Family finds challenges in planning bar mitzvah


Noah built an ark. Had a former St. Louisan asked her husband to do likewise, he probably would have. It matters little in this story that Noah’s Ark was for animals and the ark of therapist Susan Kopp Townsley and her husband, Bill Townsley, an organic farmer, would house a rent-a-Torah.

The point is, when you commit to a goal — in this case, a spiritual upbringing for your children — you do everything in your power to achieve it. Using a rented Torah, the Townsleys’ older son, 13-year-old Charlie, will become a bar mitzvah Aug. 29 on the family’s homestead in Viroqua, Wisc. Nestled on a ridge in the Ocooch Mountains in the southwestern part of the state, Viroqua’s population of 4,400 residents includes just a handful of Jews and no rabbi. There also is no synagogue and no Torah.

To find the latter, Susan Townsley Googled “rent a torah.” That led her to the Web site and a man on the Lower East Side in New York. She contacted him last summer. “Then suddenly, he stopped e-mailing me back,” she recalls. “I telephoned and he said, ‘I know, I know. What do you want? I’ve got you on the calendar.'”

The Torah, which will arrive with a velvet cover, will sit on a table outdoors at the Townsleys’ farm as Charlie stands before some 150 guests, including more than a dozen St. Louis relatives, and chants his Torah portion. “I assumed I’d have to ask my husband to build an ark,” Susan says. “He’s very handy, but also very busy.”

An old friend of Susan’s, Rabbi Cindy Enger, of Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham, Wash., assured her that placing the Torah on “a nice table” would be fine. Rabbi Enger is the daughter of Rochelle and Sheldon Enger, of St. Louis.

The rabbi and Susan both graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School in 1983. Without Rabbi Enger, Susan says, Charlie’s bar mitzvah might not be happening. Every other Wednesday for the past year, after Charlie’s school is out and he walks two blocks to his mother’s office at a wellness center, Rabbi Enger has talked with Charlie for an hour by phone, teaching and coaxing him through Hebrew and his Torah portion. Then she and Susan talk.

Susan chokes up, trying to put in words her gratitude to Enger. “The kindness, dedication and devotion to Judaism that it takes for somebody to do this for another person, who isn’t even part of their congregation, is incredible,” Susan says.

The Townsleys will fly Rabbi Enger to Viroqua two days before the bar mitzvah. She will bring along a yad, or Torah pointer. Since the Townsleys’ farmhouse is too small to comfortably accommodate overnight guests, they have found Rabbi Enger lodgings at a bed-and-breakfast. Some out-of-towners will stay at the Super 8 Motel Viroqua.

Bill Townsley, who was raised Catholic, grew up in Wilmette, Ill., just outside of Chicago. Susan is the daughter of Jerry Kopp, of Clayton, and the late Anita Soffer Kopp. The Townsleys met when they were social workers in the same Chicago office. They married in 1996. “My husband and I are both very spiritual people,” Susan says. “We believe in a ‘Higher Power’ and the importance of ritual and spirituality.”

Their sons, Charlie and 10-year-old Arlo, were born in Evanston, Ill. As parents, Susan and Bill pined for the tranquility of their childhoods. “We would meet friends on the corner and play all afternoon and into the evening. We wanted our children to be raised without locked doors and have a sense of freedom,” Susan says.

She and Bill began an extensive search of where to relocate. They considered New Mexico and California but realized they wanted to be much closer to their families. Eventually they targeted small, progressive Midwestern towns with access to organic food, alternative medical care and good schools.

Viroqua, Wisc., emerged as their top choice. With the money from selling their fixer-upper house in Evanston, which Bill had extensively rehabbed, the couple bought 160 acres in Viroqua. They also had funds leftover for Bill to essentially gut and rebuild the small 100-year-old farmhouse on their property.

During their 10 years in Viroqua, Susan has grown accustomed to leaving her car keys on the dashboard; that way, she never loses them. Many Viroquans never lock their homes.

When the Townsley offspring were little, Susan and Bill tried to conduct something of a makeshift, non-denominational service on Sundays. They reminded the boys to appreciate family, friends and nature. Later, Susan “home-Sunday schooled” her sons, using books on Jewish tradition.

“As we get older, many people realize how important our culture and religious background are to us,” Susan says, About four years ago, she and Bill found themselves discussing bar mitzvahs for their boys.

With signature conscientiousness, Susan explored options. The closest synagogue, in La Crosse, Wisc., was an hour away. But the synagogue was Conservative. Susan was raised Reform and went to Temple Israel here.

Next, Susan connected to a Reform Jewish congregation in Madison, a four-hour round trip from Viroqua. But given the boys’ school activities and the demands of farming, she took the boys to Madison just once every six weeks. After about a year, the plan fizzled.

That’s when Susan thought about her high-school friend Cindy Enger, by then a rabbi. Susan Googled her and e-mailed: “This is going to be a total blast from the past. I have two boys. I live in a tiny town. I am trying to figure out how I am going to make their bar mitzvahs. Any chance you would want to help me in this process?”

Rabbi Enger telephoned immediately. Her phone sessions with Charlie began shortly after. By then, Susan had already purchased beginning Hebrew books and was learning along with her sons. To aid Charlie’s pronunciation, Rabbi Enger sent CDs, more books and periodic e-mails.

“My husband and his family have been incredibly supportive,” Susan says. “They really appreciate the rite of passage and the beauty of the bar mitzvah ritual.” Festivities surrounding Charlie’s bar mitzvah will include Shabbos dinner on Aug. 28 and a post-ceremony lunch on Aug. 29, all at the Townsleys’. In-town friends, many of them attending their first bar mitzvah, will bring some of the food and baked goods. Contacted by the extended family here, Rabbi Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, is furnishing two silvery crowns for the Torah’s legs. Charlie’s big day will conclude with dinner at his school and a party at a renovated tobacco warehouse.

As the bar mitzvah draws near, and knowing her family will somehow repeat the process for younger son Arlo, Susan says she feels “more connected to Judaism than I have ever in my life.”

Charlie, who will be wearing his first-ever suit, in blue, sounds enthusiastic, but in his own way. “I guess I’m learning a lot. I know I’ll be glad when it’s over,” he says.