the three of them stand outside in the sun in front of a table with an open torah school on it
(Left to right) Elijah Geduldig, Rabbi Evon Yakar and Adam Wulkin

B’nai mitzvah, their way: Tawonga program hands teens ‘keys to their Judaism’

On a recent hike in the East Bay hills, a group of 12- and 13-year-olds stopped to contemplate holiness.

As they walked, their group leader encouraged them to reflect on the scenery and what they found beautiful or meaningful about it. “We got to see what we thought was holy, what the others thought was holy and what we all thought was holy in a shared way,” said Sonia Sobel, 13.

The exercise was part of a b’nai mitzvah program Camp Tawonga is offering to campers from the Bay Area. Designed as an alternative form of religious education, the program features a mix of hikes, Shabbat dinners, classes and retreats, culminating in an individualized rite of passage for each child. Sonia, a veteran of three summers at the Jewish summer camp near Yosemite, is part of its inaugural class.

The program was born out of a conversation between Tawonga executive director Jamie Simon and a group of eighth-graders, who spoke candidly about their religious education. “They didn’t want to be told how to be Jewish,” Simon said. “They wanted to be given a lot of information and to create their own Jewish journey.”

As of 2015, nearly 40 percent of Tawonga families were unaffiliated, so Simon set out to create a program that might engage those families and their children with a “buffet” of offerings that could be mixed and matched to create a meaningful education for each child.

Evon Yakar, a rabbi in the Lake Tahoe area, helped design the curriculum. For him, the biggest advantage to the program is autonomy. “The families get to articulate what’s of interest to them — points of connection to Jewish life, experience, learning,” he said. “That’s rich. We’re giving them the keys to their Judaism.”

Yakar worked with Tawonga educators to design the core content of the two-year-long program’s retreats, exploring ways to integrate prayer, learning, Torah discussion and reflection — like that of Sonia’s “holiness” exercise — with more traditional camp activities like capture the flag and talent shows. He also incorporated time outdoors, an important aspect of the Tawonga experience. “I do a lot of guiding, outdoor events, ski days,” Yakar said. “The outdoor setting engages young people in really profound ways, providing a sense of freedom, opportunity and challenge that inspires them.”

They didn’t want to be told how to be Jewish. They wanted to be given a lot of information and to create their own Jewish journey.

That’s certainly the case for 12-year-old Adam Wulkin. After five summers at Tawonga, the Oakland resident said camp helped him feel comfortable in his skin, a place “I can be myself and be weird and do weird things, with no competition, nobody judging.” He embraced the b’nai mitzvah program after years of religious school; its choose-your-own-adventure style suited his desire to glean his own meaning out of Jewish tradition. He found the meetings with his Tawonga-provided adult mentor — usually someone from the Tawonga staff or broader camp community — particularly rewarding. During these meetings, they discussed his Torah portion and what it means to be bar mitzvah.

Adam worked with program staff and his family to design his bar mitzvah. “The tunes, different melodies, which prayers we connected to — it was a group decision from the beginning,” his mother, Stefani Wulkin, said. On June 3, Adam will lead an outdoor service at the Mills College Student Union, followed by a picnic lunch, all suited to his preferences. That includes a service that’s especially inclusive: Adam has opted not to use a stage or podium preferring to lead from among his family and friends.

As Adam sees it, the bar mitzvah process involves “giving back to my parents and everyone else … acknowledging them and that they all helped me. I’m doing this to show my ancestors and my teachers that I tried.”

Sonia, on the other hand, will stand on a stage at May 27 bat mitzvah in Berkeley Botanical Garden’s Redwood Grove, near her Oakland home. Her service will be song-heavy, including campfire classics that aren’t directly related to Judaism; she’s also thinking of writing a skit to explain her Torah portion, relishing the freedom to express herself as she wishes. “I like being different than everyone else; that’s just my personality,” she said, noting that her group of friends at school have dubbed themselves “Weirdos of the World.”

For the parents, watching their children prepare has been a powerful, if sometimes stressful, experience. But it influenced Elena Sobel, Sonia’s mother, in another way. She was raised without religion in the former Soviet Union, and was at first skeptical of the idea of a bat mitzvah — but the Tawonga program changed her mind.

“I think the whole experience of [Sonia] talking in front of other people, explaining her part of Torah, taking responsibility for what she’s saying — it’s teaching her a lot and making her more confident,” she said, adding that such confidence is important for a girl Sonia’s age. “So now I’m seeing the bat mitzvah in a different light.”

Alissa Greenberg
Alissa Greenberg

Alissa Greenberg is a freelance writer based in Berkeley. She writes about science, culture and community for publications including TIME, The Atlantic, the New Yorker and the Washington Post. Her skills include navigating foreign transit systems, losing sunglasses and detecting Boston accents from a mile away.