Temple Emanu-El members meet for special service during Shavuot
By Deb Silverthorn
Special to the TJP
Temple Emanu-El welcomes a host of adults who are celebrating their own coming of age in the Jewish community.
At 7 p.m. May 30 in the Tycher Gathering Space, class members will chant the commandments received by the children of Israel at Mount Sinai during Shavuot morning services.
The class includes a set of sisters, two women who have been friends since their children were young, some who are married, several Jews by choice, and a number of lifelong members of the congregation — each with their own soul-fulfilling cause to participate.
The roster consists of Leslie Bell, Evelyn Fox, Jeanette Herzmark, Gayle Johansen, Michael Kallinick, Chelsie Kastriner, Risa Kesselman, Jean Maza, Elise Mikus, Sue Pickens Owens, Helen Risch, Brett Ritter, May Sebel and Sue Weiner.
“This class has been a meaningful and spiritual experience for all of us who have been involved and it will have a lasting impact on the leadership of Temple Emanu-El,” said Temple’s Adult B’nai Mitzvah Clergy Liaison and Lead Teacher Rabbi Debra Robbins. She worked with Adult B’nai Mitzvah Program Director Becky Slakman, Adult B’nai Mitzvah Program Assistants Rachel Gross and Diana Hall and the congregation’s clergy to create and carry through a meaningful learning, growing, and sharing program.
“What makes our program really significant and unique is that it is integrated into the life of the congregation. Our program is so unique because the students attend the regular Shabbat service, each of them becoming a leader in our community, reading from the Torah on a Shabbat morning, also delivering a D’var Torah that they each wrote about the weekly portion,” said Rabbi Robbins. “With the direction of teacher Robin Kosberg, who taught a class open to the congregation, each of our b’nai mitzvah students found a way to bring the classical sources of our tradition together with the Torah text and the text of their life experiences.”
While the group took to the bimah one or two at a time spread out over many months, they spent a lot of time with each other sharing Shabbat lunches and dinners, Sunday lunches and an afternoon with Kerry Silver in her glass studio, where each person made a yad to use when reading from the Torah.
The goals of Temple’s Adult B’nai Mitzvah Program are to have participants engage in developing relationships with other members of the congregation by studying Hebrew in preparation to read from the Torah, exploring how to interpret Torah with classical texts and through life experiences, learning about prayer and spiritual practices in synagogue services and in daily life, working with others on social justice projects and celebrating a personal commitment to Jewish living in our community.
Objectives include students being able to master basic Hebrew decoding skills to read or chant three verses of Torah, being confident and competent reciting the Torah blessings for an aliyah, and feeling comfortable to participate and pray in the Shabbat morning service.
Students completing the program can expect to explore possibilities for cultivating meaningful and prayerful practices in synagogue services and in daily life, reflect on the meaning of various prayers and rituals related to Shabbat, understand the structure and flow of the Shabbat morning service, discover how Torah can be a gift in the lives of Jews, develop skills and tools to understand and interpret passages of Torah, write a personal reflection on the meaning of Torah verses or specific prayers, and discover how trope provides a way to express the meaning of Torah.
“Perhaps the image that is most powerful for me in reflecting on the 18-month experience is contrasting the image of the class at Shavuot last year when they held the Torah for our regular Torah readers to chant the 10 commandments,” said Rabbi Robbins. “On May 31, their teachers and other adult learning leaders will hold the Torah as each student chants one of the commandments and our congregation will have opportunity to celebrate together with this new cadre of leaders and teachers. I can’t wait to be with them!”
Encouragement in the wings
Helen Risch, a former certified school psychologist with a master’s degree in counseling and psychology from Penn State (where she first met her husband-to-be at a bagel breakfast), was called to the Torah on May 13, celebrating the moment with her dear friend Gayle Johansen. Glad to have her friend Gayle alongside for this journey, she said “it was a lot of help to have someone encouraging me along the way, and I liked having someone to encourage in return. This has been a very special time for us.”
Risch, the daughter of European immigrants Rachel and Sam Winnick, of blessed memory, reflected on her own “entrance into Jewish adulthood,” at Congregation Beth Israel, the Orthodox congregation of just 70 families in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, where she was raised. She and two other girls simply led a few prayers during Sukkot. Just six months ago, while researching family history, someone came upon an article of that occasion, calling it a bat mitzvah.
“In those days girls weren’t called to the Torah so we did what we did and it was still a special day,” said Risch, the wife of Frank, mother of Jolene and Jonathan (Alisha) and grandmother of Aaron, Eli, Jake, Jeremy, Maddie, and Rebecca.
“When my grandson Aaron became a bar mitzvah at Anshai Torah, he wanted his grandmothers to chant and Rabbi Weinberg gave us a Shehechiyanu. We’ve always been very involved in our Jewish community and our grandchildren all attend Jewish day schools here in Dallas and Houston but when this class was announced two years ago, I felt it was my time to focus on my own Jewish learning.”
Roz Katz, who tutored some of this year’s adult students, was a member of the adult program in 1997, and has tutored almost 400 children and adults since 2004.
“As adults, we consciously and conscientiously choose to step on the path to becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, and as a result, the service is imbued with commitment and joy. Being a part of the move through this process and their own service is so special, a truly delicious experience.
“Witnessing their growing interest in Judaism, their appreciation for this ancient language and their wholehearted embrace of preparations for their service continues to be sweetly profound,” Katz said.
When the commandments were given to the “children” of Israel, there were no age prerequisites. Thirteen, 25, or 80-plus … all the children of Israel. All earning, and receiving, blessings galore.