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Watching Adulthood Emerge on Capitol Hill

Back in the day, thirteen-year-old Jewish boys and girls became adults. Their parents were invited to recite the blessing: Baruch shep’tarnu mei-ha-onsho shel zeh – Blessed is the One who has freed us from the responsibility for this child. Parents marked the moment that they were no longer responsible for the (potentially sinful) actions of their adult children.

Today, anyone paying attention knows that the journey into adulthood unfolds for many young people well into their late twenties. In fact, as rabbis of Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), we have edited more than our share of Bar/Bar Mitzvah divrei Torah (speeches) away from saying “now I am a man/woman.” We guide students instead to say “today I am taking the first steps on the path to adulthood.”

But when really does adulthood begin?

Adulthood arrives later than when we were kids. When young people take more real responsibility not only for their own lives, but also for those around them, and for their community, country and world, they begin to manifest a level of maturity that evidences approaching adulthood.

Recently, we glimpsed twenty high school students inching closer to adulthood as we chaperoned them to the L’Taken social justice seminar led by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC). And it took our breath away.

With the RAC’s staff, our teens explored current issues before Congress and our country and enjoyed a crash course on how concerned citizens can lobby our leaders.

But L’Taken is more than a kid-friendly version of real-life citizen engagement. L’Taken is the next step in the adultification of our youth.

Invited into the halls of Congress to urge their elected leaders to effectuate Jewish values, these soon-to-be voters take personal responsibility for their future. They choose issues they are most passionate about and research them with seriousness. (Our delegation focused on healthcare, LGBTQ rights, immigration, reproductive rights, and campaign finance, and issues related to Israel.) They reviewed briefing papers and studied relevant Jewish texts. They debated potential positions on pending legislation.

Then as we adults sat back, the teens entered a junk-food-fueled late night of writing their own lobbying speeches and editing them under the mentorship of the talented RAC staff. Witnessing this moment – they take their responsibility very seriously – gave us hope.

Citizen-Lobbyists ascending Capitol Hill

On Monday morning these newly minted citizen-lobbyists boarded the buses to Capitol Hill, dressed in their power suits, carrying folders filled with their speeches. Sure, their youthfulness still required some further guidance: this one needed help tying his tie; that one sought instructions on how to shake hands in a way that projected strength and assertiveness. But they understood – more clearly in our divided country and broken world than at any previous time in their short lives – that as the prophet Joel said in the Bible, “while the old shall dream dreams, the youth shall see visions.” The future was theirs for the taking… and the shaping. They planned to bend the arc toward justice.

Entering the offices of our California senators and representatives, our delegates shook hands, introduced themselves, and got right down to business. These young lobbyists described current legislation by name and number, articulated the Jewish and American values underlying their position on the legislation, personalized the issue with a motivating story from their lives, and respectfully but firmly urged the leaders to uphold their opinions.

We met with the Legislative Directors who we could sense knew – and they knew that the teens knew – that our teens would be voting in just a few years time. So their opinions were taken seriously and their questions addressed forthrightly.

When do young people begin inching to adulthood?

We rabbis (like their parents) remember them as kids, who we alternatively coddled and cajoled through their Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies. Some were barely able to gaze over the bimah. Others had wrestled with voices starting to crack or self-identities struggling to emerge. Still, we placed them before family and friends and hoped they would lead in the way we had practiced together. Then, with our hearts swelling, we blessed them before the ark, propelling them forward on a path toward adulthood. We charged them to embrace Torah values to repair the brokenness in our world. But we knew they were still kids in adult-like clothing.

Then in Washington DC, our nation’s Capitol, these same teens moved closer to adulthood by taking charge of their future. They spoke with the confidence their future necessitated, expecting (and kindly demanding) that their values – rachamim(compassion), b’tzelem Elohim (the intrinsic worth of each person) and tzedek (justice for all) – would prevail.

Between snapping pictures for parents back home, we two rabbis smiled knowingly at each other. We were witnessing adulthood starting to emerge. In our nation’s Capitol, our youngsters really took the next step forward.

Our hearts were bursting with pride. And so, for their parents back home who could only experience this through the social media videos and our constant texts, for our Congregation Or Ami community and for ourselves, we whispered the ancient blessing, transformed anew:

Baruch Ata Adonai, shebrachtanu eem ha-brachot shel zeh – Blessed are You, Eternal One, who has blessed us with these blessings. Amen.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz both serve Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This blog was originally posted on Rabbi Kipnes’s blog

Categories
Social Justice

Putting the Mitzvah Back into B’nai Mitzvah

About two years ago, my friend and teacher Rabbi Peter Levi described his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah service. Instead of doing the early part of the morning blessings, they would sing a couple of introductory songs, leave the sanctuary, and enter the social hall for a social action project where they would pack boxes of grains and canned goods for the homeless. I admit that when I heard the idea, I was nonplussed. Seeing the look on my face, Rabbi Levi put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s called a Bat Mitzvah, not a Bat T’filah.”

My mind was opened.

He made me realize the whole issue I have with our B’nai Mitzvah rubric as it has been for years. We want to create engaged Jewish adults, and we are creating cookie-cutter kids who will be able to their their kids, “You’ll do it because I suffered through it, too,” just like we are telling ours. So after hearing Rabbi Levi’s simple sentence, I began to plan.

At Congregation B’nai Tzedek, we hold a semi-annual “B’nai Mitzvah Boot Camp,” where I gather the students who will become B’nai Mitzvah within the following nine to sixteen months. We discuss the four things a child has to accomplish before they can receive the title of Jewish Adult: Lead services, Teach through a D’var Torah, Commit to a Mitzvah, and Give Tzedakah. Lead, Teach, Mitzvah, Tzedakah. As much as this talk may inspire them, which I hope it does, it still leads to the same thing. The children lead a service, have a party, give tzedakah, and maybe remember to keep doing their mitzvah.

Some kids have an easy time with this they enjoy it, they love performing and they thrive on the bimah. Others struggle.

In thinking about Rabbi Levi’s words, I wanted to encourage our emerging Jewish adults to make their B’nai Mitzvah experience more personally meaningful. But first I needed a guinea pig.

I had known Jonas Holdaway for nearly four years when he and his parents sat in my office to discuss his upcoming Bar Mitzvah experience. I knew he was already a passionate giver of his time and resources, and I asked him a question. Knowing that the requirements of becoming a Bar Mitzvah are still Leading, Teaching, Mitzvah, and Tzedakah, is there one he would like to highlight over the others? Jonas chose Mitzvah. He wanted to make sandwiches for the hungry, and he already had an idea for his guests to participate with him. I asked him if he would like to cut out some of the prayers from the morning service and do that as a part of his Saturday morning celebration.

After a few months of planning and organizing, Jonas became a Bar Mitzvah on September 9, 2017. He did a spectacular job of reading Torah and leading some of the prayers, but the best part was when he started to teach after just two introductory songs. The look on the faces of the regulars was priceless. They were intrigued as to why he might be speaking at this point. He spoke eloquently about how important feeding the hungry is to him and his family. He spoke about volunteering at soup kitchens and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and then he told his guests that they would be making sandwiches and sack lunches for the hungry that very morning.

We ushered his guests into the Social Hall where Jonas had set up stations for packing bag lunches. One table made sandwiches, another decorated bags, a third put apples and cookies into bags, and there were boxes for collecting the finished lunches. Participants went from station to station, making two or more lunches, which Jonas took the following day to Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa. After boxing up 346 lunches, Jonas led the congregation in the rest of the worship service, including reading beautifully from the Torah.

Jonas allowed us all to feel uplifted that Shabbat morning, showing us what it really means to be a Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish man committed to the commandments. The service Jonas led and the experience he had was much more of a revolution, and he has inspired future nigh-13-year-olds to have the same choice.

Instead of doing the same service their peers do, each student at CBT from this point on will be taught that the four things they need to do are Lead, Teach, Mitzvah, and Tzedakah, but whichever one they put at the forefront is up to them. If they want to break from services to organize a social action project for the community, or organize a longer lesson plan that allows us to dive deep into the weekly Torah portion, or even coordinate a fundraiser that will bring tzedakah to a cause about which they are passionate, any of these things can be the focus of their B’nai Mitzvah service. Of course, if Leading services is their passion, they will lead a great service. They will do what we did, but they won’t be dragged to it. They will take on the helm of B’nai Mitzvah with passion, and God willing, they will stay connected to the Jewish community by their own choice, because they will know that they are part of a revolution.

Rabbi David N. Young serves Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, California.