Celebrations | DIY bnai mitzvah: Bay Area families take charge of coming-of-age ritual

Don’t tell today’s Jewish families that they need to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah in a synagogue. Or even have a rabbi present for the coming-of-age ritual.

Mirroring the national trend of reduced synagogue affiliation, increasing numbers of American Jews are celebrating their children’s bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies without the benefit of organized religious life.

Some rent a facility and hire an independent rabbi or Jewish educator, some travel to Israel for the service, while others do it locally and on their own, shaping the event to fit their family’s style.

That was the case for Paul Haahr and Susan Karp, whose son Matthew became a bar mitzvah during a service last week at San Francisco’s Maritime Museum — without a rabbi.

Haahr and Karp were both raised in secular Jewish households, and neither had a bar or bat mitzvah. “In no case did we feel like we wanted to join a temple,” Haahr said. “It’s not a part of our life.”

They have plenty of company: Only 22 percent of American Jews affiliate with a synagogue, according to a recent Pew research study.

However, the couple sent Matthew to Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco because they felt it would offer the best education. Being at BHDS helped Matthew decide he wanted to have a bar mitzvah.

“We left the decision up to him,” Haahr said, “and he did all the work and was very diligent about it. He’s the first in a couple of generations to have one.”

Haahr said it wasn’t easy to coordinate at first. “We were looking around to try and figure out [how to have a bar mitzvah] without joining a synagogue,” he said.

In addition to finding a space for the ceremony and party, families usually hire a Jewish educator or independent rabbi to help them prepare for the service. Matthew’s parents enlisted Zehava Dahan, head of education at Or Shalom Jewish Community, a Reconstructionist congregation in San Francisco.

Dahan, who has led more than 100 ceremonies, from b’nai mitzvah to weddings to baby namings, offered tutoring for Matthew, brought the Torah and ark to the service and officiated at the ceremony.

Matthew Haahr reads from the Torah, next to his parents, Paul Haahr and Susan Karp, and Jewish educator Zehava Dahan (left) at his May 3 bar mitzvah at San Francisco’s Maritime Museum. photo/ed smith

Haahr said that although the bar mitzvah was important to Matthew and the family, having it outside of a synagogue environment didn’t seem all that noteworthy. Private event spaces, such as hotel ballrooms, are popular venues, as is the indie DIY Shabbat community The Kitchen in San Francisco.

“You get to see a lot of different bar and bat mitzvahs, because everyone in my child’s class is invited to each other’s ceremonies,” Haahr said. “Some people had a service outside of a temple, so it wasn’t all that new.”

Debbie Findling and her husband, Steven Moss, are also planning a DIY bat mitzvah for their daughter Sara this summer.

The San Francisco family lives an observant Jewish life, and Findling, who holds a Ph.D. in Jewish education from the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, has been to Israel more than 15 times.

“We’re very entrenched Jewishly, but we’ve never belonged to a synagogue,” she said. “I want to be able to completely embrace and control and lead the direction of my Jewish practice.”

Findling, who is the strategic philanthropy adviser with the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, got her start officiating 20 years ago at her father’s wedding. “I married my dad,” she said with a laugh. She officiated at her first bat mitzvah just last year (for a family member, as it so happens).

Findling and Moss will co-officiate at Sara’s bat mitzvah at the SOMArts Cultural Center in August. “Everyone thought it was kind of new and somewhat strange, but it was pretty cool to us,” Findling said.

“Even in the most religious Orthodox communities, you don’t need a rabbi for a bar or bat mitzvah,” she noted.

In fact, no ceremony is required at all; boys and girls become adults in the eyes of the Jewish community at age 13 (for boys) and 12 (for girls), meaning they must now follow the commandments. The transition is marked with an aliyah, or being called to the Torah for the first time — for boys only, in Orthodox settings, and both genders in liberal congregations.

“There’s certainly something to be said for continuity and doing things as our ancestors did,” Findling said, “but at the same time every generation for thousands of years has made a personal meaning and interpretation of the Torah.”

Debbie Findling with her daughter Sara, who will become a bat mitzvah this summer at the SOMArts Cultural Center. photo/courtesy debbie findling

Findling did not become a bat mitzvah when she was 13, but decided it was something she wanted once she was in grad school.

“I wanted to technically become a bat mitzvah, so we had morning prayer on one Thursday morning and I read from the Torah and did an aliyah,” she said. “Everyone said mazel tov and I went off to class.”

Findling agrees that younger Jewish generations are shifting away from certain traditions, such as belonging to synagogues or affiliating with mainstream Jewish organizations, and embracing alternative expressions of their Judaism.

“What’s happening in Judaism right now is very exciting,” she said. “It becomes more of a do-it-yourself creation in partnership with the individual. I think it mirrors what’s happening with the millennial generation,” which is less connected in general to the institutions of their parents’ generation.

Findling also sees an artificial division between those who are synagogue-affiliated and those who are not.

“The Jewish community likes to define Jews as affiliated and unaffiliated, and unaffiliated is a bit of a disparaging term,” Findling said. The assumption it makes, often incorrect, she says, is that “those people are uninvolved, disconnected and not Jewishly knowledgeable.”

Rabbi Joel Landau of Congregation Adath Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco, said he understands why some families might prefer a ceremony outside of a synagogue setting, believing they can control the details and keep the focus on their child.

Synagogues often have multiple b’nai mitzvah on the same day, he said, and some families might feel it diminishes the specialness of their child’s ceremony.

But Landau said the event is meant to be shared with the wider community and not just with select family and friends. “Judaism is a mixture of individualism and having a connection with a broader community,” he said. “There is a value in being part of a bigger picture.

“I’d love for people to connect with congregations,” he added, “but I realize that’s not always the case.”

Landau wonders whether the do-it-yourself trend is sustainable. “For anything to continue it needs some level of structure,” he said. “There is a certain power to structure.”

Rabbi Judah Dardik of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland said DIY b’nai mitzvah ceremonies may be more popular now because of the DIY culture at large. “We’re in a consumer culture and we’re used to going online and comparing prices,” he said.

For some families approaching a bar or bat mitzvah who want the organizational benefits of a synagogue, it’s not uncommon to join the year before the event and leave after it takes place.

Many synagogues require these families to become members and register their child in the youth education program, Findling said. Costs can run into the thousands of dollars.

At Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, for example, families must join the synagogue and enroll their child in the education program for a minimum of two years prior to the bar or bat mitzvah. While no one is turned away for lack of funds, those who can afford a family membership will pay about $2,500 per year.

Dardik said he could see how families might not feel it necessary to join a synagogue if their interest is exclusively in the bar or bat mitzvah.

“It’s going to challenge synagogues to offer more than lifecycle services,” he said. “It will force them to offer a community setting,” serving a wide range of needs and making sure people feel connected and welcomed. “American synagogues will be better off because of it.”

One arguable benefit that synagogues can offer is access to all the materials needed for a bar or bat mitzvah service: the prayerbooks, the Torah and ark and the yad, or pointer for reading from the Torah scroll.

These items can cost hundreds of dollars to rent, and even more to buy.

Recognizing the DIY trend several years ago, Bay Area Jewish educator Rachel Brodie established Jewish Milestones, a nonprofit that supplied ritual items for homegrown Jewish services, from b’nai mitzvah to weddings to funerals. In 2011 she moved the operation to the JCC of San Francisco, where she is now the chief Jewish officer.

All of the items at the Jewish Milestones Ritual Resource Lending Library, purchased and maintained through donations, are free to borrow.

“One of the things that became clear was that people needed access to ritual items as well as referrals to good facilitators,” Brodie said. “If you’re having a bar or bat mitzvah and don’t belong to a synagogue, it’s nearly impossible to get your hands on a Torah scroll.”

The JCCSF has dozens of items available for ceremonies, from a pair of Torah scrolls to a portable ark and tallits for b’nai mitzvah services to chuppahs and Kiddush cups for weddings.

Brodie said the two Torah scrolls are used nearly every week. The library shows users how to handle the scrolls properly before lending them out.

Though Brodie said the DIY trend is happening nationally, it is more prevalent in the Bay Area and other progressive regions in the country.

“I don’t know of any other community that has [lending libraries for services],” Brodie said. “We were the first ones who started a library like this.”

Sonia Findling at her bat mitzvah last summer in Sebastopol. photo/courtesy rhonda findling

The lending library is where Sebastopol residents Rhonda Findling and Heidi Doughty went when they were planning a bat mitzvah for their youngest daughter, Sonia, last summer.

Their eldest daughter, Kira, had a traditional bat mitzvah in a synagogue.

“The reason we decided to go with an alternative ceremony [for Sonia] is partially because of what we experienced with my older daughter’s whole process,” Findling said.

“There were a lot of rules, and they stuck us in a mold,” she said, citing the synagogue’s requirement to invite all of Kira’s classmates to the ceremony and party — even the ones who Findling said were constantly picking on her daughter.

The family now belongs to a different synagogue, Ner Shalom in Cotati, but Findling said they still wanted to create their own bat mitzvah for Sonia. “We were really clear that it didn’t work for us [last time] and that we had to do something different next time,” she said.

There were some hiccups on the way.

The family hired a rabbi from the Sacramento area to officiate, but she dropped out just weeks before the ceremony after she and Sonia’s parents didn’t see eye to eye on how to lead it.

After searching for a new officiant, Findling enlisted her cousin, Debbie Findling.

“It was so completely liberating,” Rhonda Findling said. “It was an open book where we could create the Mincha service however we wanted so that it would have meaning to us.”

It was a family affair, with Debbie Findling running the ceremony at a friend’s home in the North Bay and Rhonda Findling and her three-piece band providing the music.

“It was so gratifying and amazing,” she said.


on the cover

Illustration by Cathleen Maclearie