ‘what do I do? We have to have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, what do I do?’” says Sherman. But many of his clients, like the Feuerstein family do belong to synagogues but, for one reason or another, feel more comfortable hosting the event elsewhere.

Whether it’s scheduling conflicts, hosting a b’nai mitzvah on a Saturday afternoon or allowing the family the chance to make speeches, Sherman says he is able to accommodate almost any request with his destination service.

“I don’t have any rules,” he says, adding that he has worked with teens from all sects of Judaism.

Another benefit of hosting an out-of-town bar mitzvah is the cost. While travelling to Barbados or Colorado for a bar or bat mitzvah might sound lavish and expensive, destination b’nai mitzvah operators point out that the cost is often no more — and usually less — than the over-the-top parties that have become the norm.

The big parties are a major driver for Colorado-based Adventure Rabbi’s business, according to founder Rabbi Jamie Korngold, who says many parents view the b’nai mitzvah she offers as a way to escape the consumerism they believe has hijacked many celebrations.

Adventure Rabbi works with students all over the world to plan b’nai mitzvah ceremonies in all kinds of places. Korngold will travel to Hawaii soon to preside over the bat mitzvah of an Australian girl. In the past, she or her staff have worked with students as far away as Cambodia and Iraq using Skype for instruction, a method Sherman employs as well.

“I think a lot of people are trying to simplify, and taking it out of town does just that,” says Korngold. “People don’t invite all the guests. It takes a lot of materialism out of it.

“The irony is it does exactly the opposite of what many people think it does,” she says. “A lot of people think, ‘well, it takes you away
from the community.’ It doesn’t. It takes you to your actual community, because the 25 people who come with you, or the 10 or the four, you have this really profound experience with them of sincere group building.”

Many of the families Ellen Paderson works with through her company, Smiles and Miles Travel, are trying to find a way to get together for the special occasion at a time when many families are spread out all over the country, even all over the globe.

“What I hear from people who call is ‘We just don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a three hour party, it’s ridiculous, we don’t want to have to keep up with the Jones’, and this gives us a way to invite just our closest friends and family,’” says Paderson.

In the end, she says, the family walks away with a unique shared ­ memory.

Says Korngold: “People are looking for an authentic, connecting experience.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

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University Posts Rosenberg Letters Online

Public Domain

A new website on convicted Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg provides access to a collection of more than 500 letters between the couple while they were imprisoned.

The website, hgar-srv3.bu.edu/web/rosenberg-archive, was launched last week by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Center at Boston University.

Maintaining their innocence until the end, the Rosenbergs were executed on conspiracy charges for passing along secret information to the Soviet Union.

The controversial Cold War-era trial of the Jewish couple, and their executions in 1953, sparked worldwide protests and continues to capture the attention of students and scholars of law, history and politics as well as artists, musicians, filmmakers and the general public.

The extensive collection of letters, acquired from the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, includes more than three dozen letters between the Rosenbergs and their lawyer, Emanuel Bloch, that have never been available to researchers or the public as well as more contemporary publications from the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case.

Additional material includes pamphlets, newspaper clippings, sheet music of songs about the Rosenbergs and the Rosenbergs’ wills. The letters between the couple are high resolution digitized images.

In the last letter Ethel wrote to her children, on June 19, 1953, she says she is innocent and goes to her death unafraid because she knows she is doing it for a greater cause.

“Eventually, too, you must come to believe that life is worth the living,” Ethel wrote.