The rabbis have taught us that we learn from books and from great teachers and thinkers, but most of all we learn from our students. And that expression of the rabbis of old has been my experience. I have studied and learned throughout my life, but my greatest teachings, insights and inspiration have come from those I supposedly teach or serve as a rabbi. Many parents share with me that they learn from their children. I know this experience also.
This weekend we are celebrating two B’not Mitzvah here.
Tomorrow morning, we will celebrate with Melanie Jacobson Katzell. Let me tell you a few things about Melanie. She entered this building to study in a Melton Class. She came here, taking time from an extraordinarily impressive and successful career as an attorney and a judge. And she came here without any formal Jewish learning in her background. She immersed herself in classes. The more she learned, the more she realized there was to learn. Undaunted (usually) she continued to challenge herself. Her studies brought her to services, where she realized that there was a whole set of skills before her that she needed to access. And so she began Hebrew classes and began to study prayers with her Torah study. Tomorrow she will fulfill a life-long dream. Tomorrow, Melanie will lead us in prayer, read from the Torah, chant a haftarah, and do a Dvar Torah! It is inspirational for all of us.
Learning is a life-long process. As we learn, we grow in knowledge and understanding about the subjects, about the world, and about ourselves. And we, as a community, not only provide opportunities, but also need to support, encourage and inspire each other. I have seen the strongest and most significant dimension of community bonds take place through studying together.
Tomorrow afternoon, at mincha, we will celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of Sydney Weinstein. Sydney has lived in Japan for eleven years. And her parents Amy and Marc suggested that Sydney, like her brother before her, celebrate a Bat Mitzvah here (in addition to Tokyo) in order for her grandparents to be present. This is an act of “kivud av v’eim” (honoring mother and father). This honors parents in a very special way. Sydney is bright and warm and shows great enthusiasm. Shortly before coming to the states, the family learned that Marc’s job was transferring him to Washington D.C. When I met with Sydney she knew that this major move was taking place and I asked her how she felt about leaving her life in Japan and coming to the United States. She said something that made me take pause and consider our world.
She told me she was sad. She was sad because not only was she giving up a life where she had become so comfortable, but because she was giving up her freedom. I asked her what she meant. She told me that in Japan there is very little crime. Kids are free to go out on their own, take public transportation, to play and shop and pretty much do whatever they want to do by themselves. They are independent and they learn how to navigate the world. But here, everyone’s afraid. Kids are protected and their freedom is curtailed. I was so impressed with her insight. I hope that the life she lives here gives her great exposure to many wonderful opportunities and that she experiences the best of what American culture has to offer and that she has a lot of fun. And I hope that she feels free.
I know that one of the essential dimensions of a Bat Mitzvah is for a young girl to understand that as a teenager – and more and more as she gets older – she will be out in the world making her own decisions. We recognize that and hope that these young women use that freedom with responsibility. I know Sydney has already begun to learn that lesson and will do so in a wonderful way.
There are two B’not Mitzah this weekend. They couldn’t be coming from more different circumstances, but I’ve learned from and have been inspired by both.
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l