Creating a Sacred Community

by Stacy Gittleman

Of the many changes that are underway in the Conservative movement, its new focus on how to build a kehilla kedoshah – a sacred community – gives me great hope.

Sometimes, a kehilla kedoshah is built in extreme life-changing moments, such as the untimely death of a parent. I’d like to tell you about one such incident that happened in my corner of western New York State.

For many families, the period leading up to a child’s bar or bat mitzvah is when their connections to their synagogue are strengthened. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah is a big milestone. Children suddenly morph into full-fledged adult members of the Jewish community, even if they are still far too young to vote. Young adults should know that their community is counting on them, and that in turn they can count on their community for support. The day of the bar or bat mitzvah should not be a finish line or exit ramp from Judaism or synagogue life.

In 2009 I had the joy of planning my daughter’s bat mitzvah; now, less than two years later, I’m planning my son’s coming of age. Outside the seriousness of Torah study and preparing a d’var Torah, I know how easy it is to get caught up in the details of party planning. Frivolities such as how the centerpieces should look or what to serve sometimes get in the way of the true meaning of the day.

But I have come to learn that there is a blessing in these silly details. These should be the only things a family should have to worry about as they prepare for this day. This is how life is supposed to be. But life doesn’t always go according to plan.

Last winter, we got Stephanie’s simple yet stylish bat mitzvah invitation in the mail. Though her parents were long divorced and her mom had remarried, Stephanie’s parents’ names stood side by side on the invitation in celebration of the daughter they raised.

Just days later, we learned that Stephanie’s mother died of cancer.

There are times when events strike you so hard you want to throw up your hands in rage and ask why. But we don’t have the luxury to question and wallow. Instead, our tradition teaches us that one way to help others cope with life’s tragedies is by the community’s practice of gemilut chasadim – acts of lovingkindness.

How do you enter the house of a girl who is supposed to be planning her bat mitzvah but instead is mourning her mother’s death? You walk in very quietly, brushing off your shoes as best as you can from the latest western New York snowstorm. You nod but don’t smile to the people in the crowded living room, including those there for the minyan to mourn their own parents. They had lost their parents when they were in their 50s and 60s, not at 12.

Stephanie sat quietly near her father and the rabbi. Soon she was encircled by several teenaged girls, including my own daughter, Jolie. As I stood waiting for the rabbi to begin the ma’ariv service, I thought about what I had been doing five weeks before Jolie’s bat mitzvah. And then I thought about the current situation and shook my head.

The rabbi began. When it was time to recite kaddish, it was not time to ask why. Sometimes there are no answers or explanations. The question then is not why but what are you going to do about it? And with words unspoken, everyone gathered in that room knew just what to do.

Instead of one young voice saying kaddish alone, many voices uttered these ancient words together. Those reciting the mourners kaddish included her friends, who stood with their arms around her. The older members of the congregation also chanted, carrying Stephanie’s small voice in theirs.

After kaddish was over, there was silence. And then Stephanie spoke up:

“Hey, well, we have a lot of coffee and cake. So... can I offer anyone some?” In an attempt to break the gravity of the moment, Stephanie offered refreshments to a room full of people who were supposed to be comforting her. A child who had just lost her mom was not crying but offering us the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim – hospitality. Five weeks later, Stephanie sat poised and beautiful on the bimah. I had the honor of sitting next to her for a bit as I waited for my turn to read from the Torah.

“I’m really nervous,” she whispered.

I told her it was fine and natural to be nervous, and that everyone – including me – feels a little shaky before reading Torah. One more reminder about the love in the room for her, and a compliment on her dainty rose-shaped earrings, which matched her dress perfectly, and she seemed to be more at ease. She smiled. She was ready.

Stephanie’s Torah reading was flawless. Then it was time for her to read the haftarah. When you read the Torah you are surrounded by clergy and congregants, but when you read the haftarah you stand there alone. It can be a long and lonely time.

Stephanie’s sweet voice held until the last few sentences. Then, as she realized that the hard work was almost over, she slipped. A slight mispronunciation of a word. A wrong note. If you have ever missed a line in a play or forgotten the lyrics of a song, you know that feeling. Under these circumstances it was completely normal.

Perhaps it was the slight error that threw her, or perhaps it was the knowledge that her mom was looking down on her from heaven instead of with her on the bimah that finally caught up with her. At that very moment, before the whole congregation, Stephanie dissolved into tears. And she still had the blessings after the haftarah to recite.

There was not one dry-eyed soul in that synagogue that morning, and there was no one who didn’t know exactly what to do. We were not going to let this young lady falter. Not on her first day as a Jewish adult. So, one by one, we stopped our own crying long enough to give her our voices. We chanted those final blessings right along with her, without a cue from the rabbi, without approval from the ritual committee. It was perhaps the most spiritually powerful moment our congregation had experienced in a very long time.

Perhaps a kehilla comes together best when we need each other the most, in times of sadness and mourning. Like many Conservative synagogues in North America these days, our own has taken its share of bumps and challenges – interpersonal politics, personnel coming and going, families leaving the synagogue, and an aging population that is not being replenished by younger families.

I often wonder what impression this dispirited atmosphere makes on the youngest members of our community. Do they see the Conservative movement and its synagogues as a comfort zone or just a hangout during adolescence? Is there enough of a pull to keep them committed to the movement, or to Judaism at all?

But this bat mitzvah found her community that day, went on to dance and celebrate that night, and spent a summer experiencing the best of what a Conservative kehilla has to offer by making friends at Camp Ramah.

Stacy Gittleman, a member of Temple Beth El in Rochester, New York, is a Jewish educator. She is also a columnist and freelance writer for Rochester’s newspaper, The Democrat & Chronicle, and she blogs at

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