By Vicki Samuels Levy
What happens when a boy or girl turns 13 or 12 without becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah? When these youngsters enter the adult world, the absence of that ritual one day may present itself as a void in their Jewish lives. Even those who became a Bar/Bat Mitzvah may have ended their Jewish learning on the last day of their Hebrew school.
Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, executive director of Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston, is changing that paradigm. He and his staff teach adult members of the Jewish community, who are hungry for Jewish learning. Their hunger, students say, is the result either of not having become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or from ceasing to learn after they became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For 15 TORCH students, however, the hunger pains were abated this summer. Through TORCH, Rabbi Wolbe created a solution: a “Bar and Bat Mitzvah Celebration,” a memorable event, punctuating the end of 13 classes of Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation. The first-of-its-kind class held a ceremony and celebration on Tuesday, Aug. 6, in the sanctuary of Beth Rambam in Southwest Houston.
The adult B’nai Mitzvah class included an in-depth curriculum of Jewish learning. While all 15 classmates completed the program, five women – Allyson Axelrod, Wendy Bleiweiss, Josie Duffey-Geffon, Malka Levy and Anne Vise Nunes – chose to deliver a dvar Torah on Tuesday, in front of some 150 guests.
The idea for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah class “came to me as an epiphany,” said Rabbi Wolbe. “There are so many people who mention in classes that they never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It’s a pity. Everyone deserves to have one.” He also referred to a challenge Jews face today: “The majority of children are ending their Judaism with their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. They say, ‘The last time I was in a Torah class was my Bar Mitzvah.’”
The rabbi said that the class’ focus was to give everyone a chance to ask questions, and for the students to challenge the answers. “Everyone was on fire, excited, energized. There was a certain passion; they weren’t there just for a Bar Mitzvah, but to get as much knowledge as possible,” he said. In addition to Rabbi Wolbe, Rabbi Yossi Grossman of the Jewish Ethics Institute and TORCH Rabbi Yaakov Wolbe also taught some of the subject matter.
The classes covered “everything”: the history of the Jewish people; the Jewish calendar, its history, laws and customs of each observance and holiday; mitzvot for men, women and both: tefillin and tzitzit, niddah (laws of purity) and Shabbat candles, and tzedakah and mezuzah, respectively; “every stripe of Judaism,” from Reform to Orthodox and everything in between. “We covered what each [movement] stands for, to gain an understanding and appreciation for each one. They all have something they’re passionate about in their Judaism,” said Rabbi Wolbe.
One of the most exciting features of the class was the “Shabbat experience – from before Shabbat to after,” held for four-and-a-half hours one Tuesday night. The class met at Beth Rambam and, through the course of the evening, had a complete erev Shabbat meal – including challah, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, kugel and chicken – expertly prepared by the rabbi’s wife, Zehava Wolbe, and Rabbi Yaakov Wolbe. The group participated in a candle-lighting; a prayer service, including welcoming the Sabbath Queen; they tasted cholent and had Havdalah. “The goal was for them to ask as many questions as possible. Why we rise for the Sabbath Queen, cover the challah, dip it in salt. … We spoke at length to get the full experience and every single aspect of Jewish practice.”
The five women also had a one-on-one meeting with the rabbi, “to help prepare the content of their dvar, and to make it meaningful and impactful,” said Rabbi Wolbe.
At the celebratory event, each delivered her dvar and was presented with a certificate and a special coffee-table edition of Pirkei Avot.
Rabbi Wolbe was uplifted by the evening. “It was so special, to see these people who have been yearning for growth, find an opportunity to put their learning and passion for growth together,” he said. “As an individual, I was amazed by how hard they worked. It was like a real Bat Mitzvah celebration. Guests brought balloons and gifts. There was so much energy and excitement.”
The next class will begin after Shavuot in June 2014. “We already have two moms and their [preteen] daughters signed up,” said the rabbi. “Learning is a lifelong pursuit.”
A native of Belize in Central America and wife of Shmuel Binyamin Axelrod, of blessed memory, Allyson Axelrod is the mother of twins. Her dvar came from Vayechi.
“Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe opened a window of opportunity with clarity and direction, despite our financial or religious status!” she related, “[with] one goal: to encourage and enhance a Jewish person to connect to a Jewish entity with Hashem and to gain knowledge of Judaism through well-prepared and presented classes.”
Axelrod reflected on Devarim 4:4 and the meaning of life. “True life means to be connected to G-d. … in order for that connection to be visible and apparent in the world, G-d sends the Jew trials and challenges in His Divine service. When these hurdles are overcome, then [we] have proof that the connection between Jews and G-d is an unbreakable one. …
“There is a song as a child that I would sing – it only takes a spark to get a fire going and soon all those around will warm up to its glowing! … let us warm up and begin a new level of a purposeful journey with connection to Hashem through mitzvot,” she added.
Wendy Bleiweiss grew up at Congregation Beth Yeshurun and as a child, chose not to become a Bat Mitzvah. For the past four years, she has taken TORCH classes every Tuesday night.
Bleiweiss’ dvar was on Shabbat Hagadol, which was the parashah corresponding to the date of her birth. In the Prophets’ book of Malachi 3:4-24, the story of the Sabbath before the Passover dinner in Egypt is told. “The lesson learned is even in a challenging situation [the Israelites] displayed a courageous act of faith and trust in G-d. The Israelites followed what was right even though it was unpopular.” She also spoke about paying “attention to the hand of G-d, for miracles still happen every day. I also learned the replacement for sacrificial offering is to pray and do mitzvot.
“Two of the responsibilities of a Bat Mitzvah (Daughter of the Commandment) are to be morally responsible for my own actions and continuing to learn Torah.”
When in her backyard the other day, Bleiweiss thought, “I am a Bat Mitzvah now! I really am!”
“I’m on the TORCH email list,” said Josie Duffey-Geffon, a member of Congregation Beth Israel, who was raised at Congregation Adath Emet. She had taken a TORCH Hebrew class once, and described an email she had received about the class. “It was quite compelling,” she said. With encouragement from her husband, she signed up for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah class.
“The classes were divine, just amazing,” said Duffey. Her Torah portion was Mishpatim, from Exodus. “As I complete this ceremony, my Bat Mitzvah, I feel a deepened commitment to Judaism, its rituals, traditions and spirituality,” she said in her speech. She also recited the Shehecheyanu. “My pronunciation of the Hebrew is really Tex-Mex,” she said. But Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian, of Congregation Torah Vachesed, who was in the audience, told her that her speech had a “heart and soul.”
Duffey was especially touched when Rabbi Wolbe presented her and the other women with a copy of Pirkei Avot. “I remember all the children receiving something from the synagogue,” she said. “It really moved me.”
“Ongoing Jewish learning and growing inspired me to combine Judaism with my passion for art,” said Malka Levy, in her dvar Torah. Her parashah, from Ki Tisa, speaks of Bezalel, the chief architect and artist who built the Holy Tabernacle. As an artist and Jewish activist, Levy felt a kinship with Bezalel; she recognizes that her creative attribute is “a gift from Hashem that I cherish every day,” she said.
Levy has been deeply engaged in Jewish learning through TORCH classes. “I needed to be part of this class,” she said. “Finally, this chapter in my life has been closed and I can perform all the mitzvot. I wanted to be part of the covenant. I feel complete as a Jew,” said Levy, who was TORCH’s Talmud Torah Student of the year in 2011.
“I encourage the ones who have not yet become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and those who have converted to Judaism to take the next class. It’s very informal and you get to ask a lot of questions.”
ANN VISE NUNES
Ann Vise Nunes shared her thoughts on parashah Vayetze, noting the “story of Jacob’s serving Laban seven years for his daughter Rachel, but when the wedding was held, the bride was veiled and, after the wedding night, ‘in the morning it was Leah,’” said Nunes. She also citied many sources, breathing life to the stories, and concluded that “all of us should let our love overcome our jealousy.”
Included in Nunes’ dvar was Jeremiah 31:15-16, in which she quoted, “Thus says the L-rd: Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded … and your children shall return to their own border.”
“And now, this promise has been fulfilled again,” said Nunes, referring to the modern State of Israel. “Our long exile is ended. We are free to return to our own borders.”
Following her Bat Mitzvah, Nunes expressed her appreciation of the gifts that each of the women brought to the learning experience.
For a list of TORCH classes and videos, go to torchweb.com. TORCH rabbis also teach courses at many Houston-area synagogues.