I live in Espanola, New Mexico, a town of 9,000 people, mostly Hispanic and Native American, with a lot of churches but without a Jewish synagogue. I live in an agrarian mestizo community: most of my neighbors are of mixed Spanish and Native American descent dating from the arrival of Juan de Onate in the 16th century. Leaders in my community worry about passing their cultural heritage on to the next generation in the face of industrial encroachment. Rio Arriba County reminds me of Israel at the time of Akiva, immediately preceding the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
Although I invited my Hispanic Rio Arriba colleagues to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, none came. Many of my more urbane Hispanic friends in Santa Fe were present. They lived in “the city.” Many had moved away for college and then returned. They were familiar with Jews. I wish I could explain the significance of the B’nai Mitzvah to my struggling agrarian friends. It has helped the Jewish people to maintain our identity in exile for thousands of years.
Yesterday was Shaefer Bennett’s bar mitzvah. Shaefer lives on a farm 10 miles from me. His reading about the laws governing animals seemed particularly well-suited to him. He looks after several horses and cows left to him by an elderly neighbor who passed on, and volunteers at a horse ranch where he teaches the disabled to ride. He wants to become an equine therapist when he grows up.
I have known Shaefer since he was a little boy. Our families have carpooled to Hebrew school for years.
The Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the Jewish frontier is very different from a Bar Mitzvah back east. There are few lavish parties and gifts are modest. Mainly, we focus on passing along a rigorous understanding of Judaism to our children, a task which is often complicated by distance.
I teamed up with two other Espanola area families to help my children reach their B’nai Mitzvah ritual. It was a challenge to drive my children into Santa Fe two times a week on Wednesday and Sunday. Older children have class at six while younger children must be there by four. But my son and daughter attended school in two separate towns, Los Alamos and White Rock, thirty minutes from where I work, and an hour from Santa Fe. The Trujillo family lives in Chimayo, 15 minutes to the East of us, but also sent their children to White Rock and Santa Fe. The Bennett children attended day school in Santa Fe.
Here’s how we did it:
Early every morning my husband met Irvin Trujillo in Espanola and exchanged a child. One van headed to White Rock and the other to Santa Fe. On Wednesdays, Irvin brought one carload of children into Santa Fe at four while his wife, Lisa, dropped off the other at six. Scott Bennet, who worked in Santa Fe, picked up a carload of younger Bennett-Trujillo-Reichelts at six and drove them to his farm in La Puebla. I picked up the older carload of Bennett-Trujillo-Reichelts at 7:30 and drove to Scott’s farm. I dropped off the elder Bennett and picked up the younger Trujillo-Reichelts, dropped off the Trujillos at their weaving studio in Chimayo and drove my own children home. We were lucky if we made it by ten.
On Sundays, we took turns, meeting in a parking lot and loading kids into a van.
As various children aged out of the carpool program (or began driving themselves), moving on to high school or college, the regime became more complex. My son took the Park and Ride to Santa Fe where he was met by a rotating assortment of Temple members and driven to class. Imagine a ten year old boy standing on the sidewalk with a trombone case and a backpack full of books in a downpour waiting for his ride!
Sometimes it snowed or a child ended up on a Park and Ride going in the wrong direction. I once ended up in a ditch in Chimayo in the middle of a blizzard with a carload of cold children!
But transportation is not the only educational challenge here at the Jewish frontier. At our synagogue, the families of the b’nai mitzvah class form teams to support one another through a rigorous and trying year. Teams help individual families to minimize costs by preparing and cleaning up after meals for the congregation following the Friday night and Saturday services, and assisting to organize B’nai Mitzvah parties.
In large congregations back East, three or four children are often Bar or Bat Mitzvahed at the same service. Their role in the service itself may be minimal. Parties can be quite ostentatious. It is easier to take Judaism for granted when everyone around us is Jewish focusing instead on status. This doesn’t happen on the Jewish frontier.
At our synagogue, every child must act as the Rabbi, leading the congregation through the entire service. Most children must chant four aliyot (Torah passages) and the haftorah. They are expected to prepare and deliver a well-thought out d”var torah (sermon). The support team families rush in from the kitchen to hear the d’var torah and the parents’ speeches. Yesterday, Shaefer’s father shared a story about Shaefer’s beloved horse who foundered and could not be saved. After a week it was clear the horse would have to be put down. Shae lovingly led his horse into the trailer and gave her a hug, knowing he would never see her again. Scott broke down crying while he told the story and of course so did all the men and women in the congregation. In his d’var Torah, Shaefer told us he disagreed with his Torah portion because it allowed slaves to seek refuge from an abusive master but did not allow the same privilege for animals. Shaefer believes we are all required to shelter an abused animal. Also, he wondered why a businessman was required to buy a new set of weights if his became incorrect instead of just adjusting his prices.
The Rabbi cited verses of Talmud that supported Shaefer’s assertion regarding animals. He told us that the requirement for weights was there to protect the reputation of the businessman or woman. Maintaining standardized testable weights makes it difficult to unjustly accuse someone from cheating. Shaefer also informed us in a deadpan voice that it is an abomination for a man to dress as a women, a statement that brought guffaws from the congregation since he played an excellent Queen Vashti last Purim.
In our community, the B’nai Mitzvah is a time when adults cede their voices to their children. If the child says that a passage of Torah does not seem correct, we listen and discuss it with them. We want to prepare them to lead our community in the days that follow.
During the B’nai Mitzvah year, all class parents are expected to attend every b’nai mitzvah. This can mean devoting 12-20 weekends a year to the other parents depending on the size of the class. The class sits together with their two teachers, Ellen and Meridith. During prayers they place their arms on one anothers’ shoulders and sway back and forth. They lead many of the songs.
My son’s Bar Mitzvah was an opportunity for family healing. I did not meet my birth father until I was college-age. I had grown up thinking he didn’t want me. When my mother was on her death bed, she asked me to get to know my father insisting she had misled me about his character. She kept repeating, “He really was a very nice man and your life would have been better had he been in it.”
At first I didn’t believe her. But then I invited him to my son’s Bar Mitzvah. He flew out from Philadelphia with his sister, my aunt Eileen and her son, my cousin, John. They were on the last plane out of Philly the night of Snowmageddon. As it turned out, they are very nice people.
In Aunt Eileen’s family, women don’t participate in the service. My father attends an orthodox shul where women sit behind a divider. I had asked my father to come up to the Torah with a family friend, Phil LeCuyer to say the blessing over Ben’s first aliyah (or reading). I thought my father would really like Phil since he is also Orthodox. Our first little bump occured when my father informed me that because he is a Kohein (a descendent of Aaron) he cannot say the blessing with anyone else. I didn’t know what to do. I asked Phil if he would mind joining my husband and I for our aliyah (in orthodox synagogues women are not called to the Torah) and Phil graciously agreed.
But there was another problem! I did not want my Aunt Nancy (my Mom’s sister who has always been there for me) or her husband, Uncle Frank, to feel displaced. I didn’t want Aunt Eileen to feel awkward. So when the time came for the grandparents to approach the ark to hand the Torah to the next generation, my husband Richard and I brought Richard’s parents, my father, Aunt Eileen and John, Aunt Nancy and Uncle Frank up to the ark with us. My father-in-law, Walter, became momentarily confused and shuffled off to find a restroom. My mother in law subtly redirected him. There were a lot of confused people milling around for a moment trying to figure out where to stand.
Rabbi Schwab observed the chaos and then whispered meaningfully to me, “Your family seems to have quite alot of grandparents up here at the bima.”
“Yes, we do,” I whispered back.
“Okay,” he said, and helped me to maneuver the horde into position.
He held part of the service in Ladino in order to welcome my Hispanic friends.
After the service, we retired to the social hall for our meal and were greeted by the Oneg team holding little cups of wine. Maria, one of the mothers on my team, was especially solicitous of my father. She is a beautiful woman of Chinese ancestry who has lived in Chicago, Costa Rica and France, among other places. I could tell my father was both impressed and confused. How did she come to be a part of our community? Why would a Chinese woman dedicate so much effort to preparing another child’s Bar Mitzvah? “She’s Evan’s mother,” I explained. “When it’s Evan’s turn, the community will be there for her.”
Devon, one of the mothers in my son’s class, is also not Jewish. Her husband (the father of her two daughters) was. He died. She remarried, but to honor his wishes and memory, she and her current husband have raised her daughters as Jews. Since Anna’s Bat Mitzvah followed my son’s, our families were invited together to the Rabbi’s house for supper, giving us a chance to get to know one another, cementing the community bond even tighter.
My father, aunt and cousin later told me they had never experienced such a strong sense of community in a synagogue. They were surprised by the intellectual rigor and vibrancy of the service so far away from the center of the Jewish world.
I attribute the phenomenon to an amazing Rabbi; but also to the challenges of life on the Jewish frontier.
I wish I could share the practice with my agrarian neighbors. But I guess that on this one issue we will have to travel our separate roads.