Bar mitzvah puts new wrinkle in S.F. preschoolers storytime

Alon Neidich knew he had to keep his bar mitzvah presentation short and sweet.

After all, the particular crowd before him at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom isn't known for having a long attention span.

They're 2- and 3-year-olds.

"I knew I couldn't read too much of my Torah or my haftorah to them," Alon said. "I had to keep reminding myself they're 3."

Wanting to introduce the toddlers at the congregation's new Jewish family preschool to lifecycles of the synagogue, temple members recently asked Alon to give a show-and-tell about his bar mitzvah. Alon, whose bar mitzvah took place Saturday, enthusiastically agreed, remembering how much he liked visits from big kids when he was small.

After rehearsing his talk at home on his 10-year-old brother, Alon filled his blue Jansport backpack, laced up his Reeboks and headed to school. His brother, Eitan, came along to help.

"We wanted it interactive," said Alon.

So did his audience. Gathering in the classroom's story corner, nine youngsters sank into beanbag pillows or snuggled onto laps for Alon's talk. Daniella Davidoff, 2, first tried climbing onto Alon's lap before settling on Rabbi Alan Lew's.

"Today is a really special day," explained school director Janet Harris, who warmed up the group by playing a Shabbat song on her guitar.

She explained that Alon soon would come to shul to become a grown up in the community. "What lives in the Ark?" she asked her little students.

"Challah!" piped up one curly-haired girl.

Now it was Alon's turn. The seventh grader at the Town School for Boys told the toddlers that he soon would have to "always be good" and take responsibility for his own actions. "Not to stay up or anything like that," he said.

Removing his tallit from his backpack, Alon explained how it symbolizes that he's become a big person in the congregation. Pointing to the 613 strings, he said, "they're for all the mitzvot. Do you want to touch it?"

The toddlers did. They were somewhat less enthusiastic, though, about examining photocopied pages that Alon will read from the Torah. "This is a pre-literate group," observed the rabbi.

But the group listened intently while Alon sang samples of a "happy" and a "sad" song from his ceremony. "Doesn't it sound different?" he asked after singing the sad song.

He then brought out a tefillin that belonged to his great-grandfather in Russia. The rabbi told the children that he soon would teach Alon how to wear the tefillin for his bar mitzvah.

While the group counted to seven in both English and Hebrew, Lew demonstrated how Alon will wrap it around his arm. "You know what I just did? I tied myself to God. Can you believe that?" Lew asked the class.

One little girl, holding a toy frying pan in her hand, looked on carefully.

Alon invited the toddlers to his bar mitzvah, saying, "It's going to be in the big shul." While the preschoolers clapped to the music, Harris congratulated Alon by singing "Mazal Tov U'Siman Tov."

"Does anyone have a question for Alon?" she asked the group. From one end of the bright green carpet, 2-year-old Megan Slavin raised her tiny hand. Looking at her pants, the toddler observed, "I don't have a pocket."

And with that, the presentation ended–and challah-making time began. The talk lasted about 15 minutes.

"I felt it went really well," Alon said afterward. "I think they understood it all, but at a certain level."

Harris, who also serves as the synagogue's program director, said she hoped the presentation would be the first of many at the preschool.

"We're hoping it will be like the fabric of the school," she said. "We'd like to also have them involved in other rituals" so preschoolers and their parents feel linked to all activities of the synagogue.

Lew thought the talk was meaningful to Alon as well as his young audience.

"I think Alon's bar mitzvah has given him a real strong sense of generational connections, and now he's expressing it to these kids," said Lew. "I think it's really touching that he's sharing it with the next generation."