From Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, NJ:
On June 22, 17 adult members of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel (TSTI) in South Orange celebrated their bar/bat mitzvah at a special service at the Reform synagogue. The members, ranging in age from their 40s to their 70s, led Saturday morning prayers and read from the Torah; it was the culmination of a nine-month-long adult education class, led by Rabbi Alexandra Klein and Hebrew teacher Nikki Pusin, during which the students studied Hebrew, Jewish history, Torah text and liturgy.
The program was offered to TSTI members for whom the bar or bat mitzvah was a first-time experience. Klein said although it was in response to congregants’ requests, the course dovetailed with her goals for TSTI’s adult education curriculum.
“I wanted to offer a longer-term course like this because it lets you build community within the community, as participants—some of whom did not know each other when we started—coalesced around a common goal over time,” she said. “This group has not only built a wonderful learning community, we’ve also celebrated birthdays and observed yahrzeits together.”
The class members learned how to read the mourner’s Kaddish, recited during the mourning period and on the yahrzeit—the Hebrew anniversary of a loved one’s passing—to support a member marking such an occasion. Similarly, when one class member moved to Los Angeles, the group read the Hebrew prayer for a safe journey for him. “They are learning and living Jewishly together, which has been so powerful for me to witness,” Klein said.
The class met every other week for Hebrew lessons and Jewish studies, which included Jewish textual history, understanding the worship service, and the theology and history behind different prayers as the class learned them. TSTI’s other clergy also shared their particular expertise and lent their support throughout the year.
The students came from diverse backgrounds in terms of religious school experience, synagogue affiliation or religious observance; some converted to Judaism, others identify as cultural Jews and others grew up in observant communities where women did not read from the Torah or lead prayers. Some did not read any Hebrew while others refreshed their skills. All 17 read from the Torah during the service.
Participants also wrote teachings on their Torah verses or reflections about their Jewish journeys, which were compiled into a book titled, “Reflections on Growth, Reflections on Tradition.” Each entry reflected this diversity of experience and thought.
For example, some participants talked about feeling like outsiders to the Jewish community as young people or as adults raising Jewish children who attended religious school and celebrated becoming bar or bat mitzvah; for them, the class was their turn to become more connected to Jewish learning. Some felt the class completed their Jewish puzzle, and others who’d previously felt uncomfortable in a service now attend synagogue regularly. A few people, like Jane Randel of Maplewood, plan to continue their Jewish learning.
“I have always been interested in learning more about Judaism, so I was thrilled at the opportunity to formally study with Rabbi Klein and Morah Nehama,” said Randel who is in her early 50s. “Not growing up as a member of a synagogue, another goal was to expand my network both inside and outside the temple—and that was definitely achieved. Being part of this class has been a great experience, and I would not only recommend it, I would consider doing again if that were possible! One thing is for sure, my studies are just getting started.”
Lisa Tilton-Levine, who converted to Judaism in her late 30s, has engaged in her Jewish education over many years, with formal study with rabbis and practical, experiential learning with her family and the TSTI community. The adult b’nei mitzvah class brought her learning to a new level.
“My Jewish education continued when I became involved at TSTI as a volunteer and a temple officer,” said the Millburn resident. “As a lay leader, I had the honor of chanting the Torah blessings from the bimah and participating in other services as a reader. I had learned enough that I could chant the blessings, but I wished that I could understand the words more completely.
“Learning Hebrew and studying Torah this year have made me so much more appreciative of the hard work my children did as thirteen-year-olds. It has been a wonderful experience and I look forward to being able to read, with greater understanding and deeper feeling, the prayers that until this moment I have been merely reciting.”
Fran Strauss of South Orange, in her late 60s, has been a TSTI member for about 12 years. Having grown up in a traditional home, she learned how to “do” Jewish, but realized she wanted to learn more about what it means to be Jewish. A retired educator, she is also participating in the Melton School adult education courses being taught by Rabbi Daniel Cohen and temple president, Max Weisenfeld.
“Through Rabbi Klein’s inspiration, I’ve learned so much. I see that I can be a better person—kinder and more forgiving of others and myself—by living an authentic Jewish life. For me, it’s about finding the meaning behind the words and how to apply them to my life. I’m so glad I took this step to find out more about who I am and discover something on a spiritual level rather than simply be a cultural Jew. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years.” Strauss added that the adult b’nei mitzvah and Melton classes have made her want to learn more about Jewish law. She also noted that the class has strengthened her sense of belonging within TSTI.
“This year has been meaningful and transformative for all of us—students and myself included—on many levels,” said Rabbi Klein. “The TSTI community is a special place where our members engage deeply with each other and with the wider community, and the congregation came out to support the group at the service with so much love and encouragement.”
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel is a dynamic, inclusive Reform congregation that offers numerous ways for members to connect with and celebrate being part of the Jewish community and the world. Welcoming Jews by birth or by choice, interfaith, traditional and non-traditional families, and children of all abilities, TSTI provides lifelong learning and enriching programs for all members through a full complement of religious services, early childhood and religious school education, cultural programs, and activities that foster connection, engagement and community outreach in a joyful, judgment-free environment. TSTI is located at 432 Scotland Road in South Orange, drawing members from Maplewood, South Orange, West Orange, Short Hills, Millburn, Livingston and surrounding areas. For more information, visit www.tsti.org.