Never Done: I officiated a bar mitzve
In 2005, I moved to Hoboken for one year that turned into four long years. There were very few bright spots for me in Hoboken; one was the Mile Square Theater, and the other was Josh's old friend Robin and her family. Josh and Robin have known each other for almost 50 years, from the Yiddish secular camp Boiberik. We got close to Robin and Cliff, and their son Jack over our years on the other side of the Hudson, and have stayed close since moving back to Brooklyn. So when they asked us if we would lay officiate Jack's bar mitzve, it didn't come out of the blue, but it was certainly the first time I've been asked. You see, Jack realized, over the course of time he has spent in Hebrew school, that he doesn't believe in God. But Judaism is important to him, and he still wanted a ritual entree into Jewish life. But for many months, he didn't have words for it, and he didn't have a connection to secular Judaism in a way that let him know there was a tradition of exactly this, that he was on a well-trodden path.
In conversations with me and Josh, we were able to give him this context, and it's because of that -- and particularly because Josh himself had a secular bar mitzve, in a restaurant, half a century ago. I talked with Jack about growing up as (and still being) an atheist Jew, and having a rich Jewish life, mostly connected to progressive politics, yiddishkeit, and music and theater. Josh reminded Jack that his own mother came from a rich secular Jewish background. Together, we connected him with a rabbi (Alissa Wise) who deeply respects secularism and helped him craft a ceremony -- and a speech -- that pushed him to identify his ethical and cultural responsibilities and influences. It was because of all this that they asked us to lead the ceremony.
It wasn't always easy. It wasn't always so obvious to people what I had to contribute compared to what Josh had to contribute, and yet I had been invited -- and wanted. I found myself having to practice the mide (middah) of decisiveness. Deciding to be confident. Deciding to know I was wanted. Deciding to speak up and make suggestions. Deciding to dig into my history to articulate to myself and others precisely what I had to offer. Deciding to let go of needing credit for my ideas. Deciding to take responsibility for making Jack's bar mitzve as meaningful as it could possibly be.
In the end I did a lot of behind the scenes work, and also took a front-of-the-room position. I started the ceremony off by welcoming everyone, and talking about how growing up as an atheist Jew who only knew Jews in my own family, I deduced that Jews don't believe in God. In went on to talk about my path to a Jewish secularism that is rooted deeply in community, and inviting Jack to take that same journey. The rest of my job was mostly, with Josh, to weave together the rest of the speakers -- to MC if you will -- until it came to the l'chaim at the end. I think this might be a lot of what it's like to be a rabbi. Lots of behind-the-scenes work, some stage time, lots of setting aside of one's ego, and a lot of pride in and appreciation for everyone else. All in a bar in Hoboken.