A Jewish Way of Being: Sending Off Our B’nai Mitzvah Graduates
By: Meg Adler
Earlier this month, our fourth cohort of students (49 in total) graduated from Tawonga’s Bar, Bat & B’nai Mitzvah Program! MAZEL TOV to our graduates! Students shared touching and authentic speeches at the virtual graduation, reflecting on this two-year Jewish journey together.
Below is the commencement speech given by Tawonga’s Assistant Director of Jewish Life and Learning, Meg Adler – who also directs the program.
I hope what we have taught you is not just a lot of Jewish things. Well, maybe some Jewish things. But you see, things, you can look up on the internet or in books as needed – like, do we light candles or bless the wine first? That is all good and well to know, but it has not been our intent that you pass such an exam.
I hope what we have taught you instead is a way of being – a Jewish way of being in the world. What is this Jewish way of being? For the sake of illustrating this way of being, I will share a story that comes from a Rabbi who lived some years ago, during the 19th century. His name was Rabbi Simcha Bunim.
He would teach that everyone in the world should live as if they have two pockets with a piece of paper in each pocket. Each piece of paper would have a message written on it. In one pocket, the message is, “The world was created for me” – a text from the Talmud. That way, when someone is feeling low, they can reach into their pocket, read the message and remember their agency and power.
But, in the other pocket, the message would be, “I am but dust and ashes” – a text from the book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah. When someone is feeling too mighty, or too self-important, this text will remind them that they are created in the material world – we are all born, we will age, as the body does, and one day we will leave the physical world, making room for the next generation.
In the Tawonga program, we have asked you to do this in our own way – to question boldly and to listen humbly.
We have asked you to question where the ritual of b’nai mitzvah comes from in the first place. Who invented it? Does it still work? Who says how it should work today? We have asked you to question who holds the keys to the gates of Jewish practice? We have asked you to even question “who wrote the Torah?” and “how does it apply to our lives today?” We have asked you to consider the biggest issues of the world – hunger, homelessness, racial injustice, environmental desecration – and ask, “what can I do about it?”
And yet, we have asked you to go outside and notice the trees and the flowers and the wind. We have asked you to take moments for yourself to listen to your own heart which, as it beats, counts the seconds of your life as you grow into young adults. We have asked you to consider the shema, and how all life and all things are connected. What do your classmates think about the soul? What about your relatives – do they believe in an afterlife?
Question boldly and listen humbly.
May these ways of being become a part of you, and may you learn to dance between them.
The Torah says that Jacob wrestled with an angel before he was given the name, Israel. I think of this wrestling like the sport of wrestling (where people wear spandex and little hats). This kind of wrestling is somewhat like a dance – there are certain moves you can make and you are reacting to your partner as they move about the floor. In this way, may you wrestle. May you dance between audacity and humility as your life unfolds.
Finally, a note about belonging and our community. Just by showing up, you are part of this community. Whether you were sad or frustrated or quiet or loud or excited or inspired. Our community is large enough to hold all of us – the disappointment and the gratitude of this year. The loss and the hope. The hurt and the healing. We will always draw the circle around you, to include you. And that too, is what it means to be Jewish – to welcome.
Thank you for showing up these past two years, however you were able. Thank you for allowing us to be a part of your Jewish journey, and may your Jewish life take many more beautiful turns.
Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be G-d’s will.
Meg Adler is Camp Tawonga’s Assistant Director of Jewish Life and Learning and directs our Bar, Bat & B’nai Mitzvah Program. You can read more about the program here.
Original artwork by Letters Aligned (aka Meg!).
Camp Tawonga is grateful to the supporters of our Bar, Bat & B’nai Mitzvah Program: