B’Nai Mitzvah Cohort Connects Modern Issues to Torah

Three students walked into a room for their B’Nai Mitzvah.

Here’s what we learned.  

Familiar sights and sounds broke through the chill of a crisp Saturday morning. Enthusiastic clapping echoed through the hall as the guitar chords of “Oseh Shalom” reverberated. The crinkle of anticipatory candy grew louder as proud smiles grew wider and guests prepared to welcome the BJEP B’nai Mitzvah cohort of 2021-2022 into their “official” status as Jewish adults.

BJEP’s B’nai Mitzvah program culminated in a moving Shabbat  service this month as our students embraced the opportunity to lead prayers and share Torah. While some of the Saturday morning sights and sounds were familiar, this program’s innovative twist meant the morning was anything but ordinary. From a lively conversation about abortion in Judaism, to a thought-provoking film about vaccination exemption, to a compelling TED Talk about cheating, this cohort wow’d family and friends alike with their ability to integrate tradtiional Torah into their modern lives. BJEP’s B’Nai Mitzvah program is unique for its focus on text-based learning on modern ethical issues, allowing students to drive the learning and process with their own curiosities.

Rabbi Myra Meskin, BJEP Rabbi-in-Residence, reflected on how the B’nai Mitzvah program invited students into a greater relationship with Torah:  “From the first time we learned together it was clear that these three students are not shy about sharing their opinions freely, and there is no better place for heated and opinionated debate than when learning Jewish text. They regularly asked questions of the texts we were studying, always finding a new scenario that added new depths to our ethical dilemmas” It feels clear to me that we achieved our goal of helping these students to build a relationship with Torah, a relationship to Jewish wisdom, learning to use it as a relevant and valuable source of insight in navigating the challenges that life brings.”

This experience was beautifully reflected in the student’s B’nai Mitzvah Torah portion, Parashat Kedoshim, as captured in Rabbi Myra’s drash (meaning, text interpretation):  “We might assume that holiness is all about doing certain rituals and saying certain blessings, but we see in this parsha that according to the Torah, holiness is about ethical behavior. It’s about judging people fairly and not talking badly about them. It’s about helping people when they need it, whether by holding ourselves responsible for their safety, or telling them the honest truth when necessary. Essentially, as we read today: to love your neighbor as yourself, to treat them as you want to be treated.”

BJEP families shared a similar sentiment in summarizing their experience:

“I liked the BJEP B’nai Mitzvah program because it was adaptable and not stressful. I learned about what Judaism says about cheating in our everyday lives. I also learned about my peers’ topics which was kind of cool. It was great to spend the day with Gabriel and Liza which made it even that more special.”  Avi, B’Nai Mitzvah

Working with Rabbi Myra and the BJEP cohort was a perfect fit for our daughter and our entire family. Learning about issues they cared about with a group of their peers made the process relevant and particularly meaningful for our kids while allowing our families to share the experience together, making it all the more memorable for the rest of us.”  Eric, BJEP Parent.

We really enjoyed going through this experience with other families, our guests appreciated seeing the different student presentations, and we liked this unique model for our son’s B’nai Mitzvah.  Rachel, BJEP Parent.

BJEP Education Director Heather Renetzky shared that the students’ teachings “speak for themselves” in indicating the vitality and value of this program. “Watching Avi, Liza and Gabriel, “own” the bimah, getting to share their Torah in the modality that best suited them, it’s clear how both our students and Torah itself come alive when we empower our teens to make Torah their own. As a leader in thinking outside the box, BJEP is a natural home for this B’nai Mitzvah program. I already can’t wait to learn from our next cohort and I’m proud to be part of a community led by students and inspired by Judaism.

BJEP is still accepting students to its program for the 2022-2023 school year, including 7th grade and the 2022-2023 B’nai Mitzvah program.

Learn more:  https://bjep.org/supplemental-programs/

Questions?  Get in touch with our Leadership team here

More about our B’Nai Mitzvah students:

Avi Schenker, a seeker of knowledge, spends his time asking questions, talking quickly, and trying to make sense of it all. Avi gave a TED Talk about cheating, and how this connects to Judaism. Following an in-depth analysis on what is meant by cheating, and providing sources on this subject, Avi provided some guidance how to approach if you see this happening, from speaking to your peers with gentle words and standing up for what is right.

Liza Friedman, a key player on her soccer team’s defensive line (nicknamed “the wall” by some), is a lover of the written word, and an aficionado of good food, particularly those to which she can add soy sauce.  Liza shared teachings from the Torah on this multifaceted topic, moral issues associated with the right to choose, and in tandem, posed a series of questions to attendees in round table discussion (albeit, in pews/chairs). Further discussion followed on womens’ right to choose, the scenarios where this might be needed, and Jewish teachings on the value of life and preventing suffering.

Gabriel Burd, is often looking to surpass his personal best, whether chasing a time on the cross-country course or solving a Rubik’s Cube in record time.  Gabriel prepared and produced a video on the ethical issues of religious exemption from vaccination. Following analysis on what is meant by religious exemption, and Jewish teachings and guidance through interviews, Gabriel surmised the importance of taking care of one’s health, and responsibility of communal safety.

Categories: BJEP Blog