Creating a Sacred Community
by Stacy Gittleman
Of the many changes
that are underway in the
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
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
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
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
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