Do-it-yourself bnai mitzvah come of age in Bay Area

While they may love tradition, a number of Bay Area families want to celebrate their children's coming of age their way, avoiding the synagogue route and developing new ways to mark the bar or bat mitzvah.

Mixing a bit of traditional Judaism, a pinch of Jewish Renewal ruach (spirit) and a heap of personal meaning, several Bay Area families have created their own, do-it-yourself b'nai mitzvah.

Take, for instance, Noah Bluestone's bar mitzvah last February at Berkeley Hillel. He played the violin to open the ceremony, read from Debbie Friedman's liturgy, chanted his Torah and haftorah portion, and talked about his tzedakah (charity) project to complete his rite of manhood. His mother, Miriam Pollack of Berkeley, said she wanted the opportunity to craft Noah's bar mitzvah as they wanted it.

"I haven't belonged to a synagogue for 25 years," she said, "but Judaism has always been central to me. I felt creating my child's bar mitzvah in a meaningful way to our family just shows how fortunate we are to be Jews."

Another nontraditional ceremony was Ben Scheinin's bar mitzvah in the redwood groves at the Baha'i Center in Boulder Creek.

Ben's dad, Rich Scheinin of San Jose, a religion and ethics reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, said he didn't want to recreate the "same kind of formulaic" bar mitzvah he had growing up in a Reform temple in Long Island.

"I didn't want to have a `cookie cutter' style bar mitzvah for Ben, I wanted to do something that would feel like a 1960s Israeli wedding you might see on a postage stamp. I wanted to do something individual."

And individual is what the Scheinin family got. Outdoors among the trees and the flowers, Ben and his father played a flute duet of "Avinu Malkeinu," then Ben's friends and family made a circle around him, humming niggunim and offering him loving words of wisdom.

Asa Kalama of Berkeley is also working on his own do-it-yourself bar mitzvah to be held this September by the large oak tree in his grandmother's backyard.

Asa is half Jewish and half African, and creating his own ceremony has allowed him to really learn about one side of his heritage that he hadn't known much about.

In fact, he has learned all the prayers, songs and even Hebrew from scratch. His mother, Debbie Perkins-Kalama, said, "I'm grateful we could do a bar mitzvah like this, on our own. If we didn't have this personalized option, I don't know if Asa would have had his bar mitzvah. But I'm glad to have this connection to Judaism that we created on our own level."

Ceremonies like these probably wouldn't be possible without independent contractor-types like Avram Davis, Sara Shendelman, Karen Roekard, David Cooper and Daniel Lev — incidentally all in Berkeley — who privately tutor kids and help them craft their own b'nai mitzvah.

These mentors work with the kids anywhere from six months to one year before their b'nai mitzvah, teaching them traditional concepts such as history, Torah and halachah. The students also might learn to do tzedakah projects, to silk-dye their own tallitot, to produce relevant art or to write.

The tutors say they usually attract kids whose parents have interfaith marriages, kids who might have learning disabilities in regular school, or kids whose families have a Jewish Renewal bent. These families decide what form the bar mitzvah will take.

Barry Wofsy's children of Berkeley ended up being tutored by two different people because each of them had different interests. Wofsy's son, Cody, is now studying with David Cooper, owner of Afikomen Jewish Books & Art, because he wants to concentrate on the philosophical aspects of Judaism.

Wofsy's daughter, Jessie, studied with Daniel Lev, who serves as a maggid (teacher of Judaism) and is also a psychologist, because she wanted to learn about the historical and cultural aspects of her religion.

"I want my kids to be happy being Jewish," Wofsy said. "Studying what's fun to them is what's important. Having a bar mitzvah in a synagogue, to me, lacks spirituality, heart and beauty. I'm glad they can learn what they want and enjoy having a bar or bat mitzvah."

Mike Rosenthal, owner of Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco, whose son had a bar mitzvah in a rented partyhouse, sums up the do-it-your-way philosophy.

"If you think your relatives can stand having a bar mitzvah in a place that's not decorated with the usual Jewish paraphernalia and can handle borrowing a Torah for the ceremony," he said, "then by all means, create your own service, play your own music and design your own meaningful prayers."