By Linda Rich
Think of adult bar/bat mitzvah and what do you picture? If you imagined a dozen students in an intensive, contained clergy-led process, you wouldn’t be at West End Synagogue.
This Upper West Side Reconstructionist congregation found that demands on clergy time limited the availability of the rabbi and cantor to closely lead and manage a program to which it had committed. So West End dug deep to draw on other assets: a highly talented congregation, a willingness to experiment with new approaches, and a strong spirit of lay involvement and lay-clergy partnership. Thus was born Na’aleh, a process that enlisted a broad range of congregants as mentors, teachers and coordinators, and engaged the entire congregation as cheerleaders for Jewish learning.
The rabbi and cantor remained core to the program, each teaching the group once a month. In other weekly sessions a variety of congregants stepped up to share their areas of expertise: Jewish history, the Jewish canon, Reconstructionism, and more. The participants also divided themselves into sub-groups by interest, with each selecting relevant books to read and work on together, thus taking ownership of their own Jewish education.
One of the most compelling elements of the program involved learning how to craft a dvar torah, also taught by a lay leader. Each participant worked with his/her mentor to develop a highly individualized dvar, which was reviewed with the group before presentation to the full congregation across several months of Shabbatot.
Na’aleh turned out to be a huge success, exceeding all expectations. With fewer than 300 member units, West End saw 17 (!) participants complete the full program, among them several Jews-by-choice. In addition to succeeding as a learning opportunity, Na’aleh also created community for the participants who truly gelled as a cohort. And, it served as a wider engagement tool for the broader congregation, who waited expectantly for each dvar torah, delivered by many who had rarely before been heard from on the bimah. West End congregants became cheerleaders for this group of intrepid learners, took pride in their accomplishments, and considered whether to take part next time around.
With so many participants, Na’aleh bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies were scheduled for three separate dates. Each of these Shabbat celebrations was crafted by that dates’ participants, and included creative liturgy written by them. A yearbook commemorating the full experience and incorporating selections from the divrei torah is being produced to coincide with the final ceremony in September.
West End has now embarking on a process of evaluation to understand the transformative effects of the Na’aleh program, and to determine what worked best and what needs to be tweaked in future. Meantime the impact continues. Unprompted by others, the participants are discussing some very significant Jewish learning they want to pursue together going forward, and what they might do to “give back” to the congregation that afforded them this experience.
The Na’aleh program description is attached. Please feel free to make use of it or distribute it to others who might be interested in conducting a similar effort. West End Synagogue would be delighted to see other institutions take this work forward and build upon it. For questions about Na’aleh, please contact Linda Rich or Rabbi Marc Margolius.