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 wowed family and friends alike with their ability to integrate traditional 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 then 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 (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 seventh grade and the 2022-2023 B’nai Mitzvah program.
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