During a tasty middle-eastern lunch with my colleagues recently, we found ourselves settling back into the age-old (or at least as old as those of us around the table have been obsessing) question of what we as clergy will or won’t, should or should not do outside synagogue walls for our members. It related to a frustration with those (albeit few) members of our congregations who were using an independent worship space to hold their family’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah services and celebrations. We bemoaned the fact that some of our member families, often because of convenience (“Why can’t we have the ceremony at the country club before the party, it saves us schlepping in a bus?”) or because the date assigned for the simcha at the congregation is “inconvenient”, take their community celebration outside our community. And that we as clergy will surely not officiate those requests, though we may tutor and support the student along the way.
So here’s my conundrum: If individuals in our community do not feel the tug, the connection, the draw to that community strongly enough to worship and celebrate within its walls and among its members, aren’t we partially to blame?
I have found myself these past few years moving from one who always looked with suspicion upon and criticized those who don't see the value, the imperative of engaging fully and with dedication to synagogue life, to one who is searching for more diverse, creative, possibly scary, and yet more open-minded ways of engaging our members.
The slippery-slope arguments are good (I’d know, I’ve used‘em): Yes, we can’t let any family just go wherever they want for a “private” ceremony. Becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah happens automatically at 13, and the ceremony simply acknowledges and celebrates that fact in and amongst the “community” – so yes, it stands to reason that the transition must occur within the community. And congregations are places of learning, of connection, of deepening one’s own search for fullness, and of sharing that with others.
But, I asked my colleagues, what if we have failed to create an environment in which that family, that 13 year old, really sees and feels the value of this synagogue community?
Why are we shocked when some Bar/Bat Mitzvah families consider taking their ceremonies outside the synagogue? Many of these families are fulfilling the commandment of celebrating in front of their community; it’s just not the synagogue community. We can’t just insist that they celebrate their transformational moments within our walls, if those walls do not hold for them moments of meeting, of conversation, of laughter, of comfort.
When we learn about a family taking their Bar Mitzvah outside of the synagogue, the question we should ask shouldn’t be about their specific act of treachery; we should instead be asking are we, as leaders of our Jewish community, doing enough?
Isn’t it possible that our members don't come to worship on Saturday mornings with our B’nei Mitzvah families not because of the quality of the service, but rather because they have no relationship with that child, with that family? Is it possible that some of our families question the cost of tutoring, of afternoon Hebrew school hoops through which to jump, of the rules and regulations of becoming a Bar and Bat Mitzvah in a synagogue, because they are NOT receiving precisely what it is we are INSISTING they should want from synagogue, which is a sense of community? If I am a parent who has only a few friends in the congregation, and my child has a few pals but is not known by any other adults in the community, is not celebrated by more than just the Rabbi, Cantor and tutor – what’s this “community?” Is “community” simply the obligation of all Jews who happen to have the same DNA, or an historical sense of “this is what it means to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah?” If it ever did, it certainly doesn’t mean that anymore. The members of many congregations are craving connection, a place to belong; their children tell us in every way they know how, that they want meaningful engagement, to be valued, to feel safe. For many, this is already happening, and for the rest, I know as community leaders we can provide it.
Most of our families are delighted to celebrate in our congregations; those who leave or who are looking for what we could call a “personalized” ceremony are perhaps a small minority. But I challenge the view that those few are by their nature somehow difficult, or selfish, or inconsiderate. I could be naïve – but I’d like to think that if they felt as connected to the community as others do, if they felt that they wanted to be surrounded by the people, the echoes, the sense of belonging they could only find in their synagogue, that they would be more inclined to accept their inconvenient date, and rent an extra bus to drive to the party.
I don’t have all of the answers…What I do know is that synagogues matter, communities of relationship and connection matter, and everyone wants to belong to something, to care and be cared for. Congregations and leadership, me and mine included, must begin to do this better, to show why synagogues matter, and ask ourselves different kinds of questions when we learn that some are looking for their “true community” (of family and friends who know and care about their stories) outside our walls.