Beginning this September, Wyckoff’s Temple Beth Rishon will offer its 185 religious school students a new kind of bar/bat mitzvah experience — one tailored specifically to each student’s personality, passion, and preference.
In creating Kivun, which means direction, or journey, Rabbi Beni Wajnberg (his title of choice is Reb Beni) has realized one of his longtime goals. “It’s been on my mind since I decided to become a rabbi,” he said. “I love Judaism so much that I want it to be relevant for everyone.”
When he moved to Wyckoff from his earlier job as assistant rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, “it was my priority to start having these conversations.”
The rabbi moved quickly. After the High Holidays, he formed a “bar mitzvah think tank,” an intergenerational group including longtime members as well as synagogue staff. The result of the group’s nine months of discussion was Kivun.
The new initiative offers b’nai mitzvah students several different tracks, which all include fundamental prayers and readings. Each participant also is offered a “different journey, depending on the child and the family.”
A traditional track focuses on worship and leading the service, while another track includes a trip to Israel. A third track is centered on a Havdalah service. There is also a track “that brings forth mindfulness through yoga or a nature-centered experience, and a DIY path in which the child, family, and clergy create something that doesn’t currently exist,” Reb Beni said.
Every bar and bat mitzvah “will still be familiar with worship,” he continued. “They’ll know the Sh’ma, Friday night kiddush, the Amidah. But after that they’ll get electives. They’ll be able to individualize their journey. They’ll have at least one Torah reading, whether at a regular Shabbat service, as they get up from a yoga mat, or with the Torah in a backpack during a hike.”
If he had been offered the program when he was a kid, he said, “I would have done mindfulness or yoga. But I can’t dictate for everyone.” The key is to develop direct relationships with the preteens and their families “and then structure programs. Get to know them, then craft experiences we know will excite them.” This applies to adult members as well, he said, stressing that relationships always must precede programming.
“Every single kid or family deserves their own connection to Judaism,” Reb Beni said. “Today, people are looking at other things to find their spiritual connections to the world. While some are at services, others are at a yoga studio or hiking at the Ramapo reservation. Kivun is only an expression of that, to open every single door to spirituality that we can.”
His 400-member congregation is “very musical,” he continued. “Our new cantor, Vadim Yucht, plays an accordion, smuggled from the former Soviet Union, as well as piano and guitar.” During one of the first Kivun celebrations, the bar mitzvah celebrant will play guitar, accompanied by the rabbi and the cantor. “I play African drum, and we’ve hired a music director, who will play piano,” Reb Beni said. The student in question “connects through music. He will be part of the crew on Friday night and Saturday morning.”
Other students have indicated that they prefer a more informal, camp-like experience, while still others favor the Havdalah track. “One family is excited about nature and wants a spring hike,” he said.
The congregation “already approaches spirituality in a way that is our own. We’re proud that our ‘movement’ is the Jewish people. We’re not defined by a movement but by Yiddishkeit. We can change with time. That’s the point of Kivun.
“We’re simply applying who we already are and have always been. Everyone is different and there’s a place for everyone.”
There’s a good deal of excitement surrounding the project. “It’s heart-warming,” Reb Beni said; many among the “old guard,” the longtime members, have grandchildren who will participate in the bar/bat mitzvah initiative. Such innovation, he explained, is “part of who we’ve always been and how we are moving ahead of the curve.”
Organizational Judaism is in crisis, Reb Beni said, noting that during and after the Holocaust, “what it meant to be a good Jew meant belonging to an organization. That’s what Jews do — give money to federation, plant a tree in Israel.” But defining a Jew in that way is no longer valid. While some want to hold tight to that paradigm, “we have to start reconceiving what Jewish life is today. Let’s create different doors.” Indeed, he said, “There are a growing number of independent communities reconceiving what worship looks like and what community life looks like. One day they will be the majority.”
Kivun begins with the whole family — not just the student — meeting to discuss the upcoming project. Then, in fifth grade, students start preparing for the event and meet with the rabbi to discuss their plans. “I will check in with them twice a year to make sure they’re on the right path,” Reb Beni said. But they always can change direction. “People change. They’re not stuck with their original plan.”
“Our goal is to create the most meaningful and relevant b-mitzvah experience possible — one that marks the beginning of a young person’s Jewish journey and is not just focused on the finish line,” the religious school’s director, Gonen Arad, said. “Families are very busy today, and Kivun is a personalized approach that allows the family to do what works best for them but also remain part of a caring community.”
Esther Zuckerman, a congregant and the mother of two children, said she is thrilled that Beth Rishon has adopted this program. “My kids are different from each other, but each has made a commitment to becoming a b-mitzvah and to continue generations of our families’ legacy,” she said. “Now, they, and other TBR children, will be able to follow a path that also considers and celebrates their strengths and interests,” making the life cycle event a more meaningful experience for the whole family.’
“Judaism 5.0 is definitely not your bubbe’s Judaism,” Reb Beni said, nor is his background like most local bubbes’. He is from Brazil, began his rabbinical training at the Seminario Rabinico in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Rabbi Miriam Wajnberg, live in Waldwick with their two sons, Shai Lev and Rafael Mendel.
“It’s not better or worse — but it’s great,” Reb Beni said. “Judaism should be a positive, love-infused, and sacred journey. Everyone is allowed to have one, and we are blessed to open those doors.”
For more information about the synagogue and its b’nai mitzvah project, call Reb Beni at (201) 891-4466.