I’m going to start putting up some of the divrei Torah from our recent Adult B’not Mitzvah ceremony. The reason I am only putting up “some” is NOT editorial. It’s just that some people expressed the wish to have their work disseminated in this way, and others preferred not to go this route.
Here are two of them, from Linda Sinapi and Joni Fraser.
I learned at a young age that the world was not a safe place. I have spent my life creating safety, a home, and community. The JCA has become an important part of my life since my conversion in 1992. Within the JCA I have sought shelter and I have found peace and community. “Spread over us Your canopy of peace…Shelter us in the shadow of your wings… Excerpted from Hashkivenu
One of the things I love about Judaism is that there is always so much to learn and so many questions to ask. The past year has been a whirlwind of learning more Hebrew, to chant trope, attend services regularly, and to read and study Torah. My Torah portion or parsha though assigned randomly touches me deeply. “and from the age of fifty years they shall return from the service of the work, and shall serve no more.” (Numbers 8:25)
When I first read my Torah portion for my bat mitzvah, the passage reminded me of my retirement in a year. I was wrestling with when I would actually retire. However when I read my parsha, I realized that I had thought little about what I was going to do after retirement. And though in Numbers, 8:25, God told the Levites that at age 50 they would no longer serve as Priests, I realized that I would have the opportunity for ongoing service. I am fortunate to be in good health and am choosing to retire at the age of 62. I have worked at the same job for over thirty years and as I have told people so many times over the years: “I love my work and I love where I live. They just happen to be over sixty miles apart.” My long commute since I moved to Western Massachusetts in 1986 has limited the time available to volunteer. I realized as I reread my Torah portion that upon retirement I wanted to serve more.
When I chose to become a Jew over twenty years ago, I was asked by Rabbi Weinberg to write about why I wanted to become a Jew. I had many reasons, but the central reason was tikkun olam. I was intrigued by the concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world. I was fascinated by the Lurianic story of creation and the hope that it holds for restoring a broken world. “Isaac Luria, the renowned sixteenth century Kabbalist, used the phrase “tikkun olam,” usually translated as repairing the world… Luria taught that God created the world by forming vessels of light to hold the Divine Light. But as God poured the Light into the vessels, they catastrophically shattered, tumbling down toward the realm of matter. Thus, our world consists of countless shards of the original vessels entrapping sparks of the Divine Light. Humanity’s great task involves helping God by freeing and reuniting the scattered Light, raising the sparks back to Divinity and restoring the broken world.” Inner Frontier Cultivating Spiritual Practice website
I am dedicated to doing my share to repair a broken world. In thirty four years of social work, I have chosen to work with the underserved and by staying at my job for so long, I have been blessed to witness individuals make significant life changes. How much I may have impacted these changes does not matter. What matters is that I was able to help someone. When the world’s problems fill me with despair, I comfort and support myself with the words from the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” These words console me when the world’s overwhelming problems threaten to paralyze me.
I have seen several different translations of Beha’alotecha, one is “when you raise up”, but another is “when you step up”. I am ready to step up and rededicate myself to tikkun olam. My passions lie in two areas: To address the ongoing problem of hunger in our local community and to renew my commitment to the volunteer opportunities at the JCA. I like to imagine that when Aaron lights the menorah in Beha’alotecha, that a light is being lit in myself and that this light will guide me as I seek tikkun olam.
A Second Chance
In the portion that we read today, it is nearly a year after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and Passover (Pesach) is approaching. The Israelites are commanded by G-d, through Moses, to prepare for the celebration and bring a lamb as a Passover offering. In the portion that I chanted, a group of men who were considered spiritually impure because of contact with a dead body, and thus unable to participate in Pesach, approached Moses with a complaint – why were they deprived of the ability to celebrate the mitzvah of Passover? Moses asked G-d, who provides the response: Those who were impure from touching a dead body, or away on a journey, can celebrate Passover exactly one month later, in a festival called Passover Sheni. They can bring a Passover offering, as well as eat matzo and bitter herbs, just as they could have at the Seder. Thus those who through no fault of their own could not participate in the Seder at the appointed time are given the chance to celebrate later.
The message of Passover Sheni for me is that it is never too late, that there is always a second chance in life. For me, the past year’s study for Bat Mitzvah has been a Passover Sheni. I grew up in a Jewish family where religious observance was not a large part for either side. My father was born in Germany to a family that proverbially felt more German than Jewish. Many in my mother’s family married outside of the religion, and Christmas and Easter were celebrated more often, and with more gusto, than Chanukah and Passover. My mother did not seem unhappy that my father had changed his name from Frensdorf to Fraser soon after entering the U.S. My parents had an on-again-off-again relationship with the Reform synagogue in Oakland, California, where we lived. Growing up, I went to religious school for a while, then not at all, then again, and the “not-at-all” part coincided with the learning of Hebrew. But even if I had attended every year, girls in 1968 did not become Bat Mitzvah in our synagogue. That ceremony was only for 13-year-old boys. Moreover, as a 13-year-old with a growing awareness of social change, the synagogue seemed to me as another part of the establishment, a place where class divisions were underscored rather than diminished and where showing up at services seemed like little more than an opportunity to exhibit one’s wealth or status. I didn’t leave Judaism behind as I became an adult – I went to services on the high holidays wherever I lived, kept Jewish practices in my home (particularly cooking!), got married under a chuppah, and assured that my children had the Jewish education that I didn’t have. Both of them learned Hebrew and brought much naches (joy) as they went through the process of becoming Bat and Bar Mitzvahs here at the JCA. But at same time, I always felt a little like I was on the outside looking in, not reading Hebrew, not feeling entirely confident in the practice of Judaism, and not knowing how to enter into the community – even if I told myself that, in the words of Groucho Marx, I really didn’t want to be part of any group that would have me as a member.
Over the past year, Rabbi Weiner has talked several times about how Shavuot, the festival that commemorates G-d’s giving of the Torah to the nation of Israel, has two contrasting stories about what it means to be Jewish: something that is yours whether you like it or not, and something that you choose and claim. I entered the B’nai mitzvah class a little over a year ago wanting to feel a connection to Judaism that I had never felt. I thought that the education and identity that I had felt deprived of as a youth for whatever reasons – my parents, the culture of the times, my experience of the synagogue – would be given to me. At some point in this year of going to services and the group classes with Rabbi Weiner, learning to read Hebrew and to chant my Torah portion, and expanding my knowledge of Judaism and comfort as a member of a congregation, I realized that my Jewish education and identity is something that only I can create and claim, and that feeling connected is an ongoing process. In truth, every day is in a sense a Passover Sheni, bringing with it the opportunity to connect again – to presence of the divine, to each other, and to the community around us. I’ve realized that the journey to Bat Mitzvah has not been about undoing the past, but about transforming the present.
I am very appreciative of Rabbi Weiner’s commitment to our group and his teaching, guidance, support, and good humor over the past year. It’s changed the way that I experience prayer, services, and the reading of the Torah. The Jewish Community of Amherst is so different than the synagogue I experienced in my youth, and I am thankful for how welcoming, accessible, and committed to social justice the congregation is. Thanks to my fellow B’nai mitzvah students and the diverse viewpoints and talents they brought, as well as to Batya Perman for her patient and caring way of teaching me to chant the Torah. My children Rachel and Daniel have been an inspiration to me in this and many other aspects of life. When I felt my ability flagging, I recalled how beautifully they handled their own ceremonies. And I thank my life partner Mark Israel for his support and encouragement in my journey over the course of the past year.