When a member of Sarah Alevsky‘s community in the Upper West Side sought to withdraw their daughter from their Hebrew school, it was over over their desire to have her learn to read from, and get called up to the Torah – something which they considered a right of passage – Mrs. Alvesky authored a response to allay her concerns.
A community member wants to pull her daughter out of Chabad. Here’s why:
We have been very happy with the Chabad Hebrew School’s education over the years, and appreciate the love and excitement of Judaism that you have given Julia. However, when she turned ten earlier this year, we started thinking seriously about her bat mitzvah. We are considering moving her to another Hebrew School to help prepare her for her bat mitzvah, and train her to read from the Torah. Our family and friends expect her to have her bat mitzvah as they do. For my family, her education is not complete without her being called to and read from the Torah, and I don’t want to disappoint them. It’s a rite of passage for us and while I know it’s a lot of work, it’s a time for celebration for the whole family.
We are deeply appreciative of the work you do in the Chabad Hebrew School and we really want her to continue with you, but we are unsure of how to proceed going forward, knowing that you will not prepare her to read from the Torah, nor allow her to do so in the Chabad shul.
Deborah (Julia’s Mom)
Sarah Alevsky, director of the Hebrew School and Kivun, an after-school program for children attending Harlem Hebrew, and representative at Chabad of the Upper Westside NYC, responds:
We both want the same thing for Jullia: to instill in her a love and joy of Judaism that will carry her in life, and that is exactly what the bat mitzvah celebration and the preparation leading up to it, should be about.
As our students get closer to their bar and bat mitzvah, we consider deeply, together with their families, what we want this pivotal moment in their Jewish life to look like, how it reflects the education they have received until now and prepares the ground for future learning.
As an educator, I like to assess what’s happening in our school and with our students, and see if what we are doing is effective and having the desired, long term impact. Can we disrupt the system to better help our children become the Jewish people we want them to be? How much ritual and learning do we emphasize that is unnecessary and not aligned with our vision of what a Jewish education is supposed to accomplish?
The prevailing myth of bar and bat mitzvah as being the finale of their Jewish education marked by the memorization and chanting of a Torah portion is one of those ineffective practices I’d like to replace with something more meaningful. When did this begin and how did become the hallmark of bar/bat mitzvah? How many people do you know who have read the Torah at their bar/bat mitzvah currently serve as Torah readers? How many can read from the Torah today? Very few, I expect.
Even in traditionally observant communities, way too much time is spent learning how to layn. So here’s a revolutionary thought: if we want to do this right, we really should take away the whole bar/bat mitzvah rigamarole in the first place! It creates unrealistic expectations, it places tremendous pressure on the child and the rest of the family, and contributes little to their overall Jewish commitment, long-term.
I recognize that there will probably be a lot of pushback on that, so here’s the next best thing we can do: prepare them for a ceremony that celebrates the Judaism that they have learned until now and sets the stage for a commitment to continue for years to come.
From the moment our students enter the Chabad Hebrew School in kindergarten, they are exploring what it means to be Jewish in today’s world, to develop a relationship with G-d, learn G-d’s commandments, and recognize our purpose and mission in the world, both personally and collectively. Equally important is the emphasis placed on understanding the world around us through the lens of Torah, and the expectation that they will continue to engage in Torah study as they navigate through life.
When it comes to preparing our girls for their bat mitzvah, we add another dimension to their study and focus on what is uniquely the Jewish woman’s responsibility. We teach them about the core beliefs, practices and traditions that have been the foundation of every Jewish home since Sinai and that were passed down from mother to daughter, for thousands of years. It is no mistake that our lineage is therefore passed through the matrilineal line; the Jewish woman is the transmitter of tradition, from one generation to the next. By introducing the mitzvahs that are the fabric of Jewish life, we hope the children will integrate them into their future lives.
It seems that early on in the twentieth century, some decided that the mitzvahs that particularly pertain to the Jewish home are not imperative to Jewish survival, and they rejected them in favor of placing value on the communal rather than the familial. Owing perhaps to other, non-Jewish influences, the synagogue was made the center of Jewish life, and the services and rituals that take place in its walls became paramount, including turning the bar/bat mitzvah into an outsized graduation ceremony instead of a marker along his or her journey of Jewish life.
Someone once told me that often where Judaism is built around the synagogue, the synagogues are empty. Where Judaism is built around the home, the synagogues are full.
What our ancestors knew still holds true today: True holiness starts in the home and radiates outwards, spilling over into our communities. The Torah tells us to make a “dwelling place for G-d, and I will dwell amongst you” and the commentator Rashi explains that G-d will dwell in each and every one of our homes and our souls, if we make G-d feel at home.
At Chabad, this idea of making G-d feel at home is a guiding light in our education, and bar/ bat mitzvahs are a celebration of a relationship with G-d, our family and community that is just beginning. Children are a powerful influence in their families and communities, and we nurture them with a strong curiosity and a genuine desire to grow in their Judaism and knowledge.
I would be happy to sit with you and talk about what a bat mitzvah at Chabad looks like and how we can make your family comfortable and happy with the ceremony and celebration.
If you choose to have Julia’s bat mitzvah at your family synagogue, it goes without saying that you are welcome to continue exploring and learning about Judaism with us, and we’d love to continue having Julia as a student in our Chabad Hebrew School.