Jewish Holidays and Practices
A Guide for Newcomers
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Basic Holiday Info
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Think Pieces and Sermons
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As September quickly approaches and summer fades away, many college-bound students are packing up and preparing for the upcoming year on campus. For some, this is new and unchartered territory: dorm life, new friends, unlimited extra-curricular activities, and doing your own laundry. And for a few students, this includes becoming a Bat Mitzvah.
Last year, according to the Dayton Jewish Observer, four students at Tufts University were called to the Torah as Bâ€™not Mitzvah during the spring semester. One of these young women, Kira Mikityanskaya, was inspired to have her Bat Mitzvah during her first trip to Israel the summer before her freshman year. Kira didnâ€™t even learn that she was Jewish until the age of 6 when she and her family immigrated to the United States from Russia. Growing up she at attended Sunday school and was active in her local Jewish youth groups, but as she turned 13, when many of her friends started preparing for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahâ€™s, Kira felt she wasnâ€™t ready. So the time came and went, and she never had a Bat Mitzvah.
After a Birthright trip to Israel last year, Kira decided she wanted to finally have her Bat Mitzvah â€“ she just didnâ€™t know how to do it. When she arrived on Tufts’ campus for the first time last Fall, she saw a flyer at the campus Hillel for a program helping students who had never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to have one. Seven months and one mitzvah project later, Kira became a Bat Mitzvah at age 19.
Nearly 2000 miles away, four other women were recently called to the Torah for a Bâ€™not Mitzvah. They, like Kira and her friends, were also past the traditional Bat Mitzvah age â€“ but a bit further along. At ages ranging from 76 to 90, these women, who grew up in a time when girls didnâ€™t typically have a Bat Mitzvah, were finally able to celebrate. â€śIt shows that you never get too old to do something you want,â€ť said the eldest of the group, Diana T. Wunch, in the Houston Chronicle.
For many, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah comes hand-in-hand with a slew of requirements and rules, such as several years of study in the synagogueâ€™s religious school, membership, Torah-trope tutors, mitzvah project, etc. These requirements and policies can often deter families and individuals looking to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah outside of the traditional timeline. Unaffiliated and interfaith members of the community need to know that our doors are open, especially for the important lifecycle events â€“ from Bar and Bat Mitzvahâ€™s through weddings and funerals. For this reason, JOI is working in partnership with STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal on Call Synagogue Home to help rabbis and synagogues look beyond their policies and seize these opportunities for engagement. Whether itâ€™s a Bat Mitzvah at 19 or 90, or an interfaith family who wants to celebrate the birth of a child, we are working together to make sure that our community is welcoming to everyone who wants to share in these rich, family experiences.
September is right around the corner, and for the Jewish community that means getting ready for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). While these holidays attract many Jews who otherwise never attend synagogue, save for maybe the occasional Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they also ignite a debate within the Jewish community thatâ€™s been going on for years: charging for attendance at High Holiday services.
We believe, as do a growing number of synagogues and congregations across the US, that there should be no â€śpay-to-prayâ€ť stipulation for the High Holidays. As the holidays get closer, we anticipate more being written about this issue. The magazine Jewish Living has inaugurated this yearâ€™s debate with a short article that mentions a very funny video making the rounds on YouTube, in which a couple hurries up to the doors of a temple only to realize they forgot to buy tickets. As luck would have it, though, there is a ticket scalper lurking in the shadows.
Titled â€śBad Karma on the Kippur,â€ť the three minute video, which is similar to this typically cringe-inducing clip from Larry Davidâ€™s HBO show â€śCurb Your Enthusiasm,â€ť is an intelligent mix of humor and social commentary â€“ even addressing interfaith relationships and race. Ticket scalping at High Holidays will never be as blatant as portrayed in this video, but it does raise many questions about how this practice affects the unaffiliated members of our community (or those who canâ€™t afford dues) who view high ticket prices as a major barrier to participation. Chabad charges nothing for their High Holiday services, and their attendance at this time of year skyrockets. Isnâ€™t it time for the rest of the community to lower or remove this barrier and open our doors for all who would like to enter?
For the past couple of years, STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal) and JOI have been working together on a program called Call Synagogue Home which aims to help make synagogues more welcoming towards interfaith families during life-cycle events, which include brit milah and baby namings, Bâ€™nai Mitzvah, weddings and funerals. They also include non-traditional lifecycle moments, such as high school graduation, recovery from illness, the purchase of a new home or even a new job.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky often leads training sessions for synagogue leadership, offering suggestions on how they can attract and engage unaffiliated families during any of the life-cycle events listed above. Thanks to the popularity of online video sharing sites like YouTube, now anyone can get a taste of what Call Synagogue Home has to offer.
This clip provides some highlights from one of Kerryâ€™s training sessions and gives a glimpse into one of the many ways JOI helps institutions to explore how they can create a warm and welcoming environment for interfaith families during life-cycle events and beyond.
At JOI we spend a lot of time focused on the creation of welcoming environment. We even have developed a signature research tool that helps us to evaluate the welcoming nature of institutions and communitiesâ€”what we call an environmental outreach scan (an example of which can be found here).
One of the things that we like to say is that our institutions and organizations should reflect the way we treat guests in our homes. That is why my wife gets upset when we have guests for Shabbat and I make motzi (blessing over bread) and then take the first bite myself rather than offer the first piece to a guest. But that is what the tradition teaches us to do since it is important to complete the act immediately following the blessing.
There are other places and times in the Jewish culture code, as I like to call it, which call for similar, seemingly unwelcoming behaviors. When we enter a house of mourning, we are not supposed to speak to the mourner until the mourner speaks to us.
This Saturday night/Sunday is Tisha Bâ€™av, a commemoration of tragedy that has befallen the Jewish people throughout its history, most notably the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem which led to the exile (some call it diaspora) of the Jewish people. The somber day is marked by many rituals, including the reading of the book of Lamentations and fasting. On Tisha Bâ€™av, contrary to what we teach most of the time, it is customary not to greet people. So if you find yourself in the synagogue for Tisha Bâ€™av, donâ€™t be surprised if no one says hello. In this case it is indeed part of Jewish culture.
I am what many in the Jewish community would label as an â€śinsider.â€ť I work for a Jewish organization, attend Shabbat services regularly and am an active participant on several committees at my synagogue, of which I am a proud dues-paying member. With that being the case, many of my fellow â€śinsidersâ€ť assume that Iâ€™ll be spending a portion of my weekend fasting and at synagogue, observing Tisha Bâ€™Av, a day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. Last year was the first time I observed Tisha Bâ€™Av, choosing to fast and attend services several times with hopes of connecting to the power and meaning of the day. But by sun-down after a long day, I just found myself hungry and disappointed, not having felt any spiritual or religious connection.
This year, I hesitate to observe in the same, traditional manner as last year, despite the expectations of being an â€śinsider.â€ť Instead, Iâ€™m considering observing Tisha Bâ€™Av, a day reminding us of destruction and exile, in an alternative way, one that might provide me with a deeper spiritual connection. This year Iâ€™d like to do my part to ensure that in the future, no community will ever have a reason to mourn for the same reasons that many will fast this Saturday night and Sunday. We can not reverse history, but we can make a difference for communities that currently face devastation, including the refugees of Darfur and the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. For those on the â€śinsideâ€ť or â€śoutside,â€ť fasting all day or not at all, why not take a moment to reflect and even act to make certain that no other People have a day of mourning like Tisha Bâ€™Av?
Though JOI is often known for its work with those who have intermarried, we established our Big Tent Judaism campaign to emphasize the importance of being welcoming to all those who wish to engage with the Jewish community. True, intermarried couples are sometimes marginalized by the Jewish community, but so are gays and lesbians, Jews of color, Jews-by-choice, those with disabilitiesâ€¦and the list goes on. We commend the Interfaith Disability Connection for recognizing the need to â€ś[educate] and [engage] faith communities in cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with people with disabilities.â€ť
This Sunday, the Interfaith Disability Connection will be holding a discussion of acceptance and inclusion at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta: â€śThat All May Worship: Beyond The Ramp.â€ť The Atlanta area organization counts five local synagogues as members, three of which are also members of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition. The Interfaith Disability Connection provides resources to these congregations, as well as to people with disabilities and their families and caregivers. The resources include everything from the physical set up of our institutions to alternative format worship services.
The important awareness of making our Jewish institutions accessible for those with disabilities is becoming a higher and higher priority for the Jewish community. For example, according to the Cleveland Jewish News, Suburban Temple-Kol Ami renovated its sanctuary to include ramps and handrails leading up to the bimah and roomier aisles to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs, As the Jewish community continues to look to its future, we hope that accessibility becomes a high enough priority that it will no longer need to be a priority at all.