Jewish journey takes teen boy from Mendocino to cyberspace

When Micah Press began preparing for his bar mitzvah, he had some serious questions about his Torah portion. But getting answers in the town of Mendocino was not an easy proposition.

Rather than giving Press her own interpretation, Rabbi Margaret Holub, spiritual leader of the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community, encouraged him to seek his own answers.

Press' classical Jewish journey took him into cyberspace, where he sought information from leading Torah authorities.

"We're in a very remote place," said Holub, whose synagogue is in Caspar, four miles north of the town of Mendocino. "There's not dozens of Torah scholars floating around here that he had access to. I was trying to find a way for him to study. I wanted him to research and have something to analyze."

Press' Torah portion for his bar mitzvah last August was Va-Ethanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), about Moses being denied entrance to the Promised Land.

The teen was disturbed by a passage describing God as kanah, or jealous.

"I never thought of God as being jealous," he said. "I thought He was better than that."

Determined to resolve his concerns, he began looking through the book "Learn Torah With…5755 Annual," co-edited by author and storyteller Joel Lurie Grishaver and Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom. Press' parents had met Grishaver in May on a Mendocino retreat and had purchased the book.

The book offers commentaries on each of the 54 parashot, or Torah portions, by leading Jewish academicians. In addition, it provides insights from readers of all ages who have participated in the editors' interactive publication "Learn Torah With…"

Holub, a big advocate of the book, noticed that it listed the e-mail addresses of several scholars. She encouraged Press to contact the experts online.

Press had actually seen the process in action by reading "Learn Torah With…" ( and [email protected]), featuring numerous scholars from all over the world engaged in virtual dialogue on a different Torah theme each week.

Press decided to e-mail Grishaver and Rabbi David Wolpe in Los Angeles, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky in New York City and Professor Jo Milgrom, formerly of Berkeley and now in Jerusalem.

"I don't usually research stuff," Press said. "But I wanted to do something special for my bar mitzvah."

All four scholars responded, much to the surprise of the Press family and the rabbi.

"I was pretty impressed with who responded," Holub said. "It probably felt great to Micah that these scholars took him seriously. They didn't talk down to him. They really engaged him."

Grishaver, who directs much of his work toward teens, took the high-tech correspondence even further by answering the question with a series of provocative questions for Press to answer. The result was a substantive back-and-forth e-mail discussion.

Moreover, the four scholarly interpretations provided the basis for Press' sermon and led him to his own conclusions.

"I learned a lot," he said. "I pretty much agreed with all of them."

Several of Press' bar mitzvah guests requested copies of his d'var Torah, which opened with Press' summation of Moses retelling the people of Israel the story of the Exodus and how "God will destroy them if they worship other gods."

He then told those in attendance, "The idea that God is kanah or a jealous God seemed weird to me because I had always heard that you could not describe God. To me, saying that God is jealous is making him seem human, which God is not."

In quoting the scholars, Press relayed some of Grishaver's analysis by saying, "He told me that Jews think that the relationship between God and us is like a marriage…God does get jealous and there is nothing wrong about that, especially if, like God, we know how to get past it and start over again."

Press, who was previously just an occasional Web surfer, enjoyed being able to reach out into cyberspace to find more personal perspectives to spiritual queries.

"I would do it again. It was fun," he said. "It would help a lot of people who are interested in that stuff to be able to e-mail scholars."