Temple organizes support for bnai mitzvah families

Anyone who thinks a simcha is a time of pure happiness, joy and family togetherness, hasn't had a simcha.

"Anytime there's a simcha in a family there's a great deal of stress," said Rabbi Andrea Fisher of Oakland's Temple Sinai. "Sometimes [people] are shocked at how much negative energy can be produced by such a happy event."

So what can the synagogue community can do about it?

Let families know they are not alone.

And Temple Sinai has a plan to do just that.

This year it is organizing chavurot for sixth- and seventh-grade families with upcoming b'nai mitzvah.

"It's something that I've wanted to do for years," said Lori Abramson, education director at Sinai. "What has helped us get off the ground right now is that we were the lucky recipients of a Koret grant."

The grant enabled the synagogue to hire a second rabbi and fund the program. Letters have gone out and several families have already asked to join a chavurah with other b'nai mitzvah families. Participation is voluntary.

The process began a few years ago with focus groups on family-education programs and ways to help families with the nuts and bolts of b'nai mitzvah planning.

"The most profound thing that came out of those focus groups [was that people] were having a hard time making friends and connecting with people in the community," said Abramson. She realized that issue had to be addressed before there could be any discussions about educational programs.

Carol Zeitlin, b'nai mitzvah committee chair, also discovered that families needed more help than Rabbi Steven Chester was in a position to provide. The synagogue compiled resource lists, including florists, photographers, caterers and other service providers with comments from the families that used them. But to implement a full-fledged support program with religious and educational components, a second rabbi was needed. "Now with Rabbi Fisher we have someone who can set it up and oversee it," Zeitlin said.

The groups will start out meeting at the temple but over time, participants may decide they prefer people's homes.

Although Abramson would like to see a chavurah meet four times before the participants' b'nai mitzvah, she and Fisher have come up with a list of ideas that should take them well into the next century. Ideas include studying the service, discussing each pre-teen's Torah portion, mitzvah projects, tzedakah opportunities, exploring ways to make the occasion more meaningful and simcha survival skills. Abramson even envisions the possibility of making tallitot.

Although party planning is not on the rabbi or educator's agenda, both realize it undoubtedly will be a topic of conversation.

"All sorts of things are coming together here," said Abramson. "The b'nai mitzvah year is a perfect window of opportunity for family education. Families are very involved in the process of planning for their child's simcha and are physically here at the temple a lot."

Beyond that, the chavurot should make b'nai mitzvah more of a community experience.

"The religious school has tried to work on building community and helping people feel more connected to each other," Abramson said.

Fisher sees the mission of the chavurot as evolving.

"Because this is a new program, there will be a lot of time for people to dictate what they want," she said. "The goals will be adjusted and readjusted."