I love working with young people. Helping to prepare them for their Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah service is one of my greatest joys. The opportunity to share what I know and teach not only the history of our religion, but also how this history affects them and their families, is special. Every once in a while I work with someone whose story is so unique that even I am surprised.
With that as a backdrop, meet Eli.
The Importance of History
Eli’s family history is incredibly interesting. First, his father Alex is Jewish and from Russia – but he never became a Bar Mitzvah. Alex’s father, Eli’s grandfather, also never became a Bar Mitzvah. Seems strange, right? Well, consider this: Eli’s great grandfather grew up in Russia; he had to worship secretly. Because of this, their religion was not openly shared, simply quietly respected.
Eli’s mother is Pam, and she is not Jewish. In fact, before she met Alex she had never even met a Jewish person. Pam, however, was completely supportive of Eli becoming a Bar Mitzvah. She respected her husband’s heritage and recognized the significance of this day for their entire family; Eli would be the first person in three generations to become a Bar Mitzvah.
As a Cantor serving the Interfaith and unaffiliated Jewish community in South Florida, I have officiated countless ceremonies uniting and including people of all faiths. That said, I do not ever remember developing a ceremony quite like this. Nobody in Eli’s “congregation” at the Bar Mitzvah knew any Hebrew; not even the most common of prayers. It was something I had never experienced. Even when working with interfaith families there are usually a few people familiar with the service in attendance.
While familiarity with the ceremony may not have been present; something so much more important was: a level of interest, respect and love that was so strong it was almost tangible. Eli’s family, who were unfamiliar with this process, were so supportive. And so the service began….
It was in English, almost all in English, and different than any other service, Eli and I together shared the story of his journey and what becoming a Bar Mitzvah entailed and meant. It was a celebration of all that Eli had learned and a life lesson to those who were there to share this special day. I could have incorporated more Hebrew and held a more traditional service; but really, to what end?
The opportunity to share our heritage in a manner that everyone could understand and appreciate was an important one to seize. A traditional service incorporating a significant amount of Hebrew was expected; but would it be appropriate? Would it be valuable? Wasn’t it more important for Eli to be able to share all he learned, his religion and traditions, in a manner that could be understood and appreciated by those closest to him? It was, and he did.
The Celebration of Eli’s Bar Mitzvah
While the service may have been unique; the celebration was even more so. Uncommon, incredibly special and so much fun! The entire Bar Mitzvah (service and celebration) was held at, now get this, The Palm Beach Zoo (http://www.palmbeachzoo.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=events.main).
Fifty family members and friends gathered in a private room for the service; and once it was complete there was the most creative celebration: a zoo scavenger hunt.
In groups, guests traveled through the zoo and collected/identified everything on their scavenger hunt list. How much fun is that? Once they completed this challenging and fun task, everyone gathered for a lovely luncheon; featuring the most beautiful Bar Mitzvah cake I have ever seen. (check out the picture).
Pam has a friend, a very talented pastry artist (as a hobby), and she agreed to create Eli’s cake. It was a masterpiece complete with a replica of his talis and kippah. It was so personal, so beautiful, and obviously made with love.
Every chance I have to work with a young person and ultimately officiate at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a lesson for me. I always learn something new. This time, I learned that a service that to an outsider may have seemed “less Jewish” was actually more. After all, there is no greater mitzvah than sharing and teaching your beliefs with others in a manner that is comfortable easy to understand. Eli learned so much throughout our time together, but truly I think he (and I) learned the most that morning. It was a day I will always remember and an experience I will treasure for a lifetime. I am so grateful to have this family in my life. This experience had a profound effect on me and I know it will influence my work in the future.