Word for the Herd: Torah from your favorite teacher
Football Hall-of-Famer and Television celebrity Michael Strahan did a play-by-play of sorts of a recent bar mitzvah he attended in the New York City area — one of my tutoring family’s celebrations. In between humorous banter on Live with Kelly and Michael (ABC) on Monday, Feb. 22, Strahan likened my bar/bat mitzvah tutoring role to coaching, and pronounced, “So she works with the kids,… she works with the parents … She was up there with [the bar mitzvah boy]. … It ‘takes a village’ to make this happen. It really does.”
Embedded in Strahan’s shout-out is an acknowledgement of the detailed and multi-faceted nature of bar/bat mitzvah preparation, ritual and celebration. My role as an informal Jewish educator starts years before the milestone event and encompasses Hebrew language, Bible, Jewish history, custom, and philosophy. More importantly, I join with the family: I become everyone’s big-sister or best-friend, making it “cool” to study and learn about tradition and religion. Lessons become personalized, enjoyable and creative with art projects, cooking and trips to the park or exhibits. More than providing a 1-hour lesson, I go to my students’ dance and school performances. I serve as a lay-cantor at their mitzvah ceremonies when many create “Do It Yourself” services. Far from trying to avoid Jewish communal affiliation with these alternative services, my families are actually seeking more involvement and ownership in creating meaningful ritual. I accompany families to Israel as they hold worship services by the egalitarian prayer area at the Davidson Center/Robinson’s Arch or the Israel Museum.
And so Michael Strahan, a friend of the family, got to see first-hand the detailed learning and training a committed family’s son undergoes. And he was witness to a lavish blow-out-celebration. Now spectators might be tempted to cynically judge a celebrity-filled extravaganza, but outward appearances do not tell the whole story. Behind the extraordinary venue — the Barclays Center in Brooklyn — the stylized, formal Black and White attire, the renowned Max Weinberg and his band, and Popstar “Pitbull” — is a family’s deep commitment to charitable giving, their strong Jewish faith, and their dedication in commissioning the writing of a Torah to honor the memory of family members who had passed away. This family enjoys sharing their blessings — access to the Barclays Center and the disposable income to shower their children and friends with a super night.
For years I had taught their middle child, Brandon, lessons consisting of Jewish holidays, Hebrew prayers and now a Torah portion. He worked incredibly hard to prepare everything. The parents learned, as well: Along with the head of my tutoring company, Joel Cohen, we all sat with a scribe as he explained the requirements for writing the family's sacred Torah. Future bar/bat mitzvah families working our tutoring firm, will be able to use this same Torah, upon making a donation to a charitable fund.
And before the glitz of the Barclays celebration, this same family journeyed to Israel to do a service in Jerusalem and bring home their completed, commissioned Torah.
In the days leading up to his Brooklyn service, I realized how colossal this party and service was becoming: The family had stylists and shopping trips. Deliveries of clothes and religious artifacts they would use for the service. The boy had secret rehearsals at the Barclays for his party entrance (flying in from the rafters of the stadium on a wire with pyrotechnics and fog shooting up on either side of him).
For the service, we rehearsed several times in sound studios with a band of more than 20 talented musicians, two cantors, and recorded tracks of our songs to prepare Max Weinberg of the E-Street Band/Tonight Show Band. Max would be drumming in the service. I had never been part of such a HUGE production for a coming of age ceremony.
Still, we remained mindful of maintaining the Jewish values behind a Bar Mitzvah — studying and stepping up to become responsible in the eyes of the community and G-d. I kept reminding the party planner, I needed to be next to the boy at all times during the service to keep him focused and calm and to be there in case he needed me.
When I internally questioned the hype, I’d look at his loving parents and think of all the discussions we had together about Jewish life and the importance of our traditions. I would think about conversations I had with both sets of doting grandparents about their family histories and of real loss and challenges. To raise such sweet children against this backdrop of immense means is true accomplishment.
For this enormous celebration, the Calvin Klein VIP entrance of the Barclays Center was beautifully transformed into a worship space with a platform, podium, and holy ark. First, a film was shown explaining the process of creating a Torah. A spiritual atmosphere enveloped the room, as two shofar blowers filled the hall with stirring sound of the ancient ram’s horn’s call to worship. Max Weinberg, with a strap-on snare drum, set a beat and marched down the center aisle. Max joined his large band to play rock-and-roll hora. The family (grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins) marched down the center aisle. And the bar mitzvah boy, under a chuppah canopy supported by his grandparents, was holding his Torah like a precious baby. The group danced at the front of the stage with the Torah, and pure joy and love enveloped the room. Every family member had a part in the service, infused with beautiful music sung by a Cantor. When Brandon chanted solo, I would unobtrusively give cues, sometimes with a look, a whisper in his ear, or a pointer on the page. The bar mitzvah boy’s mother gave a stirring speech. Brandon did a great job on every part. When it came time for me to give Brandon a speech and a blessing, I hugged him and cried, and told him how sweet and thoughtful he is as a person, what a tremendous family he comes from and what an honor it is to be his teacher.
The party was an epic occasion beyond description. Michael Strahan glossed over the gorgeously lit stadium that had been transformed into a carnival with two huge roller coasters, games and enormous video screens. The R&B legend Aaron Neville sang the mother-son dance, “First Time I Saw your Face.” And then “Mr. Worldwide- Pitbull” with 8 dancers, came out and performed his most popular songs.
Yet, even with all of this fanfare, Strahan chose to emphasize the bar mitzvah boy and his tutoring. No one understands the role of the coach more than an athlete. This process of becoming a Jewish adult is hard and rigorous; my role is true coaching, character-building, man or woman-making, religious training. This is what Michael Strahan acknowledged on national television— the teaching and the training that goes into such a magnificent rite of passage.