Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Muhammad Ali and Bar Mitzvahs in America

THE EDITOR OF THE JEWISH WEEK just scared every congregational rabbi in America. Gary Rosenblatt's article "Changing Up The Bar And Bat Mitzvah Experience" will no doubt cause many side conversations during kiddush this Shabbat at synagogues throughout the country.

Rosenblatt argues that the bar and bat mitzvah experience should be more about memorization and more about participation. He quotes Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, who believes that the heavy emphasis on teaching youngsters to chant a Haftorah on their special days is a sign of “wasted training and the wrong message” for bar and bat mitzvah youngsters.

Rosenblatt quotes several Jewish educators who critique the many bar and bat mitzvah services that emphasize mastery of a particular element of the service rather than a broader understanding of the transition to Jewish adulthood.

I wonder if Muhammad Ali agrees with Rosenblatt's critique of the bar mitzvah ceremony. The Champ's grandson just became a bar mitzvah a few months ago and the famous boxer attended the ceremony.

Yes, you read that correctly. A little 13-year-old boy named Jacob Wertheimer being called to the Torah this past April at Philly's Congregation Rodeph Shalom synagogue doesn't sound like anything out of the ordinary. But when the proud grandfather is none other than Muhammad Ali - arguably the greatest boxer in the world, it becomes news.

Muhammad Ali with his grandson Jacob Wertheimer in a Louis Vitton ad several years ago.

Muhammad Ali's grandson Jacob Wertheimer was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah at a small service of only about 150 people. Jacob is the son of Ali's daughter Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer and Spencer Wertheimer, an attorney. Ali was in the congregation watching with pride according to the Sweet Science boxing website in an article written by Muhammad Ali's personal biographer Thomas Hauser, as reported by JTA.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay and raised as a Baptist, but famously converted to Islam in the 60s. Ali's daughter Khaliah was raised as a Muslim. According to her, the young Jacob was given a choice and without pressure from his parents, "he chose this on his own because he felt a kinship with Judaism and Jewish culture." It sounds like Judaism won by a decision!

Ali's daughter also mentioned that it "meant a lot to Jacob" that his grandfather Muhammad Ali was in attendance. According to JTA, the theme of the bar mitzvah party was diversity and inclusiveness.

While Billy Crystal has always amused me with his dead-on impersonation of Muhammad Ali, this scene from Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America" is a personal favorite:

While high profile bar mitzvah ceremonies like Muhammad Ali's grandson's are unique, there is a certain "blah" element to many bar mitzvahs today. Maybe Gary Rosenblatt is on to something and the concept should be reconsidered.

Two Conservative rabbis responded to the Jewish Week article:

Rabbi Stephen Weiss of Congregation B'nai Yeshurun in Cleveland:
"Wow! What a disturbing article. This is just trying to put a nice face on abandoning teaching synagogue skills as a priority. I do not know what goes on in Reform synagogues but in our synagogue and Conservative synagogues generally, Bar Mitzvah may be seen by some parents as graduation from school but parents look at the synagogue skills they learn as skills for life that connect them to Jewish tradition and worship. Yes, adding components that enhance the meaning of Bar Mitzvah, tying in mitzvah projects and focusing on spirituality - that is all needed. But I fear abandoning Bar Mitzvah will lead to less, not more Jewish involvement. If Bar Mitzvah is just tikun olam I can teach my kid that in a lot of places without doing it connected to a synagogue or even to a Jewish community."

Rabbi Adam Rosenthal of Cincinnati:
"While well-intentioned, I think they miss the point: no matter what you 'do' for Bar/Bat Mitzvah, you are not going to succeed in the game of Jewish community until you restore that ceremony to its appropriate proportion within the perspective of Jewish life. It is a very minor celebration in the course of a Jewishly engaged life. It needs to be completely deemphasized and made a relatively small and *humble* event. A child and his/her parents should do their speaking at the party."

We'll see what the future of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies looks like over the next couple of decades. The change will likely come as a result from the pressure of parents rather than from synagogues, rabbis and Jewish educators.

Rabbi Jason Miller is a blogger and tech expert in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter and read his personal blog.