"It Makes a Difference When People Leave Their Safe Place"
Steven Wolan's Adult Bar Mitzvah Talk • June 25, 2017
I grew up in a culturally Jewish home and attended High Holiday services, but was not encouraged to have a bar mitzvah. However, after attending services and watching our daughter and son becoming a bat and bar mitzvah, I felt I was lacking in my Jewish knowledge. Now that we have grandchildren we celebrate Shabbat with the family and I want to pass our heritage to the next generation. Rabbi Bridget and our wonderful group have provided me with a comfortable, non-judgmental place to fulfill my desire to finally become a bar mitzvah at 70.
Why am I being bar mitzvahed at 70?
Being Jewish -- culturally, not religiously -- was a significant part of my upbringing in the 1950s in a heavily-Jewish North Shore suburb of Chicago. I was not encouraged to become a bar mitzvah, despite being the only boy I knew who wasn’t.
However, I was sent to Sunday religious school where I listened to the Chicago Bears football game on my transistor radio with an ear plug, and where I met my lifelong friend Richard Schram. I completed religious school and was confirmed.
In our home, it was important to know who was Jewish and where their family came from … it was important not to buy German products … and most important: to marry a Jewish girl. Our family attended High Holiday services and my father always commented on how he disliked the services because it was always the same and the rabbi was boring -- which as a kid was true -- and add to that the services were too long. My father’s advice to me was, "it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich girl," and, "never get involved in temple politics."
I followed some of the advice: I married an intelligent, beautiful Jewish girl, but she wasn’t rich, and when we married we bought a car, a BMW, Bavarian Motor Works, which I told my mother was British Motor Works!
After we had children we joined Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and, despite the fact that many of the members of our havurah, a social group from the temple, became board members or officers, I didn’t get involved in temple politics.
We attended High Holiday and other holiday services, as well as Shabbat services when it related to our children. Beth El was different than Beth Am, the synagogue Linda and I had attended, where I was confirmed and in which we were married. There were more Hebrew prayers, different melodies, and less music than I was used to. I noted that most of the men around me read Hebrew, wore yamakas and tallits or prayer shawls, and seemed more knowledgeable about Judaism than I was. My reaction was to not reveal my ignorance rather than seeking knowledge.
Why would anyone want to study Torah? I was afraid that my inability to read Hebrew and incomplete knowledge of Judaism would be revealed. Although I became more interested in Judaism as my daughter Jen and son Ben were bat and bar mitzvahed, and I considered discussing my Jewish shortcomings with the rabbi, I felt embarrassed, and used being too busy as a lawyer as an excuse to not expand my Jewish knowledge.
Now, 57 years after my 13th birthday, being retired and able to do things I previously put off, I am being bar mitzvahed. What led me to the decision to study Torah and prayer was attending Jewish Gateways' High Holiday services led by Rabbi Bridget. Jewish Gateways' credo is:
WELCOMING: wandering Jews, wondering Jews, non-Jews, singles, couples, just Jewish, interfaith relationships, etc.
I saw myself as a wondering Jew. I completed a survey that asked if I was interested in an adult bar mitzvah class: Yes. I talked with Rabbi Bridget and I felt comfortable opening up to her. I found that she was non-judgmental, understanding, open, and very caring. As it turned out, her attributes were mirrored by the members of our class, who met at our house.
We studied the Torah, learned about prayer, and the structure of the service. Weekly Torah study was my favorite part. I found that I had retained more from religious school than I had believed. I liked the format of the chumash, which is the printed version of the Torah, in which the Torah text is written in Hebrew with the English translation next to it along with annotations and commentary. Our discussions about the passages were lively and insightful. Our group was diverse and it was interesting to hear the interpretations of our younger colleagues as compared to mine. With Rabbi Bridget, all of our interpretations were welcomed and no judgment was made.
I learned that acknowledging my lack of knowledge and finding a way to learn is an important life skill. Because of the non-judgmental attitude, I was able to participate and feel that my interpretation of the Torah passages were often perceptive and meaningful to me.
We also studied prayer, including the Mishebeirach, or Blessing for Healing. I want to share an experience I had related to this prayer. Before reciting the prayer the rabbi asks those in the congregation to say aloud the names of anyone who is ill or in need of healing. In 1995, during the High Holiday services at Congregation Beth El, whenever the Mishebeirach was recited I offered the name of Frank Perrault, a client of mine who had AIDS.
Frank had been fired from his job in 1991 and was certain it was because he was HIV positive. The law on HIV/AIDS discrimination was new at this time and I didn’t want to take his case. I called his employer and requested that they put Frank on long-term disability insurance. However, they were rude and hostile. Frank had contacted numerous lawyers, none of whom would take his case. Linda and I had lost so many friends and acquaintances to AIDS that I decided to leave my “safe place” and take his case.
The case was given a priority trial date because of Frank's illness but defense counsel used tactics to delay the trial. His employer refused to make a settlement offer. We were in a stressful trial for 3 weeks before a judge without a jury and Frank became sicker. The trial judge didn’t issue her decision for an additional 6 months, but she eventually made a substantial award for Frank. The employer appealed and another year passed and Frank developed full-blown AIDS.
In the autumn of 1995 we were sent to mediation with a judge. The first session was before the High Holidays and was fruitless. Before the second session, I attended High Holiday services and said Frank’s name every time the Mishebeirach was recited. We returned to the mediation the following week, and, to my surprise, the case settled! However, Frank was so ill that he weighed 75 pounds and could only endorse the settlement check with an X. He died less than 30 days later.
A few months passed and I ran into one of the defense lawyers, who told me that he was at the same High Holiday services and heard me recite Frank’s name repeatedly. He convinced the employer to settle the case. As a Jew, he took the words of the prayer to heart: “May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”
The life lesson I’ve taken away is that it makes a difference when people leave their “safe place,” as I did in representing Frank and when I decided to become a bar mitzvah, and as the other lawyer did when he heard my prayers for Frank.