DIY culture asserts itself in remaking Jewish rituals

If America is the land of rugged individualism, it should surprise no one that a burgeoning do-it-yourself movement has taken hold in many areas, including in the Jewish world.

As our cover story on page 16 this week shows, a number of Bay Area families eager to partake in Jewish life are eschewing synagogue membership and rabbinic guidance, choosing to organize their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs on their own. Many hire freelance bar/bat mitzvah tutors and Jewish educators to teach their children and officiate at the ceremony.

While this trend poses a threat to synagogues — and, some might argue, to organized Jewish life — it must be understood within the context of a generation unafraid to grab the reins of Jewish ritual life and reframe it to meet their needs.

A different aspect of the growing DIY trend in Jewish life is illustrated in our follow-up story about the cancellation of an educational workshop at Berkeley’s Urban Adamah, at which 15 hens were slated for kosher slaughter.

Our article on page 3 describes animal rights activists threatening to protest if last week’s slaughter took place. That is their right. But it should be noted that the focus of the workshop was not to celebrate killing, but rather to bring meat production out of the dark (where some might prefer it stay) and show what is actually involved in bringing kosher meat to the table. And if that causes some observers to give up meat, it’s all part of the mindfulness central to the new Jewish food movement, of which Urban Adamah is a worthy local example.

It’s also worth noting that only one person, a trained shochet (kosher ritual slaughterer), would have wielded the knife at the workshop. Field shechtings conducted by Jewish food activists are done with reverence for Jewish tradition and respect for the animals involved.

The point is that whether attempting a DIY bar mitzvah, a kosher shechita or any other sacred ritual, Jews are obligated to immerse themselves in the relevant texts and acquire the necessary liturgical and practical skills required of the task. And if this is more than we can master, we must turn to those who have attained mastery, or the ritual loses its holiness.

“Anything goes” is not the Jewish way. Claiming ownership of your own Jewish experience can yield great beauty and spiritual nourishment, or — if handled without proper care — it can mean nothing at all.