The 40 Year Old Bat Mitzvah

Where Are You, God?

Posted in philosophizing by Juliet on March 2, 2010

“Where are you with God?”

Rabbi lets the question hang in the air.

I am a month into an adult b’nai mitzvah class at Temple Adat Shalom in Poway. Through one of those coincidences that continues to show me

the interconnectedness of all things

the rabbi is David Castiglione, son of fellow congregants at Congregation B’nai Chaim in Murrieta. I am on the board with his dad and work bingo with his mom.

I have been wanting to take an adult b’nai mitzvah class for years. I’ve had a few false starts and now – the year of being 40 – seems like a great time to actually do it.

We are members of a synagogue in Murrieta but I wanted to take a group class with set curriculum so I enrolled in the program at TAS in Poway.

Our synagogue is Conservative and TAS is Reform. In the almost 20 years since I belonged to a Reform congregation, the two movements have inched closer and closer to each other.

It’s very cliche to call this road a “journey,” but when you think about it, cliches become cliches because they are rooted in truth.

So here it is: I am on a journey of self-discovery.

Initially I thought I was mostly doing it to keep up with the kids. To set a good example in life-long learning for them. To participate more fully alongside them once they become bat mitzvah (which I really didn’t want to happen before I do!)

Even in a few sessions I can see that I’m doing it not for them, but for me. They will benefit from my example but this is MY road.

The course takes a year. There are five of us: one man and four women. At 40, I’m the youngest and the only one with very young kids (though three of the others have teens living at home.)

We meet as a class at least twice a month. Between now and June, we are each responsible for getting ourselves up to speed on Hebrew.

When I told people about the class, and that it is at a Reform temple, I heard: “Oh, great! That means the Hebrew will be a lot easier.”

I admit I kind of thought that myself.

What the hell was I thinking?

Hebrew is Hebrew is Hebrew. We have to learn it, period. Plus I’m used to the prayer melodies of Conservative services so I don’t even have the “cheat” of figuring prayers out by the tune if I get stuck. We were handed a thick packet of prayers that we will master and after June we’ll start tackling our Torah and Haftorah portions.

1. Learn Hebrew to fluently master the prayers for an entire Saturday morning Torah service, plus our individual Torah and Haftorah portions

2. Read Introduction to Judaism: A Source Book by Stephen Einstein and Lydia Kukoff and Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. We don’t have the Source Book yet but we were given our copies of Jewish Literacy last night. It’s an encyclopedia, people! We are literally sitting down and reading the Jewish encyclopedia.

3. Daily Torah learning at “10 Minutes of Torah” from the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). In the two weeks I’ve been reading this email I’ve learned that I had a lot of misconceptions about what Reform Judaism is.

4. Keep a spiritual journal. Rabbi Castiglione said, “There is nothing more essentially Jewish than keeping a journal.” We are a reflective people.

5. Jewish book report. This and #6 fill me with childlike enthusiasm. You’re never to old to feel like a bar mitzvah kid. Recommended books are at the URJ’s site.

6. Tzedakah project. I am insanely excited about this. What will we come up with? Will we work individually or as a group. We can work individually but I think if we can come up with something as a class, that would be so very powerful.

We are presenting our book reports and tzedakah projects in June, then over the summer we meet hardcore with TAS’s longstanding Cantor Lori Frank to work in earnest on our Torah and Haftorah portions.

So that’s the curriculum. I meet with my tutor/friend Heidi for the first time this morning. Heidi is a University of Judaism grad and used to working with Hebrew students of all ages and stages. I’ve been working my way through a ten-lesson intro to Hebrew reading book (I’m up to lesson seven) and even so, my stage is firmly “Beginner.”

And where, you might ask, did we decide we are with God?

Well, I mentioned that TAS is in Poway. Poway is a very tight community. Poway High student Chelsea King has been missing since Thursday night and a registered sex offender was arrested Sunday and expected to be charged with her rape and murder in San Diego this morning. My classmates’ kids know her. Everyone feels a critical loss. Her face is plastered all over Poway and neighboring Rancho Bernardo. As our class met, thousands of searchers combed the terrain near Lake Hodges, where her car and clothing was found.

So it’s tough figuring out God. The oldest member of our group, a grandmotherly woman with surprisingly sweet Hebrew, said that no matter what, she has always felt protected by God.

Even through our anger, fear, confusion, and frustration, we nodded our heads in agreement. Maybe “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is the oldest God discussion around. And maybe it’s unanswerable.

But we come together to ask.


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