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Judaism

You Don’t Need a Synagogue to Have Meaningful Jewish Experiences

The past five-plus months have taught me some of the biggest life lessons: school doesn’t need to take place in a classroom, exercise doesn’t need to be done in a gym, work doesn’t have to happen in the office and — as the date of my third son’s bar mitzvah came closer — I realized that Judaism doesn’t need synagogues to thrive.

After all, since the time of our forefather, Abraham — from the moment that he established the Shacharit morning prayer ritual — Judaism has evolved, thrived, and maintained continuity through rituals. Rituals are how we pass on wisdom and beliefs across generations: lighting Shabbat candles; having a seder and eating matzah on Passover; fasting on Yom Kippur are all rituals that we have been doing as a Jewish people for generations.

True, most Jewish rituals happen at synagogue, or at Hebrew school, Jewish camps, or by celebrating Jewish milestones and community events. But, thanks to coronavirus, that’s not necessarily the case anymore.

As the deadline for printing Zevi’s bar mitzvah invitations came and went this spring, I thought long and hard about how I would be able to make this day as meaningful and memorable for him as his older brothers’ bar mitzvahs were for them. I realized that having his bar mitzvah via Zoom, even with my grandiose plan to deliver special dinner meals to all of our guests, just wouldn’t cut it. I felt that no matter how we celebrated, it would feel like we would be trying to make up for what we couldn’t have.

And then it hit me! A bar mitzvah is not about the party or the gathering, or where it is or who attends. It’s about the rituals — the traditions and the customs of passing down what it means to be a Jewish man. And these rituals, I realized, could happen just about anywhere.

And so, in August, Zevi became a bar mitzvah, an official Jewish man, under the star-studded sky of Zion National Park, during our family’s cross-country RV road trip. We sang “Mazal Tov” around the fire pit, each of his brothers wished him a “l’chaim” over root beer, Zevi shared the traditional bar mitzvah discourse from memory. (We adhere to the Chabad tradition and it is custom that a bar mitzvah boy recites a discourse explaining why laying tefillin signifies this transition into manhood.) The following morning, with the Utah sun still low in the sky, he put on his tefillin and said the morning prayers, followed by pictures in front of our balloon-decorated RV.

Later that night, as we continued our trip and drove into Yosemite National Park, I realized how these past few months were a reminder that we don’t need to rely on a synagogue to engage Jewishly. I reflected back on Passover, when we had a beautiful, meaningful, and memorable seder with just our immediate family — one that allowed us to really engage and spend time talking with our children, as normally we are too busy hosting.

And then there’s Shabbat. These days, we might not be able to go to synagogue, but our Friday night dinners have been more beautiful than ever, as we’ve started a new tradition of enjoying our Shabbat dinners outdoors.

And so, too, a bar mitzvah happens, regardless of where it takes place and regardless of who attends. The traditions are passed down from father to son, and the soul fully enters his body all the same, with or without a party. So, despite it not being as traditional as I expected it to be, Zevi’s bar mitzvah was a most memorable experience. As the newly-minted man himself put it, “Hands down, I’ll have some of the most beautiful bar mitzvah pictures to look back on and show my kids!”

Of course, it’s not just about the big lifecycle events. The Jewish home — whether it has wheels or not — will always be the central address of Judaism. Read on for some tried-and-true ways to engage Jewishly as a family in your home.

Create family time on Shabbat.

As the secular Jewish writer Ahad Ha’am famously said, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” Shabbat is the perfect opportunity to create a weekly ritual of carving out special family bonding time. In our current pandemic reality, the days tend to run into each other. But taking time every Friday night to pause and focus on what’s truly important in your life, creates memories that will never be forgotten.

Make it special by creating a theme for your Shabbat meal — it can be something simple like Mexican Shabbat or Israeli Shabbat. Have fun with it! Each family member can prepare a dish that connects to the theme. Set the table. Say the blessings. Eat challah. Play a game. Sing songs. Go around the table and share a compliment about each person. Share an inspirational thought. Take the time to simply enjoy each other’s company. Shabbat is the calm within the storm, which we need now more than ever.

Create moments of prayer and meditation. 

Meditation is a known antidote to stress and anxiety. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, encouraged Jewish meditation, pointing to a biblical source to our forefather Abraham, who instituted the morning prayers, as a form of meditation. Now more than ever, children need to feel safe and balanced. One Jewish way to do this is by saying the Shema together with your children before bed. It’s a comforting ritual that reminds a child that there is so much to be grateful for and that God is providing and watching over them.

Connect in the kitchen. 

My warmest Jewish memories tend to revolve around the family holiday table filled with traditional holiday foods. I mean, who doesn’t look back fondly upon their bubbe’s matzah balls on Passover, or her Rosh Hashanah brisket?! It’s those food-centered memories that connect us to our Judaism and ensure that not only are our heritage and traditions passed down but that the next generation identifies and appreciates them as well.

These food memories inspired me to create Judaism Unboxed, a service that provides hands-on Jewish learning and baking projects delivered to your doorstep. It’s an accessible way for families to bond over their heritage with a Jewish-themed Shabbat or holiday baking kit — in advance of Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover, subscribers receive a holiday-themed baking kit containing everything you need to make a recipe, make memories, and get excited about the upcoming holiday.

Wind down with Jewish stories.

The most precious gift you can give your child is time. Bedtime is the perfect opportunity to take the time to connect with your child. Sharing your favorite stories embedded with Jewish lessons, morals, and meaning will stay with them and are sure to be carried down to their kids.

One of my favorite stories that I often share with my kids is called Around the Shabbos Table. It is a story about a young girl who finds the good and the blessing in every situation, in each chair that she is asked to move to around the table, even though her siblings missed those opportunities when they were in that chair. There is a plethora of short, meaningful Jewish stories that can be found on Chabad.org or at PJ Library.

Header Image by krugli/Getty Images

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