Post-denominational Judaism and Jewish Education

Learn to Read Hebrew, Chant Torah, and Explore Alternative Paths to Bar and Bat Mitzvah

Jewish education deepens when you learn to read Hebrew and chant Torah, unlocking a treasure trove of learning, wisdom, fantastic stories and an eloquent ethical guide, given to us by our ancestors.

There are many possible paths. There are infinite ways to live a Jewish life – a different way for every person. Whether you are a passionate congregant in a synagogue, you prefer Havurah or home-centered celebrations or you don’t observe at all – and anything in between, Torah and Jewish learning are the keys to owning your Jewish experience. The key is being able to read Hebrew – this unlocks Jewish learning! Jewish education starts with the alef-bet and there is no end to what you can discover about the world and yourself.

Why learn to read Hebrew? One of the reasons an individual starts on the path of learning to read Hebrew is in preparation for Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is a spiritual passage, and chanting Torah before your community is that passage is celebrated. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that learning Hebrew and Torah are a spiritual engagement. Learning in an unhurried and supportive environment, with tools to help you learn in your own style, makes preparing for Bat and Bar Mitzvah services pleasant for both students and family. Remember, it is never too late to learn the alef-bet. Adult B’nai Mitzvah events are awesome and rewarding experiences!

Alternative path to Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. Access to a synagogue or Rabbi should not be a barrier for someone to learn Torah! Homegrown ceremonies and celebrations of Bar and Bat Mitzvah are real and sacred events when given adequate preparation and kavannah (prayerful intention). What I love to do is to help Jewish families discover an alternative path to Bar Mitzvah  or an alternative path to Bat Mitzvah, including learning the elements of Hebrew and prayer necessary, and creating a service that is inclusive and meaningful to you and your community.

TorahShavuot is the Jewish festival celebrated 50 days after Passover, at the end of the solemn seven weeks of the counting of the Omer. Historically, Shavuot was the time that farmers would bring their first harvests to the Temple as an offering. Spiritually, it is celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Omer forms a bridge from Passover to Shavuot – the Israelites were physically redeemed in the Passover story, freed from slavery and from a hostile enemy, but lacked a spiritual compass or ethical code until the giving of the Torah.

For years I heard Shavuot described as “just another agricultural holiday” and was told (incorrectly) it wasn’t really observed outside of Israel. I would think back to the trees I had planted, the sukkahs I had decorated, crisp apples on Rosh Hashana and the first greens of spring at Seder… It was logical that there would be a festival around the time of the grain harvest. It just didn’t seem to have any relevance to me. Despite my roots in organic gardening and Permaculture, at that time I didn’t yet realize that Permaculture (practical sustainable science) and the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) were different expressions of the same yearning, the same imperative to be sacred stewards during our brief lives.

What liberal Jew in this modern world – where many people are disconnected from seed, soil and plow – feels moved to mark an archaic farming festival? Many people are unaware that most calendrics were based on the time to till and sow. We still teach our children to sing Old McDonald and recite the Little Red Hen like the woman who cuts the ends off her roasts as her mother and grandmother did before her, not knowing it was because her Bubbe’s roasting pan was too small. So many children’s’ rhymes and stories show our roots run deep under thousands of years of plowed soil and unharvested field corners and if we listen closely to the words, we see themes of fundamental agriculture principals like cooperative farming and animal husbandry. Even just the simple sounds that animals make were important for the children of farmers to learn! Still, for the average urban, secular Jew in the diaspora, living in a country that has many more super markets than farmers markets, Shavuot holds little appeal.

Exactly ten years ago I observed Shavuot for the first time. I was a member of the Isla Vista Minyan, the community I had found to be my spiritual home while I was attending University. Though comprised mostly of bonafide adults, they met at the University Hillel, using the facilities on Shabbat morning when the college kids were just starting to enter REM after a late night of partying or studying. The IV Minyan’s calendar showed Shavuot coming up and I was told they had an unusual way of observing it.  I had not participated regularly in synagogue life prior to college and I wanted to sample it all. I wanted to eat up every Jewish experience I could find. So I showed up to their all-night study event, with a bag of snacks for fuel and a pillow in case I got tired. No expectations, no preparation.

I can’t recall where I heard about the concept of the Torah being created as black fire on white fire (was it Reform Rabbi Steve, Chabadnik Reb Mendel or Academic Professor Hecht?), but the imagery was powerful for me: before the world was created, the Torah existed as black fire on white fire. I imagined this pulsating, knowledge bomb hanging in the tehom, the void. It was a nice image, sultry and esoteric. Not something I took literally but rather an image that helped evoke a sacred feeling about something at risk of withering in antiquity.

My first Shavuot started with the first breakout group of the customary all-night study sessions. Staying up all night to learn was not a new experience for the smattering of college kids that joined the forty or so Minyan members. As I nibbled from the traditional cheese platter, I read the offerings and tried to choose which talks I would attend. I ended up in a small study room learning with a very young visiting Chabad Rabbi and his teenage Rebbetzin. I think she was likely 19 years old, an adult by most measures, but the way she fidgeted in her chair she seemed much younger. Was she bored or just uncomfortable in her thick panty hose, heavy makeup and new sheytl?

The young Rabbi’s teaching was unmemorable as were the other five or six sessions I attended, interesting in the moment to be sure but no lasting revelations. The tradition on Shavuot is to study verses from every book of the Torah, paying special attention to important portions like Bereshit (In the Beginning) and the receiving of the Ten Commandments. As the night progressed, we snacked to stay awake and occasionally stepped outside to let the fresh air enliven our senses. I didn’t nod off but I was wilting by the time the sky began to lighten and was looking for a place to curl into a ball and rest my eyes.

Just before dawn, Rabbi Steve ran through the building and told everyone to get ready to process with the Torah. This idea perked me up – I knew we would march with the holy book past the sleepy frat houses and dormitories, and we would end up at Goleta beach to hear the Ten Commandments chanted. I was told the signature of this community was that some attendees ended up in the water (not with the Torah). How very Santa Barbara, I thought, a morning swim after a spiritual all-nighter.

As we wound through the quiet neighborhoods, the air was crisp and salty, the morning light on the horizon especially vibrant after a sleepless night.

The reader stood high on the beach with the old Torah and leyned the Ten Commandments in a strong, loud voice so we could all receive the mitzvot as we did on Mount Sinai. There is a beautiful teaching that every Jewish soul was present on Sinai, all that had been and would ever be born had personally received the Torah by the hand of Moses and the Holy One. Our reader lifted the Torah high in the air, opened several wide to the passage he had just read. By happy accident of where I was standing, I caught a glimpse of the parchment with the day’s new sun shining through from behind. The rosy glow illuminated the carefully scribed letters and I was bodily knocked to my knees with the vision of that holy fire. The sunlight gave the impression – no, it manifested, the black fire on white fire. It is said that Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of Torah, not the receiving, because we receive Torah every day. Here it was, as on the day of creation, the pulsing, blinding brilliance of sacred stories, laws and puzzles – all freshly emblazoned against the sky, as it had been before creation.

After the Torah was safely stowed, a hora began, the group from the learning session had grown to nearly one hundred as more had joined at the beach to take part in this rite. The throng danced and as we bounced up and down in ecstatic unison, it seemed that time and space melted. We stood on the beach. We stood at Sinai. The great ring of frenzied, joyful Jews danced right into the waves and continued to sing and bob as the water rushed up to lick our chests and shoulders. The cold was muted, the seaweed and tar nearly imperceptible as we held each others’ shoulders and wept with the relief of the morning light and the joy of the gift of the Torah for the first and thousandth time.

I wish you all a Hag Sameach, a joyful festival, and may you all catch some sparks of holiness when you least expect it.

“At this very moment, for the peoples and the nations of the earth,
May not even the names disease, war, famine, and suffering be heard.
Rather may their moral conduct, merit, wealth, and prosperity increase,
and may supreme good fortune and well-being always arise for them.”

Auspicious Wish – Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche – 20th century Tibetan Buddhist Lama

Lately, as my heart aches with the news of the world, I have been pondering how Jewish prayer can facilitate my desire to pray for humanity. We are not alone in this world. We are all one family, living in different ways, but our hearts beat the same, our tears all taste salty and our chests hurt the same when we cry.

The tribe of my birth and ancestry is Jewish, and so the language I usually speak when I talk with the Divine is a mishmash of multi-denominational Jewish Prayer (in Hebrew or English depending on my whim) with a personal flare of my own experiences and aesthetics.

As a child, in addition to the treasures of Judaism, stories by the Hassids and the cheerful glow of candles and festive meals, I was initiated into teachings and prayers of Tibetan Buddhism. When I set out to daven or to pray, I have the siddur, the prayer book that serves as a guide for my words and intentions, in much the same way it has my ancestors for countless generations. But when my heart is moved to prayer spontaneously, it is often the Buddhist prayers, the noble prayers I learned as a child, that come to my lips.

These are prayers that yearn for all suffering to be relieved, for poverty and hopelessness to be banished, for war and tragedy to be unknown. They bubble up when I feel moved to pray for the soul of a crushed animal or a dying person, that their light may speed quickly to back to God, that they endure no agony in their passage.

I know that at the source, all faiths and religious traditions share the yearning to make the world whole, complete, healed… Over the years, as our Jewish prayer books have been canonized, it seems these noble prayers I assume must have been there once have been lost or overlooked, with a few exceptions. I feel it is time to recover them and include them in our most earnest daily prayers.

For those of us who pray for Moshiach, for the Messianic spirit to come to our world and end strife, war and suffering, the language we use places the responsibility of bringing such change upon the Divine. In truth, we all have the power to relieve suffering and prepare the world for peace and wholeness. The language of the Auspicious Wish, above, feels like a prayer directed within as well as without. We can pray to God and simultaneously remind ourselves that the changes we want to see in the world must originate in ourselves, and noble wishes must guide our every actions to the best of our limited human capacity.

It would be easier for me to pray daily, to pray instead of worry or obsess, to pray instead of grow despondent, if I remembered to include noble prayers in my sacred dialogue with God. I am grateful for the interfaith influences of my childhood and how they help inform my Jewish faith today.

Seder plate

When I was a child, Passover was a main feature of the Jewish year. It seemed most of the families in our small West Sonoma County town of Occidental had at least one Jewish parent, and these beautiful Jewish families created home grown Seders. Pot-luck style havurah is how I describe my childhood Judaism, but our potlucks were Post-denominational Judaism.

One of the parents would copy and paste together readings and brachot from various sources and we would use our Haggadot year after year, until they were dog-eared and splattered with Manishewitz wine and the sepia shadows of Charoset. My mother would assemble the seder plate, my father would play the guitar, and the children would hunt for the afikomen and run wild in an overgrown yard in the increasing twilight.

We were Jewish and we knew it. We couldn’t explain what Judaism was, but we knew how it felt, how it sounded and tasted… We lived our Judaism, without walls, without definitions… This was my first experience with what I call “post-denominational Judaism.” I believe it was a reaction on the part of our parents who were forced into a religious life that felt empty or controlled, or for others whose Jewish education was entirely absent. As adults many of them felt allergic to synagogues. Others found the 40 minute drive to the nearest shul tedious.

We have a difficult challenge in rural America: Jewish centers should be central to the communities, but have enough participants that they feel vibrant and full. There are many Jewish families living on the outskirts of towns and in rural communities. How can we invite God to dwell in our midst? Invite God to a potluck!