Intra-faith Bar Mitzvah | A New Twist on An Old Tradition
Growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a center of secular Jewish liberalism, I never once considered my Jewishness outside of bagels and lox and a passion for civics and human rights. As a young adult my need to affiliate motivated me to learn Spanish and work in Latin America to ameliorate poverty and disease.
It was only by chance that more than a decade later I ended up marrying a Sephardic Israeli – the first Jewish guy I ever dated – and giving birth to two boys. From the beginning, it was clear we had a mixed marriage. He had routines and rituals that he needed us to perform regularly and all I wanted to do was ask “why?”
This month at our son’s bar mitzvah the benefits of our hybrid home were on display. Thanks to an open-minded Chabad Rabbi we were able to create an experience that had both traditional and non-traditional elements and truly allowed our son’s natural strengths to shine.
Below is Gideon’s bar mitzvah speech, which explains his unique journey.
I wanted to have a bar mitzvah because it’s a part of Jewish tradition. And I think tradition is important. Also, I want my family to be proud of me.
A bar mitzvah marks a point in the life cycle where you accept the responsibility of being a man. And in preparing for my bar mitzvah my parents thought a lot about what that meant and about what values they wanted me to explore and understand.
We just finished the traditional part of my bar mitzvah. Thank you, Rabbi, for all of your help in preparing me for that part. I enjoyed studying and learning with you. But there was another part of my journey.
My parents asked me to consider a set of questions about Jewish values – really, they are human values. And now I am going to share with you what I learned.
The first question was about “responsibility.” Hineni is Hebrew for “I am here.” But for what? Why am I here? For whom am I responsible?
To explore this idea, I had the privilege of meeting with FIU professor of ethics and humanities, Dr. Bruce Harvey. We spoke about what it means to live a positive moral life.
For example, if you see a homeless person should you help him or her? What does that help look like? If you give them a dollar is that really helping? Every day we are confronted with large and small moral dilemmas. And living a moral life means navigating those dilemmas in the best way you can.
I think the key is to keep a low flame burning of moral goodness. And that is exactly what I try to do.
Happiness for me is when there is happiness around me. Bruce helped me realize how lucky I am.
The second question was about commitment to faith. Kehila Kedosha is Hebrew for sacred community.
The Rabbi and I spoke a lot about the value of community. In fact he told me that his favorite part of his work in Miami Shores was making connections for people and building community.
I also met with an imam and a priest to learn about their approaches as well.
I cannot imagine I will ever forget the morning I spent with Imam Samra at his mosque in Miami Gardens. I asked him about his personal commitment to Islam, how he serves his congregants and the role of faith in peoples’ daily lives.
What I found really interesting was the idea that like in Judaism, in Islam there are lots of religious laws that are commanded by G-d but nothing is more sacred than the way humans treat each other. If you have wronged someone, he explained, to apologize and be forgiven is not enough. To do the right thing you must also go the extra step of doing lots of nice things for that person.
I carry with me a commitment, bestowed on me by my parents and my parents’ parents, to be a good righteous person. As I enter this new stage in my life I will apply this purposeful responsibility.
Father Cristobal Torres, of Barry University, came to our home to speak with me about his commitment to G-d. He remembers being only 9 years old and receiving his first call to commit 100 percent to faith – a commitment which he lives today. I was amazed by that.
I don’t want each day of my life to go by without a real commitment.
Like the Rabbi and Imam Samra, Father Torres suggested that I remember to stop and pray, or meditate and think so that I can remind myself of the value of commitment.
The Rabbi also mentioned that committing to yourself was just as important to committing to others. I hope I can do all of that with the same integrity as these religious leaders.
The third question was about ometz or in English, courage. In what ways should I show courage? And resilience?
I had the opportunity to spend an evening with Allan Hall and Lori Gold. Allan shared an incredible story with me about how he survived the Holocaust.
As a child he escaped death so many times and spent so many years in cold dark places.
And I cannot possibly explain how much of an impact he had on me. I left that meeting with him feeling that I should never take anything for granted.
Because Allan wasn’t allowed to go to school when he finally came to the U.S. he worked extra hard to succeed. Allan also taught me that drive and motivation – above all else – are the keys to success.
And the last one is tikkun olam, or in English, repairing the world. I want to have an impact on the world and make a real difference. But how will I know what to do?
To figure that out I met with two representatives from other countries. People from other places have different views about the world and what’s important. I asked them about what motivates them to serve their country. I asked about what keeps them up at night and I asked about their hopes for the future.
The representative from the island nation of Jamaica spoke about climate change and transnational crime, which obviously impact his country a lot. And then he spoke about the power of people and said something that really shocked me.
I thought he would be worried about things like poverty, but he was so optimistic. He said that all problems can be solved if people work together.
The representative from the Netherlands, a country that is in fear of rising waters, worries about recycling and other environmental concerns. But like the representative from Jamaica, she too was optimistic and believed in the power of people to make this world better.
These last conversations taught me to view all things from several sides.
So there has been a lot of talking tonight and this has been a long speech. And I know you are not going to remember everything.
So, I want to leave you with 6 lessons I learned:
Number one: It’s important to question everything critically – but not stupidly critical.
Number two: Don’t forget to take the time to stop, pause, and reflect. Are you where you want to be? Are you going in the direction of where you want to go?
Number three: What you don’t want done to you, don’t do to others.
Number four: True learning happens when you speak with people who are different than you are.
Number five: Be grateful. Don’t take anything for granted.
And lastly, number six: Value yourself first so you can truly love others.