I went to Temple Emanu-El today. A temple that has produced a lot of leaders in San Diego. I expected something special because of the many stories I have heard of this synagogue on a hill in historically Jewish San Carlos, across the canyon from San Diego State University.
The outside is made of white stone like the buildings in Jerusalem. The entrance was bright and full of light. The wooden doors lead me to the simple temple inside. Wood paneled walls with a beautiful clerestory. The ark was two large glass doors on a stage like many reform temples. No fancy artwork was there. Simple decor such that the eyes would stay with the rabbi. The one beautiful accent was a Sanctuary lamp that looked like something that Chihuly would make.
The congregation was much smaller than I imagined. The temple was half used even though it was Shabbat with a bar-mitzvah. Rabbi Devorah Marcus was on stage next to Josh the bar-mitzvah with guitar-playing cantoress on his other side. I grabbed a book and found it easy to follow along. They didn’t seem to skip much and when they did, announced the page.
Inside the temple was a diverse crowd: multi-ethnic and multi-generational. Most seemed to be able to follow along, but enough guests that it was mostly quiet. It is one thing that I miss in a reform temple, the loud boisterous singing of an orthodox temple.
The boy, Joshua Morse had a neat haircut, fairly short for thirteen with eye-glasses and still pre-puberty voice. He hit his Ch like a champ and was sure of himself, leading the congregation much more than I’ve seen before. He would ask the congregation to stand up when needed and to sit down when necessary, announcing the pages and really, doing the rabbi’s work.
When he did his Parsha, he tried to hit the notes and although clearly struggling, he seemed to read rather than act from memorization.
The rabbi brought up his Hebrew class up and they seemed to have a bond with him, to really care and want him to succeed.
I suddenly noticed that his father was sitting separately from his mother. I realized that his parents were divorced but it didn’t feel like it. His father sat next to a black woman with her handsome son. She teared up all through the service and the speeches and came up with the father to read from the Torah. The mother sat between the boy’s sister and step-dad. A man with a thick beard who seemed more orthodox than reform.
What made me write this more than anything was what transpired during the speeches. Rabbi Devorah was first to speak about Joshua, telling of his accomplishments, his commitment, and his kindness. She and Joshua teared up. Joshua then read his Parsha speech. I’ve heard many speeches at bar-mitzvahs. However, this one was by far the most eloquent with vocabulary that I would be hard pressed to best today. The boy spoke of the Hebrew people fearing others. They doubted themselves and because of that, they would wander the desert until the next generation came about, fearless and hungry to have a land, have a life. He spoke of cowardice and its effect on life and people. He then downplayed the kindness that everyone spoke of by alluding the difficulty he has being a good brother but acknowledged that he does his best and hopes to become better. He thanked his mother and father. He spoke of his father’s advice and knowledge and involvement and how he may not always follow the advice but always welcomes it.
However, what was next was an act of courage from his mother, father and himself as each one spoke frankly and honestly to each other before the entire community. They did not hold back their thoughts or feelings. They did not fear how their tears might look to the community, they opened themselves up in an act of pure love and courage.
First was the mom who thanked everyone for helping her son with the bar-mitzvah, mentioned his ability to study and be first in his class, she spoke of growing up poor and never having a bar mitzvah because of that, shining a light on one reason for the low turnout of Jews in synagogues. She thanked the grandparents for sponsoring her son. She spoke about the support her new husband had provided and of the good father that her ex-husband was. It was a clear attack on the elephant in the room and a sign of how a family can overcome a split and yet work to keep the environment safe and productive for the children. As she spoke, tears were streaming down the face of Joshua. When she ended her speech and turned around to sit down, Josh embraced her from the back with an act of pure love.
His father spoke last and when he stepped up, he and his ex-wife tapped him in through a friendly fist-bump. The father seemed familiar to me for some reason. There was something timid in his demeanor. He first thanked the mother for her role in Josh’s upbringing. He spoke of Josh’s character, kindness and of how Josh has brought him back to Judaism through this bar mitzvah. “I will forever be indebted for that to you,” he said through tears as both of them stood there, bare before all with cheeks wet.
The services ended with the Bar Mitzvah class “team amazing” on stage with their arms over each other’s shoulders, with the Rabbis and Josh, singing a song of friendship.
I was reminded of the young girl in Auburndale. There was pure goodness emanating from her and from Josh as well. I could see here the American Judaism at work: the building each other up, the fact that you don’t have to have the stereotypical family but you can make it work, through love. I could see the effect of this love and teamwork had on their children, making them good and kind and successful people. Loved by all people, not just their family. There was this lack of fear to show how they truly feel and a desire to make each other feel good.
After all, the world is an ugly and mean place, if we cannot get love and support at home, then where can we get it?
I always wonder how the non-Jewish guests feel when they come to events like this. Do they want to become Jewish? Do they feel that Judaism is different or good? I wondered how they felt about Rabbi Devorah’s comments about being good and kind and courageous. After the services, I went up to the rabbi and was surprised to find out that she already had my book. She spoke of her recent marrying Israelis free of charge because they “stuck it to the Israeli rabinate.”
This was the San Diego community that creates the leaders, the one with a historical and important piece of the San Diego Judaism mosaic. It felt so different from all the others and yet so similar. However, it is not the words on the page that make a community unique, or the type of facade or decorations: it is the people who are part of the community, how they treat eachother and what they bring out of eachother. After all, religion is but a tool, and if it does not make us better, then what’s the use?