Monday, November 22, 2010

Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibur
Do Not Separate Yourself
From The Community, Part II

Rabbi Jamie Korngold giving lessons online
My friend Ilene urged me to post and expand my answer to her question about an article that appeared in the style section of yesterday's New York Times. We have been friends since our sons Sammy and Harper were in the baby room at the JCC. I have learned over the years that you don't spit in the wind, you don't tug on Superman's cape, and if at all humanly possible, you don't say no to Ilene. It's like yelling at the whirlwind.

The Times article - Bar Mitzvah Studies Take to the Web by Amy Virshup - describes how some rabbis and cantors are using Skype and other web 2.0 technologies to connect with young men and women preparing to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It also explores how some of those clergy offer their services specifically to enable families who do not belong to congregations to maintain this non-affiliation. For some of these service providers, they describe what they offer as a financial benefit:
"they’re not paying dues and religious school fees to a synagogue for years of preparation. The e-rabbis generally charge on a fee-for-service basis —Yitzhak Miller (he prefers “Rabbi Yitzi”) charges $950 for 12 hours of Hebrew tutoring (in either 15-minute weekly sessions or half-hour ones every other week), another $875 for his Family Exploration program (in which participants study the meaning and importance of the bar mitzvah ceremony) and then $1,000 to officiate at a Saturday morning Torah service."
 Others, like adventure-rabbi Jamie Korngold, say that they offer something meaningful that established synagogues by and large do not.
“Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation,” said Rabbi Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi, who offers an online bar mitzvah program. “It’s something that has to compete in the marketplace with everything else they have in their lives...”
Taking the online route, according to those who’ve done it, is especially good for children with learning disabilities who might have trouble in a conventional classroom. It is also more convenient and flexible, better attuned to the hectic schedules of contemporary family life (no carpooling!). “Joining a synagogue? I looked at it, and there would have been no bat mitzvah,” said Shari Steele, whose daughters’ double bat mitzvah was led by Rabbi Korngold in August. “It would not have happened for my family.”
For some time now, there have been voices in the Jewish world saying (sometimes shouting) that the synagogue is just so 20th century - it no longer meets the needs of the Jewish people (at least those under 40). George D. Hanus, an attorney in Chicago, went so far as to publish monthly newspaper for a while in which he repeatedly accused the synagogue rabbinate of engaging in a form of fraud, by holding education hostage to synagogue membership. Of course his agenda involved getting all Jewish children into day schools - not a proposition whose success is indicated by the data. Day school is great for many, but there always be more who make other choices.

I am not unbiased, as a synagogue based educator, but I am unconvinced. Does the synagogue need to change and learn how to meet the needs of a new generation? Absolutely, and it always has needed to do so. Synagogues have risen or failed to rise to meet that challenge for millenia. To that end, I want to recommend a book to anyone who is a professional or lay leader in a synagogue (from any movement/non-movement).

Jim Prosnit, my rabbi suggested that our Senior Staff (2 rabbis, 1 Cantor, 3 educators and our physical plant director) and our president make part of our bi-weekly staff meeting into a book club. We are reading Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman and Ari Y. Kelman. It has been a fascinating read and we have had some wonderful conversations. I believe that this will spark a new level of visioning and development for our congregation. I will write more about this book later. The reason I bring it up in this discussion is to make it clear that there are many alternatives to tossing the synagogue and the synagogue school into the dustbin of history. The model is not useless simply because its roots are in centuries past. It needs to adapt to the needs of the 21st century. It needs Jews to join and create that evolution.

Another book that is helping me think this through is The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change by Beth Kantor and Allison Fine. They are two social media experts whose practice centers on helping non-profits (and the synagogue fits that category rather nicely) use social media to connect to their constituency - members and potential members, to a donor base and to the work that they do to change the world. One of the things they have taught me is that Millenials (born 1978 - 92) are passionate about causes, but not about organizations. This tells me that we have to change the way we and they think about the synagogue - refocusing on the idea that the synagogue is a community, not just another organization. They also expect web-savvy and social media competence. We need to get on that.

I recommend all Jewish educators get a copy of this book and start reading it. And join Darim Online's Facebook Book Group, which is getting ready to discuss it from a Jewish educational perspective. You can click here to listen to a very interesting webinar Darim conducted with one of the authors, Allison Fine.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I am committed to the idea of encountering Judaism and our Jewish connections through both an analog and a digital lens. And I applaud the clergy people described in the article in the Times for using technology to connect with their students.I have no problem with using technology, but the idea of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah without being a part of a worshiping community is bankrupt. Sammy (Ilene's son) and Harper (my son) are not becoming Jewish adults this spring in a vacuum or so they can put it on a resume. They are assuming the role of young men who can say prayers to which the rest of the adults in the congregation can say "Amen."

Rites of passage in all cultures are not only about the one reaching a milestone, but about the change in their role within a community. There is nothing wrong with going to Israel or the Grand Canyon for a private or semi-private ceremony. That is just a Kodak moment. You don't "have" a Bar/Bat Mitzvah any more than you "have" a lawyer, doctor or tennis player. You become those those things.

And a child becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah by virtue of reaching the Jewish Age of majority, not because they participated in or led a service. The service is actually so that the adult community can publicly acknowledge that this person is no longer a minor in the eyes of the community, but someone whose prayers and blessings can count for all of us and to which we may say "Amen." (See Sanhedrin 68b)

But completely divorcing the process from a sacred community is not much different than the Faux Mitzvah - a non-Jewish riff on the Bar Mitzvah for the purpose of having a party to celebrate a birthday in a way that mirrors some of the B/M parties for which some communities have become a little infamous. It rips away the meaning.

I have admired much of the Adventure Rabbi Stuff Jamie Korngold has been doing. I think this may be a bit too much of an adventure. I do anticipate a time in the near future when our members' kids will have some of their BM lessons via skype. With two working parents, crazy schedules, etc, I see no problem with our cantor Blum scheduling a meeting that takes place in the comfort of their respective homes. In fact I hope it happens relatively soon. It responds to the needs of families and their unique needs. And we need to be asking the questions that will reveal the needs people have so we can meet them.

In this context, our cantor could be working with kids who go to religious school, to camp, on retreats and in the junior choir with one another - in short within the context of a sacred community of learners, of prayers and of doers of Tikkun Olam.

Solving the problem of the last Jewish family in East Cupcake, North Dakota or in Smolensk is noble and valuable. And technology can help do that for people who don't have much geographic proximity to a Jewish community, Giving a family in Chicago or Fairfield, CT  the opportunity to opt out of a congregation to save money or the commitment of time and energy in order to tag the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Base is just not Jewish.

We have all seen kids (and adults) who have no eyes. You know who I mean - the ones who never look up from their hand-held device: a Blackberry, an I-Phone/Touch/Pad/Pod, a GameBoy or other game system - and so we never see their eyes.

If technology serves to allow people to further separate themselves from the community, then community will only be virtual, not real. Technology needs to be used to bring us together, not give us the means to stay apart. Our congregation's Facebook Group is only a few weeks old and is already bringing people together. Our Kitah Hey (5th graders) connect with kids in Beersheva and Haifa via Skype on our SmartBoard.

But this past Shabbat, my twelve year-old son wanted to go to services with his dad. He's not too old to play with my tzitzit (and he is starting to think about what he wants his tallis to look like). And he wanted to sit with his grand-friend Jim Abraham in services and at breakfast with the Brotherhood. He set down his cell phone and connected in prayer and fellowship with his congregational community. And then when we left, he texted his good friends from Eisner Camp.

Rachel Gurevitz, my other rabbi, told me about a member of our congregation whose family began attending our monthly Mishpacha Shabbat. In the beginning, she and her husband would discuss it as the time neared. But community is habit forming. Now it just goes on the calendar at the beginning of the year. And that same member has become involved with a group of other parents in our Kitah Gimel (3rd grade). We don't have school the Sunday of Thanksgiving. So she and a group of other parents are arranging a Sunday morning get together because they don't want to miss out on their weekly community time together. 

Rabbi Fred Schwartz of Temple Sholom in Chicago once told me he believed that Jews should be allowed to die without benefit of clergy. If you don't affiliate or if you leave the synagogue, why should you expect a rabbi at you parent's funeral? Where were you when the congregation needed your support - and now you want theirs? And he wasn't talking about money. He was talking about being in the pews. At someone's shivah. At the Beit Cafe. Letting the Youth Group wash your car. Marching on Washington in support of Israel.

The woman quoted in the final paragraph of the New York Times article makes me very sad. "Once Joanne... had found a rabbi for Eli to work with, she pretty much bowed out of the preparations, she said. 'I just cared about the party.'" She misses the point of Eli becoming a Bar Mitzvah. This should be his coming out celebration - in the sense of the debutantes of yesteryear. How can he be a Jewish adult if she has disconnected him from the Jewish community? 

The point of the whole exercise is announcing that you are ready to engage in the richness of Jewish life and the community announcing it is ready to take your participation seriously on an adult level. Technology, like all innovations can be both tool and weapon. It can divide us or bring us together. As parshat Nitzavim reminds us, we must choose well, so we may live.

For more on this and the article inside the same section by Bruce Feiler please check out Sh'ma Koleinu by Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz.


  1. Very interesting analysis Ira. Three years ago on Memorial Day weekend, we went to a Bar Mitzvah at a friends' estate which was the best and worst example of this type of experience. They were unaffiliated and when their only son turned 13, he asked to become a Bar Mitzvah in the tradition of his father's side of the family. His mom threw herself into immersing herself in preparations securing a tutor and a rent a rabbi. Her son dedicated himself to learning the torah portion and haftorah. An excellent student and really good kid, he gave probably one of the best speeches I have ever heard and did an amazing job with his torah portion and prayers. It was a spectacular and substantive day.
    About six months later, my friend's husband was diagnosed with a fatal illness. About four months or so into his treatment, the family's home was damaged in a fire and due to the extensive damage and the scope of the rebuilding, they are still not living in their home. The first connecion that this young man and his three siblings had with a local rabbi or anyone in the jewish community was when they met Jim the evening before their father's funeral. I wish that they had been able to establish a real connection to the community before these devastating losses.
    I strongly believe that had they had this connection, that it would have been a source of strength and support during the very diffcult days they had during this time.

  2. Ah, Ira, my friend. Although you know we often disagree on the subject of the place of the synagogue in the 21st century, I found your comments thoughtful, engaging, and even sensible - until you started to make the "yemensville" argument. Giving the residents of far flung communities a pass without extending the same courtesy to those who choose to live in our American Jewish ghettos is simply not fair - and it's least fair not to the folks in Chicago, LA or NY but rather to the folks in Yemensville! I've lived both ends of it - growing up in NYC, yet spending a decade in Fargo, North Dakota (where I was active in the Jewish community and worked as a synagogue's Director of Education.) Your "giving a pass" to the last Jew in Tea Cup, ND, or wherever is simply a bigoted, biased, elitist, and Judeo-Urban-Centric.
    Yes, those living in far-flung communities away from the centers of Jewish life in the US are rightfully more dependent on technological and other innovations that enable them to learn, study, and participate Jewishly. My experience in living in such places is that the Jews living there do not necessarily consider themselves as living in an area bereft of good sources of Jewish learning. They find ways to make it work. They do not believe it is necessary to live in NY, Chicago, or LA to be Jewish-and I applaud that belief. Would that more Jews did (or had done) so-we might encounter far less bigotry based on the fact that many living outside the US urban Jewish pales of settlement simply have never encountered a Jew or Judaism to any great extent. There is room to make aliyah to America. Even Rabbi Steinsaltz himself (if somewhat backhandedly) recognized the need to make America another great place of Jewish learning.)

    Those living in closer proximity perhaps ought to consider availing themselves of what their communities have to offer-in person, as much as possible. But to simply say that, by virtue of living in or near a Jewish urban (or suburban) modern-day US ghetto, they are not entitled to explore the technological options that allow them to participate in Jewish life on their own terms is rubbish.

    It's sort of ironic, in my view, that Jews living outside the pale, in places like Fargo, are more apt to be affiliated with a synagogue, and more apt to be active in it than their urban counterparts. This sort of tells me that synagogues inside the US Pales of Settlement haven't been doing all they need to do to keep people coming in the doors. It's less of an issue in the hinterlands because, like it or not, your choice of synagogue is limited, and if you want to feel part of any Jewish community at all, you don't have much choice except to participate in the local synagogue community.

    It was my time living outside the pale that strengthened my Judaism. and even strengthened my connection to the synagogue. Maybe, by allowing those who live in the pale to choose a non-synagogue option, they will soon discover that maybe they need to belong and participate after all. Or perhaps they will discover a whole new form of community. Either way, Judaism wins in that scenario. Synagogues must get past that self-preservation instinct that prevents them from making room for those in the community who want to explore other alternatives.

  3. Adrian - I love you like a brother. You need to read everything before taking off on one or two items. I am not giving anyone a pass. As a regional director of Young Judea in the pre-internet world, I was part of a support system for very small groups of Jews in Minot, ND, Columbia, MO and Evansville, IN among other outposts in yenemsveldt. I suggested that in places without a community, one finds it where one can.

    I am also not suggesting that those of us living among one another should not seek other ways of connecting. It is not an either/or situation. Only those who promote the buy-a-Bar-Mitzvah option ARE suggesting that their clients buy a ceremony and end their connection to the community until the next time they need to purchase a connection.

    I agree that life in East Cupcake can enhance identity and connection. I used to run day camps at synagogues in Cedar Rapids, IA and Springfield, IL. Those were very small places. Everyone knew everyone else. Everyone worked to make Jewish life happen for everyone else.

    There is plenty of room for alternatives. And visionary synagogues will make some of those alternatives happen within or around their congregation and draw people together.

    But the a la carte privatized Jewish ritual fails to connect people to anything other than nostalgia. I refer you to the comment by anonymous above.

  4. Yasher Koach, Ira. The post and the comments as well. And it shakes me up a needed bit -- I'm already Skyping when working with couples for wedding prep and conversion, why not offer it to b'nei mitzvah families for the kids' lessons?

    Of course, part of the answer is the same as it always was. I already offer phone lessons *after* the kid and I establish a rapport, and *after* s/he has demonstrated that s/he is making consistent progress. Before that, I need to be able to sit next to them as well as across from them, point to the book with them, help them find the right page, color code what they're learning, draw little dots for melody, circle mistakes, show them how to write down their assignment so that they'll be able to remember what they're supposed to work on this week... After that's all taken care of, why not Skype? It's better than phone.

    But funny thing is -- even though I mention the phone option, almost no parents take me up on it. There's a value to being in the building, in the Rabbi's study, etc., and I think they get it that that's part of the community-building.

  5. Ira, thanks for kicking off a very worthwhile discussion. Three brief points:
    1. All of us who are part of synagogue life need to acknowledge that the synagogue itself has done much to distort and even debase the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and thereby contributed significantly to whatever attitudes we find reflected among the Jewish populace that make us cringe. Would that all synagogue B'nai Mitzvah processes were deeply spiritual experiences that actually usher the Bar or Bat Mitzvah into a vibrant adult Jewish community!
    2. The key question for me when I read about families choosing alternative settings for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony is: why do they care enough to do this at all? Perhaps for a few it's just an excuse for a big party and presents, or "the thing to do." But, we should all, I think, be seeking to understand better what is driving the desire for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in each child or family that chooses to go down this path and how we can respond positively to that desire. I never want to disparage anyone for doing something that is positively Jewish (even if it is not how I would have done it). I want to figure out how we can help that act lead to others.
    3. At this point, I do think we can lay to rest the argument about face-to-face vs. virtual community. I don't know anyone who argues seriously that it should be an either/or, or that both do not have value (and even more when they complement one another). The real question is how do we enhance the sum total of community and relationship in our lives by whatever means, while also preserving the autonomy that is central to meaning-making in the era we live in.

    Again, Ira, thanks for kicking this off.

  6. What an interesting discussion.
    I live in a medium sized city with a rapidly shrinking Jewish population. Bricks and mortar have followed suit, and several synagogues and religious schools have merged in recent years. My family happens to live in a suburb that necessitates a 30-40 minute ride to religious school twice a week. This schlep (both physical and mental)has provided several suprising benefits for our family:
    1. I find myself having wonderful discussions with our 10 year old son on the ride home (even if I do have to suffer through pop music on the way there.) We discuss Jewish views on death, community, tzedakah, etc. It's his time to "sort out" and process what he has learned.

    2. Like anything else we give our precious time to, this experience is recognized, BY HIM, as being valuable. Blocking 7-8 hours out of my weekly schedule (not counting any additional family or Shabbat services)does not go unnoticed.
    Time has become the most precious commodity for many Jewish families busy with work, sports, music, and the rest. When we take the time to show that our Jewish community, in its many forms, is important enough to warrant our TIME, and not just our money and/or lip service, our kids notice.

  7. Ira, my full response has been posted on my blog - The Fifth Child, but Al Regel Achat I think we need to develop strategies that incorporate this digital phenomenon, using it as a way of drawing the uninvolved into our congregations. Let's look at it as a first step - introducing these digital families to our institutions. Maybe we should consider creating new membership categories that validate their own journey, that leads to our very real doors.

  8. You can find Peter's blog at:

  9. I've already complimented you on this, on the cross-post to the Reform Judaism blog ( Let me add two observations here:

    1. The Times article conflates two separate phenomena, the educational and other uses of technology as applied to the bar mitzvah experience

    2. The "trend" to bypass the conventional synagogue and synagogue bar mitzvah, whether for reason of time economy or dollar economy

    While the synagogue needs to address both these issues, I suggest remembering with Kohelet that there is nothing new under the sun.

    I think back to three b'nai mitzvah in my circle 65 years ago. A. worked with a melamed for two or three months to memorize his haftara and blessings and delivered a rote performance in an Orthodox shul that he had not been in previously and did not attend afterwards. B. actually was getting a Jewish education, but rather than attend the six-month training through the group bar mitzvah training class at the Conservative synagogue, his parents had his tutor record the material on a 78 rpm disk -- advanced technology at the time -- so he had a tool to practice with at home to avoid going to the tutor's house. And C's family threw a big party to coincide with his thirteenth birthday, but there was no religious service whatsoever.

    In other words, neither the rent-a-rabbi phenomenon nor the technology-aided learning nor it's all about the party is substantively new, just taking advantage of new tools.

    Meanwhile, we need to differentiate between East Cupcake and Fargo or Cedar Rapids. The situation of the only Jewish family in a hundred mile radius is appreciably different from that of a community where there are thirty or forty Jewish families. The technology training can be a boon to the East Cupcakers, who will then come to Chicago or Detroit and celebrate the bar mitzvah at Bubbie and Zaydie's congregation.

    So -- what's the next level in appropriate use of technology in and by the synagogue?

    And -- what's the answer to serving Jews who want to be able to drop in and out on a fee-for-service basis?

  10. Larry:

    Continuing to play devil's advocate, as I often do-why shouldn't Bubbe and Zaydie consider coming to Fargo to see the bar mitzvah of the kid in East Cupcake? (Or, for that matter, even go to East Cupcake-it might do East Cupcakians good to have a lot of out of town Jews come to visit and see them as real people there to create a community, temporary as it may be.) Why Chicago or Detroit? As I maintain, the ghetto/shtetl mentality persists. The bar/bat mitzvah in Fargo or Cedar Rapids or wherever will be just as meaningful, just as beautiful, and well supported by the local community (perhaps even more so than urban settings where attendance percentages are a lot lower.) Decades ago the folks in Fargo were already serving the lone families out in the hinterlands using the telephone. They are serving the outliers-so why shouldn't the outliers utilize them as community rather than fly off to somewhere in the urban pale of US Jewish settlement?

    Finally, let's not forget the trend to bypass the synagogue for bar/bat miztvah is not only tied to economic or time-related considerations. Those are NOT the only reasons people are opting out, and we need to be honest about that with ourselves.

  11. The conversation continues on David Bryfman's blog:

  12. Check out Hebrew School in the Age of Skype by Northwestern student Logan Wall at!

  13. @ Migdalor Guy

    For the only Jewish family in East Cupcake to have the bar mitzvah ceremony there is problematic logistically as well as conceptually. First, it assumes that someone is equipped to run the service, that a sefer Torah is available, and that a sufficient number of people will make the schlep to constitute a minyan -- the gentile neighbors in East Cupcake can't be counted. But even more important than the logistics, we are now talking about a privatized bar mitzvah, exactly what we kvetch about in our urban congregations.

    And why should they go to Chicago instead of to Fargo? Leaving aside the relative cost of, say four people going to Chicago (home hospitality likely to be available) vs. grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. coming to Fargo and staying in hotels -- it depends what role Fargo has played in their lives. As it happens, my wife grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, 100 miles from Des Moines, 300 from Chicago. Ottumwa, at that point in history, had 40 Jewish families and an Orthodox shul. Mirabile dictu, my father-in-law z"l was able to coerce the Ortho rabbi to educate his daughter, but a bat mitzvah would have been out of the question. My in-laws had no connection whatsoever with the Reform temples in Des Moines or Cedar Rapids -- but were connected in Chicago, where the mishpocha all were. You tell me what makes more sense -- Des Moines or Chicago?

    The devil's advocate role may be fun, but we are talking about real people, facing real situations and choices. Those Jews living in East Cupcake at some level know they are transients -- and for pivotal moments in their lives, they want to be at home, home being where their family is and where they grew up. Skype may be a good substitute where travel is impossible -- but pressing the flesh beats it every time.

  14. Yasher Koach. The article was so disheartening, and you really captured why that was. What is the point of becoming bar or bat mitzvah without a community? That doesn't have to mean a synagogue membership - although I work in a synagogue and hope it remains a viable and relevant institution.

    I'm embarrassed to think what readers of the NYT article will generalize about Jews. I'm really disappointed that rabbis would not only give their blessing to these kind of events, but would actually create a market for them.