Bar/bat mitzvah initiative aims to engage Israeli families here

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham works with students  taking part in a yearlong bar/bat mitzvah program for Israeli families in St. Louis. Photos courtesy Bais Abraham

By Hannah Snidman, Staff writer

After forming a Hebrew school specifically for secular Israelis, Bais Abraham recently created a yearlong bar and bat mitzvah program for Israeli families living in the St. Louis area.

In Israel, many Jewish teenagers host parties for bar and bat mitzvahs without a large involvement from synagogues. The country is more religious, so citizens oftentimes do not have memberships at synagogues or temples.

“You might never have gone to a synagogue, but you get your Judaism from just living in Israel,” explained Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham, located in University City. “When it’s Hanukkah, it’s Hanukkah in the streets. You marry a Jew because everybody’s Jewish. Your calendar’s a Hebrew calendar. You might not know that much formally about Judaism.”

Shafner originally thought of the idea last year when a mother from Israel approached him about her daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah speech. He met with the daughter to explain her Torah portion and what it means to have a bat mitzvah.

“I realized at that moment that we needed a program for bar and bat mitzvah kids,” Shafner said. “It was such an opportunity. We created a yearlong bar and bat mitzvah program and they meet once a month.”

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The participants go on a variety of field trips to places such as the Holocaust Museum and the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. They can also connect with the Jewish community by meeting with the various rabbis in town.

“We talk about the significance of being a Jewish adult, the Jewish responsibility of Torah, what it means to live a Jewish life,” Shafner said. “We want them to know more about Judaism, to know that Judaism has a deep religious sensibility, that it can enhance their spiritual lives. It’s not just a nationality; it’s also a religion.”

In addition to learning about Judaism and interacting with the St. Louis Jewish community, the program aims to prepare students for their religious services. Shafner meets with children individually 10 times to discuss their Torah portions and create speeches. They also attend tutoring sessions to learn how to read Torah.

“In a sense, the bar and bat mitzvah program is actually different than their preparation for the bar and bat mitzvah,” Shafner said. “It’s really just a way of educating them about being an adult Jew. Their preparation of actual bar and bat mitzvah is something I do one-on-one with them.”

In the first year, five students joined Bais Abraham’s new program. The synagogue held a bat mitzvah for the first graduate, Roni Moore, in May and will host the next bar mitzvah in July.

“I think it is important to have a ceremony and not only the party,” Revital Moore, Roni’s mother, said. “My daughter learned a lot about her Parsha and she gained confidence. [She] felt so close to her roots and her Judaism.”

Roni’s bat mitzvah took place on a Shabbat morning with many Israeli friends in attendance. She said prayers for the State of the Israel, spoke about her Torah portion, and received a blessing from her parents.

“It was really a beautiful thing,” Shafner said. “I didn’t know how it would go, but seeing that bat mitzvah girl there who would’ve just had a party, and her getting a blessing from her parents on the bimah; that was just unbelievable.”

Other Israelis will follow Roni’s example by having their own bar and bat mitzvahs. Some of these students would not have had services otherwise.

“Many friends came to Roni’s bat mitzvah and enjoyed it so much that now they plan their kids’ mitzvahs although they did not think of it before,” Moore said. “[The program] is extremely important since most Israelis either do it in Israel or do not do it at all.”

Bais Abraham is the first synagogue in the country to have a curriculum of this kind for secular Israelis as well as helping them prepare for their bar and bat mitzvah. Shafner believes the idea opens the door for secular Israelis to obtain a stronger connection with the local Jewish community.

“My goal is really to use this as a model hopefully and to find a way to find a grant to be able to bring this to other synagogues to train other synagogues,” Shafner said. “At Bais Abraham, it works well because it’s an Orthodox synagogue and Israelis don’t know about liberal Judaism. They know more about Orthodoxy.”

Clergy and lay people alike at Bais Abraham try to create a diverse and open congregation, said the rabbi. The synagogue strives to act flexibly and embrace all Jews.

“Bais Abe is so unique and warm,” Moore said. “I was at several mitzvahs before in different synagogues and it felt so different this time. Not because it was my family’s event, but because it felt so spiritual. Thanks to Bais Abe, we’ve had the… warm feeling on her special day.”

For the future, the synagogue wants to continue both the Hebrew school and the bar and bat mitzvah program. They also hope to create a post bar and bat mitzvah program, along with study sessions for parents.

“Success is its own challenge,” Shafner said. “I hope we continue to grow and I hope we can train other synagogues to do it. It’s a beautiful thing.”