Bnai mitzvah in Hawaii can take place on volcano slopes

According to some sources, 5,000 Jews live in Hawaii. Other estimates range as high as 15,000. Either way, there were more Jews in my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood than there are today in the entire Aloha state.

Jewish life in Hawaii is not exactly a microcosm of the mainland, the term islanders use for the continental part of the United States. Unlike most American metropolitan areas, Honolulu, Hilo and other coastal communities can't boast an abundance of synagogues. A handful of formal congregations and casual chavurot are sprinkled throughout the more populous islands — Oahu, Hawaii (the Big Island), and Maui — and about half of these are led by lay people.

It's hard to pinpoint when the first Jews journeyed to the Sandwich Islands, the former name of our 50th state. There are some scant records of a few 19th-century British and German traders and California adventurers who settled there. Even early 20th-century arrivals were rare. After the long voyage from Europe, my grandparents and most of their shipmates were happy to go ashore in New York and stay put. They had no desire to set sail again, even for paradise.

For those who now call Hawaii home, Jewish life can be rich and rewarding. But if they're strictly kosher, it's still not quite frum-friendly. After all, it's the land of luaus — roast pig in a pit — not chopped liver on rye. However, Chabad Lubavitch established a presence in Honolulu in the 1980s and has made being observant on Oahu a little easier.

Chabad Rabbi Yitzchok "Itchel" Krasnjansky and his wife, Pearl, invite all members of the local Jewish community to participate in prayer, study, chesed (acts of kindness), celebration and ceremony. And they schedule Shabbat dinners and holiday happenings like latke luncheons and Passover seders. The rabbi and rebbetzin try to bring traditional teaching and pious practice to this relatively remote location, and they have enabled many bar and bat mitzvah students to learn in an Orthodox setting, something that until recently was impossible.

Conservative Congregation Sof Ma'Arav is a shul that shares its Honolulu home with the First Unitarian Church. This westernmost member of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism does not have a permanent rabbi, but it does have a board of directors and constituents who undertake the typical tasks associated with running a shul. They also assume the added responsibilities of arranging religious rituals, leading services, delivering divrai Torah (biblical interpretations) and providing spiritual support.

And there's one more mission for these members — to educate children and prepare them for b'nai mitzvah. Children? Minnie Marvit, the "girl" who stepped up to the bimah on Dec. 23, 2000, was a 92-year-old bubbe. "I wanted to do this for some time, but I waited until I moved to Hawaii," she said. "I feel so at home here."

Ken Aronowitz, a Jewish educator and cantorial soloist, has worked with many b'nai mitzvah students at Sof Ma'Arav and its next-door neighbor, Reform Temple Emanu-El, the largest congregation in the islands. But the time he spent tutoring Marvit during the four months preceding her bat mitzvah was special. "Some of my other students have become bar/bat mitzvah because their parents wanted them to," he said. "But Mrs. Marvit did it for herself. She worked very hard and overcame obstacles. And she did a great job!"

The obstacles faced by Marvit, a former Floridian and native New Englander, included reading from the Torah, because of her aging eyes and learning the liturgical lilt, because of her hearing impairment. She also faced the task of writing and delivering the drash, a commentary on the Torah portion; hers was about Joseph's time in jail.

"I started a trend," said Marvit, noting that other seniors signed up for bat mitzvah lessons. A succeeding bat mitzvah was scheduled for December 2001, the same month Marvit planned to return to the bimah for an encore presentation of her parashah on the Shabbat anniversary of her bat mitzvah.

B'nai mitzvah also are celebrated at Congregation Kona Beth Shalom on the western edge of the Big Island, Beit Shalom Synagogue on Maui, the Aloha Jewish Chapel on the military base at Pearl Harbor; they even take place on the lava field of a volcano. High heels are not recommended footwear for that sloped site.

Rabbi Rita Leonard is the spiritual leader who lives — literally — on the lava and delivers sermons within striking distance of Kilauea, the active volcano of Mauna Loa. She reaches out to interfaith couples and unaffiliated families in an effort to bring spirituality and the joy of Judaism to all.

Leonard, an accomplished composer of Jewish music, is head of the East Hawaii Havurah in Hilo. Since informality rules in laid-back Hawaii, she teaches her b'nai mitzvah students at her kitchen table near a window with a view of another volcano, Mauna Kea. She creates customized b'nai mitzvah study programs and ceremonies and embraces alternative teaching methods, like helping her students make Jewish-themed dollhouse miniatures from tiny latkes to kosher kitchen accessories. She also cooks with the kids.

"These kids don't have bubbes and zaydes around to transmit the ta'am (flavor) of the immigrant generation," explained Leonard. "The goal is truly that they feel good about their Jewishness and feel liberated by their inheritance, not oppressed by it."

B'nai mitzvah ceremonies in Hawaii have a much sportier look than those held on the mainland. An aloha shirt and a pair of pants is the uniform of the boy on his big day. A muumuu is often worn by the girl on hers. In Hawaii, casual Friday is followed by casual Shabbat.

At the end of most b'nai mitzvah services, the celebrant is wished "mazel tov" while a lei is placed around his or her neck. The religious ritual is followed by anything from a basic oneg Shabbat to a complete Kiddush feast. And the festivities can continue with a catered reception at another venue, often on the beach.

Though some families book a DJ and have the usual, all-American post-pulpit party, others add a little island culture to the Jewish event: They hire a hula group to perform to the accompaniment of a slack key guitar.

In an Eden-like paradise, Hawaii's Jewish communities are alive and flourishing. They wish you shalom and aloha — shaloha — their special greeting that says it all.