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Any way b’nei

Temple Beth Rishon revolutionizes rite of passage

Reb Beni Wajnberg
Reb Beni Wajnberg

There’s a revolution going on at Temple Beth Rishon.

It’s a b’nei revolution that is anything but war. It’s more like peace. Making peace with yourself. Making peace with your community, and making peace with your Yiddishkeit and your connection to Judaism.

In fact, it is a piece (yes, spelling deliberate) of innovation that the new rabbi, Beni Wajnberg (pronounced Vine-berg) who started last July, is bringing to the Wyckoff egalitarian temple as he brings forth — along with the community and members — a new vision to help make Judaism relevant, relatable and personal for its young members who are bar and bat mitzvah and coming into the fold of Jewish adulthood.

Reb Beni as he is known (the title, he said, “is old-country and implies a spiritual friendship. I want to break down walls and build bridges”) called together a “think tank,” not a “committee” to reimagine the future of Temple Beth Rishon’s young members.

“I want us to think about what is means to be 13 in Bergen County,” he said. “What does it mean to be 13 in 2019? What does Judaism mean in 2019?”

Lofty questions, yes. But answers are on the way.

“Synagogue life in general is in crisis,” said Reb Beni. “But I love a crisis. A crisis allows us to rethink who were are, what are our priorities as a family, and what does a b’nei mitzvah mean.”

The hope, he said, is to make all bar and bat mitzvahs “fresh, engaging and relevant.”

The word is out about Reb Beni and his warm enthusiasm that blends his traditional stock from European grandparents who were survivors of the Shoah, and his passionate Latin upbringing in Brazil, where his grandparents put down roots after the war. He is ordained as a Reform rabbi, but a member of the Renewal and Reconstructionist movements as well.

“It is the perfect fit for our community of independent, progressive and welcoming members,” Reb Beni said.

The revolution in bar and bat mitzvahs is called Kivun, which in Hebrew means direction and journey. It is an innovative way that a bar and bat mitzvah can celebrate coming into their adulthood.

 “Every Jew is a Jew by choice,” Reb Beni said. “Jews by birth have choices about what they want to do. There are options on how they connect spiritually.”

Perhaps the idea to customize the bar or bat mitzvah with Kivun, which officially launches in September, came recently when a young woman at her bat mitzvah faltered at the bimah. She is a competitive athlete from a very wonderful family and when she stood during this one fateful Shabbat to recite her Torah portion, she started to cry.

Reb Beni would not have it.

“Stop,” he said, and the young woman halted.

“Let’s all remember what is important here.” He then said her name and turned to her and said, “You are awesome!” He then turned to the congregants and instructed them on the count of three to say together to the bat mitzvah girl, “You are awesome.”

“No kid should ever cry on the bimah,” Reb Beni said. “No kid should ever feel like their b-mitzvah is not relevant or personal for them.”

So what is Kivun, which in Hebrew means direction or journey.

It is a new program for bnei mitzvahs to choose how they want to celebrate that day of becoming 13 years old. 

They can choose to do the Traditional track of reading the Torah and haftarah and leading in prayers, or they can choose the Flexible track, which has a little less liturgy and Torah reader. There is also the Havdalah track, where they mark their bar or bat mitzah with music and light and song and joy at the close of Shabbat. The Israel track allows the bar or bat mitzvah to go to Israel, accompanied by the clergy of Temple Beth Rishon where they can celebrate with a familiar rabbi and cantor.

There is the Shal-Om track, which uses yoga and mindful mediation. The bar or bat mitzvah incorporate movement into the prayer service and use the practice of yoga as a way to connect to their Judaism. (“I would have done this if this would have existed for me,” said Reb Beni.)

There also is the Nature tract where the bar or bat mitzvah can go into nature, backpack, Torah and all, and celebrate their Judaism in this way.

And finally, there is the DYI Kivun, where the bar or bat mitzvah is asked, “do you have a passion,” and a customized rite of passage where they could best relate is created.

With each of the tracks, explained Reb Beni, the bar or bat mitzvah will be required to do at least one portion of the Torah reading and lead in some of the prayer service. 

“There are core requirements,” but the rest is up to the young man or woman to create.

“We are very excited about this,” said Reb Beni. “The goal is to foster a meaningful connection to Judaism for every person.”

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