Rachel Tomarkin’s big day was May 19th 2012. Like many other Jewish thirteen-year-old girls living in Fairfield, she prepared for her Bat Mitzvah during the previous two years. Bar (for boys) and Bat (for girls) Mitzvahs are coming of age ceremonies that take place during a Jewish adolescent’s thirteenth year. Unlike traditional Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, Rachel spent much of that time conducting research on her chosen topic, “Islam and Judaism: Our Shared Heritage.”
The Tomarkin family is a member of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism (CHJ), based in Westport. CHJ is a branch of Humanistic Judaism, which was founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in 1963 in Detroit as a place where secular Jews can celebrate their Jewish identity. Although some students choose to study a portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), it is not a requirement at CHJ. Instead, CHJ youth embark on a journey of exploration, guided by a senior member of the Congregation.
Rachel explained that the process started for her in 6th grade. She kept a Bat Mitzvah journal, and the assignments through CHJ’s Sunday School made her think about her heritage and the decision to pursue a Humanistic Bat Mitzvah. One of the assignments was to compare a humanistic bat mitzvah to a traditional one. Rachel said that her friends at other temples had to memorize “giant portions” of the Torah, in Hebrew! She was glad that she could choose an alternative.
“At the beginning I was nervous and thought I was over my head. I read books and pages and pages of notes. I learned that Islam and Judaism are similar. But we disagree on little pieces that separate us a lot.” Rachel said that she didn’t realize how much work it would be. But she learned how to research, and read books which gave her “much more depth than Google gives.” Rachel’s mother, Michelle, said “Rachel was so proud of herself at the end. She told everyone that she was glad that she did it.” Fred Ury, a trial lawyer and partner at Ury & Moscow LLC law firm and a Westport resident, was Rachel’s mentor. “My job is to sit with the young lady or man. They set up the timeline and I help them put it all together.” The mentor relationship has an added benefit: it eliminates many of the parent-child battles. The kids listen to the mentor without the typical pushback that parents receive!
Rachel’s parents are pleased with the process. “Our congregation has found a wonderful way for members to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience that is meaningful to the child and the family. It lets the family express this wonderful time in their child’s life in their own way. Our focus is on completing the Jewish education and preparing for adulthood and hoping that they get something important out of the experience. Rachel had a fabulous growth experience and we as parents recognized this transition. We can now say to her that she has successfully taken on this challenge, and we are going to expect more of her now.” Fred echoed Michelle’s sentiment, “It never ceases to amaze me. At the end of the day the kids say this has been a great experience. What we have is special -- more than memorizing a bunch of words.”
The Congregation for Humanistic Judaism is a welcoming community in which secular Jews and their families can affirm, celebrate, and enrich their Jewish identity and values. CHJ is affiliated with the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Congregation functions as a cooperative. Through children’s Sunday School and diverse adult programs, members educate themselves and their children in Jewish history, culture, tradition, and values; celebrate Jewish holidays and mark important life-cycle events; engage in social action and community service.
CHJ is holding an Open House Brunch during the first day of Sunday School on Sunday, September 9th at 9:30 am at Bedford Middle School, 88 North Ave., Westport. Visitors can learn about the Congregation’s Sunday School program, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program, the cooperative structure and how the humanist philosophy is blended with Jewish traditions. Children are invited to attend Sunday School classes until 11:45. RSVP by Friday, September 7: call 203-226-5451. www.humanisticjews.org.