When Your Values Don't Align, Vote With Your Feet
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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Over the past seven years, my family and I have made an almost bi-annual trek to Minneapolis when my niece and nephew and nephew became bat and bar mitzvahs. Our family of four was always deeply appreciative that these events were never held during the state’s infamous winters.

We were also thrilled that friends and family from coast to coast made the voyage to honor these special occasions. And while our kids eagerly looked forward to the parties that followed the service,  my husband Michael and I excitedly anticipated our favorite part of the service, when my brother Scott and sister-in-law Debra addressed their child personally, passionately and yes, sometimes playfully, from the bimah.

This tradition brought tears to our eyes and joy to our hearts. This tradition made each bar and bat mitzvah unique and intimate. And this tradition is not permitted in our synagogue.

This upcoming March, our twins Jacob and Sophie will become bar and bat mitzvah. We are looking forward, as my brother and his family did, to our relatives and friends coming from coast to coast to celebrate with us. We are excited for our children to read from the Torah, to carry on Jewish tradition, and to enter adulthood (but without any additional secular privileges, as I keep reminding them). But there’s one wrinkle that keeps reminding us that the day isn’t entirely joyful: in order for us to have the service we want, we had to leave our shul to make it happen.

We did try, mind you. We pitched the ritual committee about our interest in speaking to our children from the bimah. We shared our sentiment that this element of the service is what could make each simcha feel more personal. We told about our experience in other similar synagogues (Conservative, egalitarian) where this was, in fact, the highlight of the weekly bar or bat mitzvah. We even mentioned that we thought having the parents speak to their children from the bimah would be a draw to bring in more families on Shabbat.

Of course, we didn’t just plead our case -– we listened to their concerns, too. Yes, it could lead to embarrassing “we never thought you’d be potty trained” speeches from gushing parents who didn’t have a sense of propriety.  Yes, it could go on too long from parents who forgot that the day was about their child and the community, not themselves. And yes, it could and would set a precedent -– a precedent that we wanted to start, and, ultimately, one that our synagogue didn’t want to begin.

So once we were outvoted, we had a major decision to make as a family. Actually – scratch that: we had two major decisions to make. The first one was: were our values around customizing our Jewish experience, putting our personal stamp on our simcha, and elevating the role of family involvement more important to us than our value of following the synagogue’s tradition, honoring our built-in community, and fulfilling our commitment to our temple? Yes. The second one was: were we going to complain about how it turned out or were we going to simply vote with our feet?  We chose the latter.

Hillel taught: "Do not separate yourself from the community." But that is exactly what we are doing because, for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, our community is not meeting our needs. Yes, it is hard for us to know that in order for us to have the simcha we envisioned for our children, we need to take a step away from the synagogue community we had become a part of for almost a decade. It is also difficult to reconcile that many of our close, personal friends were a part of the committee that made the difficult decision that didn’t agree with. But at the end of the day, Michael and I believe that they made the choice that most closely aligned with what they thought was best for the shul (which is exactly what their job entails)  -– and we made the choice that was most closely aligned with what we thought was best for our family (which is exactly what our job entails). What would make this more painful is if we stayed but complained – or even worse – stayed and kept resentfully silent.

We had a choice about what to do regarding the simcha, and we made it. We also had a choice about how to behave, and we made that one, too.

Now, when I envision the festive Purim morning celebration that we will be holding at our kids’ Schechter school next March -- the first bnai mitzvah ever to be held there -- we are excited to know that we are setting a precedent that the school is cautiously optimistic about (I think they’re most worried about the new gym floors holding up). We are also know that our simcha will be one that we designed to meet our values of family, creativity, meaning and yes, tradition. And finally, we know that as our children approach adulthood, we have modeled for them the importance of standing up for what you believe in without taking anyone else down.  


Last Update:

02/05/2014 - 21:00
bnai mitzvah, Deborah Grayson Riegel, synagogue membership

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Pretty much the dumbest reason for leaving a shul I've ever seen.

The clarification that the writer did not actually leave the synagogue is incredibly important here.

Sure, it's ridiculous that parents would be so self-centered as to think that anyone in the synagogue wants to hear their thoughts on their child. I promise you, most people don't. The speech can be loving and meaningful, but that's tough - speeches don't write themselves, and most parents aren't speechwriters (and few hire speechwriters, for obvious reasons). In my experience, these speeches come out as forced and invasive, disturbing the ceremony with a gushing and unsympathetic treatise on why their kid is the best kid around. It's unfriendly and unnecessary.

The time and place for this kind of schmaltz is at the party that evening or the oneg that afternoon. It doesn't interrupt the ceremony with unreligious navel-gazing.

All that said, if a parent wants their kid's bar/bat mitzvah to have clowns juggling hams and doing shrimp cocktail body shots, or to require see-through dresses for all the men in the audience, or to distribute gold doubloons for the guests or, yes, a self-aggrandizing speech from the bima by the kid's parents/cousins/second cousins/nanny, they're welcome to do so...if their synagogue lets them. Otherwise it'll need to happen somewhere else. The synagogue will be no poorer from the change of venue (well, maybe a little poorer, since the revenue from the bar/bat mitzvah doesn't help the shul that way, but it's the same if someone decides to have their mitzvah in Israel...and a nice donation to the shul either way is probably de rigueur), but the experience of everyone else in the shul will be protected.

You made your own choice, mazel tov! Just, please, no kvetching.

Mazel tov! at our shul, we offer parents the opportunity to speak to their children and the congregation in the context of the week's torah portion. it seems to be working. it's led to parents discussing the torah together, and has lessened the chance of any toilet training sagas as well

We once belonged to a synagogue with the same policy. I felt at the time that it was the ego of the Rabbi who did not want to share Bimah time with the children. What better way to demonstrte LeDor V-Dor then a speech by the parents? Of the hundreds of ceremonies that I have attended over the years, I can count less than 5 where the parent was inappropriate.

It doesn't sound to me like the family quit the synagogue. It sounds like they just decided to have that one particular ceremony someplace else. It seems to me they handled the situation with tact and maturity. I'm glad they're doing what feels best to them.

We didn't leave the shul. We took our simcha out of the shul. Thanks for you comment, which gave me the opportunity to clarify this.

I belong to a shul that does have parents address their children from the bimah and I have heard some wonderful ones, and also come embarrassing ones. I think the parents here are doing what is becoming all too common in synagogues--leaving when they can't get their way. If the shul does not allow parent remarks from the bimah, the parents are free to do it at the luncheon or dinner. Why leave a synagogue after 10 years simply because of this one thing? Wasn't the synagogue there when they needed to educate their children and find a Jewish community? This action is very self-serving and sends a poor message to their kids -- if you don't get what you want, quit. There are better ways to handle this.

I do not believe 'anonymous' is correct. In fact, sadly, there are no better ways to handle this. Mrs. Riegel beautifully and logically wrote about her dilemma. She explained herself very well. Re-read the article if you must. Sometimes, leaving a synagogue is the correct and only response. 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, or 1 or 2 years, it doesn't matter. When the synagogue no longer serves your needs, you vote with your feet, as the title of the article says. The fact that the synagogue was there when her children needed a Jewish education has zero to do with the more important issue she discussed smartly, in my opinion. In addition, to indicate that her and her husband's decision is 'self-serving' is ludicrous. Our first responsibility is to do what is best for us. If what is best for us aligns with the community, great; if not, than the community comes in second. Finally, they clearly sent the right message to their kids. How could they indicate to their kids that fighting for what they believe in is wrong?

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