As we start a new calendar year, we mark off dates that will require our presence: school dinners, graduations, weddings, family reunions and birthdays. Let’s circle one such occasion and offer the challenge of 2015: changing the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony.

There are interesting articles and responsa that raise questions about aspects of the ceremony: Should a Jewish celebration of accepting mitzvot be non-kosher and the cause for Sabbath desecration? Is anyone an adult at 12 or 13? What happens when this ceremony becomes a farewell party to Judaism?

These questions are meaningful for me as well. But I want to focus on a standard feature of these events: the video. I long for the days before Power Point, when a few foam boards with a photo montage was all you needed to make the kid happy. Now I am regularly subjected to half-hour biopics that tell the story of … well, what story is it exactly?

It is basically the narration of the child’s life as a toddler, kindergartener, elementary schooler and awkward middle schooler. The child’s friends will clap wildly when an image of one of them appears. There will be the great aunt who will give a smaller check because she did not show up in one slide. There will definitely be one girl sobbing in the ladies’ room stalls because she’s been left out.

There will, of course, be the mandatory slide of the bar mitzvah in diapers, and everyone will laugh. There will be the child on a grandparent’s knee, and everyone will kvell. There will be painful family vacation photos where the child in question is the blurry one in the red bathing suit three people in from the left. People, we don’t want to see your family in bathing suits. Ever. Even if you are all candidates for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. TMI, I say.

Let’s face it, pre-adolescent children just aren’t that interesting. They don’t yet have a story. And a simcha is not a time to subject a captive audience to today’s equivalent of your home videos. Do that on your own time, even if you are paying for the meal.

I don’t mean to say that bar/bat mitzvah videos are boring. Of course they’re boring. Everyone knows that. So are most of the speeches and poems. As part of our social reciprocity in the collective we call community, we are willing to subject ourselves to your boredom so that you will tolerate ours. It’s a well-known deal. The problem with simcha videos is not tedium but messaging.

The story that is important — the narrative that a child joins on this occasion — is the story of the Jewish people. That’s the exciting, meaningful story. A bar/bat mitzvah is not a celebration of a child, in which case the photos of said youngster would be totally appropriate. The bar/bat mitzvah is arguably not a celebration at all. It is a marker of a major transition in the life of a Jewish person: when he or she takes on the adult responsibilities incumbent upon being a member of the Jewish community. These include visiting the sick, giving a tenth of one’s income to charity (yes, this includes bar/bat mitzvah checks), participating in collective prayer services, observing Shabbat and holidays, studying texts of Jewish meaning, attuning oneself to the grammar of compassion that is foundational to our faith. The list goes on.

If you want to make a video of that, go around taking pictures of people in need, of a pair of tefillin, of a soldier in Israel fighting on our borders and of an old woman praying at the Wall. Create a picture of Jewish life during the days of the Talmud, the Spanish Inquisition, the Renaissance and Poland in the 18th century. In that video put in a passage from the Bible and maybe a medieval commentator or two. Don’t forget to show an image of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and some obscure everyday heroes of Jewish life.

Make this video aspirational because that’s what the bar/bat mitzvah is all about. It’s not about the child. It’s about our Jewish story. If we keep telling kids through videos and speeches how wonderful they are but forget to tell them how wonderful Jewish life is, then we will have failed them at this transitional time. Our job as Jewish adults is to welcome and inspire a new crop of Jewish adults to take their place in this majestic story. Don’t tell them that they are fabulous the way they are but just how fabulous they could be if they took one great meaningful leap into their own Jewish future.

Mazal tov!


We are a global community. This means Jews live virtually everywhere in the world. It also implies something about peoplehood. We may not be one in language, citizenship, ideology, politics or religious commitment, but we all carry a travel gene that tells us a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. There is a certain baseline that ties us powerfully and profoundly together, so that when we discover Jews in New Zealand or Patagonia, we don’t see them as strangers. They are distant cousins we just haven’t met yet.

Globalization is not a new phenomenon for Jews. It’s ancient. We were exiled, banished and tossed out of one country after another. We picked up our lives and settled in other countries. We learned new languages and became absorbed into new cultures within a generation. In this process, we developed an incredible network across the globe. This network made us excellent peddlers, and disseminators of information, gossip and scholarship. Networking like this is outstanding for innovation and the development of ideas. When you stand on the outside of any culture long enough, you become an excellent participant/observer. In the medieval period, books and ideas traveled with unprecedented speed from Salonika to Padua to Crete to Worms or Morocco, while many of our non-Jewish neighbors had rarely left their villages.

The jazz pianist Herbie Hancock said that, “Globalization means we have to re-examine some of our ideas, and look at ideas from other countries, from other cultures, and open ourselves to them.” This all sounds great, until he continues: “And that’s not comfortable for the average person.” From Hancock’s perspective, we Jews are above average. Globalization is not comfortable — it challenges long-held assumptions and can be humbling and even humiliating. For us, it’s a historical default position. And we have learned over time to leverage the discomfort of globalization.

Discomfort creates intellectual capital, the unintended benefit of being denied citizenship, professional access and property ownership for centuries. Property is not portable. Brains move, and they did. Serendipitous discoveries, great literature and scientific advancement are nourished from this global well, and in this sense, we have contributed immeasurably to the growth of science and culture.

Today we move more than we ever did. A Pew study conducted in 2008 found that many people today stay put longer today because we are an older nation with a lower birth rate. It’s also harder to move double-income families. Nevertheless, most Americans will still move at least once, multiple times if they are younger or more affluent. Interestingly, among American-born adults who have lived in more than one community, 38 percent claim the place they call home is not where they are currently living.

All of this dislocation presents challenges and opportunities. It also creates a new reality. Movement is the new norm in society. It’s an old norm for Jewish society, however. Given this fact of our history, it’s mystifying that in our American Jewish organizational culture, we have a huge web of information, but we have not successfully networked, tracked and sequenced our people enough. Jews connect to other Jews by accident when we have enough information to help make it intentional and strategic. 

We have important organizations nationally and locally that work with populations from baby to bubbe, yet we still manage to drop people in the liminal spaces. Whenever a Jewish teen makes the transition from a youth movement to a university Hillel to a young professional cohort to becoming a young parent, to moving from mid-life to retirement, we should be able to track and sequence. Where were they? Where are they now? How can we move them as seamlessly as possible? This requires that we lower organizational walls and view ourselves as one community with a big “C.” Coordinating transition and passing on information is not just best practice and collegial; it needs to become an expected norm.

If this needs to happen better locally, it also needs to happen more nationally. When people move from one city to another, a JCC, federation or synagogue should be able to track, welcome and help them transition. We have information. We have to do a better job of sharing it.

But organizations are not omniscient. We need to know if you’re leaving and where you’re going. Stronger networking also means that we as individuals pass on our relocation information to the Jewish community and not only to the U.S. Postal Service. The post office has a way to do this but we don’t yet — at least not uniformly. It’s time to create a way to track and sequence and help Jews move from place to place and from life stage to life stage without losing them in the in-between spaces.

Let’s stay in touch.

[To see the original article click here.]



It’s been a rough post-Yom Kippur for Jews in DC. What shook me most about the Freundel scandal – our 'Water'gate – is how many people said, “I’m shocked but not surprised.” Really? Rabbi Barry Freundel, who was arrested for voyeurism this past week, is an articulate scholar with a reputation as a forceful leader who put down other rabbis and congregations and could be fierce about institutions and practices he did not like. A friend who heard the news observed, “Beware the rabbi who protests too much.” If the allegations are true, this was not a crime of intimacy. It was a crime of power. Crimes of power happen when power is unchecked. Another friend said, “The problem is that the rabbinate is still a deregulated industry.”

To read more, click here.


In day school they tell you that the Hebrew month after the jam-packed fall holidays is called Mar-Heshvan; the pre-fix “mar” here means “sad.” We are sad that we have run out of holidays and have a blank month ahead. I feel terrible admitting this, but I feel a bit relieved and, of course — because being Jewish — I feel a bit guilty for feeling relieved.
We all love holidays, but the condensed way that the season barrels into the first weeks of school and work schedules, knocks us over every time. Out-of-office e-mails, the huge outlay of money and the tedium that can accompany meal after meal, service after service, cleanup after cleanup can be daunting. People at the office think Shmini Atzeret must be made up. How many holidays can one religion possibly have in a month?

To read more, click here.


We are approaching summer. Anyone remember last summer, the Jewish summer of scandal in New York? The heat returns, but we hope this time that light comes with it. We hope that these will be good months ahead, months where those in power feel the immense weight of personal responsibility weighing on their shoulders.

It is also the time when presidents and new board members are installed. Many Jewish nonprofits will change leadership over the summer. Many will hold leadership retreats so that people in new positions of power will know what to expect, even if you can never really know what to expect. Now is a good time to take the Jewish leadership IQ test: the Integrity Quotient.

To read more, click here.