Beth El tips its kippah to 1st adult bnai mitzvah class

For Saturday morning services Sept. 13 at Congregation Beth El, the b'nai mitzvah boys and girls will be neither boys nor girls.

Rather, they are all men and women, 17 of them, ranging in age from their mid-20s to late 70s. Together they comprise the Berkeley Reform synagogue's first adult b'nai mitzvah class.

After months of study, practice and good old-fashioned shpilkes, the entire group will stand on the bimah and chant from the Torah.

No one could have asked for a more diverse group. Among the class members: two married couples, a pair of congregational presidents (one past, one present), a handful of Jews-by-choice and an aging bar mitzvah boy going up for seconds.

Saturday's ceremony will be a proud moment for longtime Beth El Cantor Brian Reich, who, along with the rabbis, Ferenc Raj and Jane Litman, taught the class.

"When I was first hired 15 years ago, I was asked to define a vision," recalls Reich, a sixth-generation cantor. "I thought my job would be to teach the community to do what I do, to teach individuals to be self-sufficient in Judaism."

As far as Reich is concerned, it's mission accomplished — at least with his 17 adult b'nai mitzvah students, who spent the first months of class learning trope (the traditional melodies of Torah chanting).

"That was the biggest challenge for me," says Marian Magid, a past president of the congregation and, as she readily admits, a musically challenged person. "But Brian told us we're not singing; we're chanting. God hears all voices, whether on key or not."

Reich affirms her assessment. "You have to sneak in the concept of singing in front of others," he says. "I don't care if you're an opera singer or if you're tone deaf. We're chanting Torah here, which is something accessible to everyone in the world."

Another challenge for Reich is the varying levels of Jewish literacy at the start of class. While some were thoroughly familiar with Hebrew and the standard prayers, others didn't know a gimel from a shin.

Reich's stewardship earned high marks from his students. Says Martin Dodd, Beth El's current president: "This is one of Brian's strengths. He has his own method, but he makes it fun. Within a couple of lessons, we were all doing well."

Besides the nuts and bolts of chanting, the class also delved deeply into their Torah portion, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8), also known colloquially as "Blessings and Curses."

"The portion has more curses than blessings," jokes Beth Berman, a Jew-by-choice who came into the class with a fairly high level of Jewish knowledge. "This is the portion that according to tradition was often given to the poorest person in the congregation."

Magid, who joined the class with her husband of 50 years, Albert Magid, says, "We really enjoyed delving into the portion, squeezing out meaning, studying the sages and listening to our rabbis, who brought wonderful insights."

While the months of study beefed up the class members' Jewish IQ, it did as much for their social skills as well. By all accounts, the 17 bonded closely as a group.

Dodd, who also is taking the class with his wife, says, "It's been an enjoyable experiences for me because I got to know new people. The group cooperated so well, and made all decisions collectively."

Adds Berman, "One of the nicest aspects was developing these intergenerational friendships. I might be the only one in the class under 50."

Reich has his own description of the class personality: "It's more like anarchy," he laughs. "When they needed the ropes pulled in, I was there, but I didn't do that often. They are very caring, very committed, and very serious about this."

The individual reasons for signing up proved as diverse as the class itself. For Berman, it was a simple matter of continuing her ongoing Jewish education. For Dodd, a Jew-by-choice, it was a need to complete the conversion process he began 13 years ago. "It had been in the back of my head a long time," he says. "So I said, 'If not now, when?'"

Reich sees another dynamic in play. "Each one had something he or she needed to bring out, to challenge or make contact with," he says. "It was something very personal. I'm proud that the class evolved the way it has."

Given the number of participants, there was some anxiety about managing the logistics of the ceremony, but Reich and his students are sure all will work out in the end, even if that means only 90-second speeches from the bimah.

Once Saturday comes and goes, Beth El's adult b'nai mitzvah will have quite a feather in their kippot. But for them, there was something more important involved than the ceremony itself.

"It's never been about the event," says 30-year Beth El member Magid. "It's a process, and this is just a milestone in the process."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.