This is a story of a family whose Orthodox bar mitzva celebration was enabled and enhanced by a Reform congregation.
But more importantly, this is a story about the possibilities that can transpire in a Jewish community when denominational differences are set aside in a spirit of generosity and cooperation, about a congregation that is the embodiment of the phrase ahavat achim (love of one’s fellow Jew).
Last spring, when Liora and Ed Schlesinger of Mt. Lebanon began to plan their son Ben’s bar mitzva, they realized they had a problem.
While the Schlesingers worship each Shabbat at Chabad of the South Hills, and while Ben attends Hebrew school there, that synagogue is almost three miles from their home.
With several shomer Shabbat relatives coming from Israel to celebrate Ben’s bar mitzva, scheduled for Feb. 9, when the weather would be unpredictable, the Schlesingers found themselves in a predicament.
“We were in a bind,” said Ed Schlesinger. “None of the various options was appealing.”
It was obviously not practical for the Schlesingers’ shomer Shabbat relatives to try to walk the three miles to Chabad in the dead of winter. On the other hand, if the relatives stayed in a hotel closer to Chabad, they would not be able to have dinner with the rest of the family Friday night, or spend the rest of Shabbat together.
The Schlesingers considered having the bar mitzva in Israel, but that would have excluded friends from Pittsburgh.
Then Liora, who is a long-time faculty member of Temple Emanuel’s Torah Center, had an idea: What if they could have the service at Temple Emanuel, which is only a short walk from their home? Might Temple Emanuel agree to allow the Schlesingers to bring in a portable mechitza to divide the men from the women, prepare food in a way that adhered strictly to kashrut, and make some other temporary changes to conform to an Orthodox service?
The Schlesingers decided to broach the idea with Rabbi Mark Mahler, who also happens to be their next door neighbor.
“We know Rabbi Mahler to be a remarkable person,” Ed Schlesinger said. “We decided to ask him if we could use the bet tefilla (Temple Emanuel’s smaller sanctuary) to do a service that was Orthodox, with a traditional mechitza and all. He was immediately receptive to the idea, but said it was not his decision alone to make.”
The Schlesingers’ proposition was reasonable, according to Mahler.
“They told me that to help ensure that Temple would be available to them, they would be eager to join the congregation, a tacit acknowledgment that a synagogue is not a hall for rent, but a spiritual home for the members of the congregation,” said Mahler in an email to the Chronicle. “They then broached the subject of what the ‘political’ ramifications might be internal to Temple Emanuel, along with their desire not to turn this into a machloket, (a controversy) for the congregation.”
“Ed and Liora were reasonable and totally menschlich in making their request,” Mahler continued. “I understood it fully.”
Several factors facilitated the process of having the Schlesingers’ request approved by the worship committee and board of Temple Emanuel, according to Mahler, including the fact that Liora is a “valued and beloved” teacher at the Torah Center, and that, coincidentally, the date scheduled for Ben’s bar mitzva — Feb. 9 — was the date of Torah Weekend, Temple Emanuel’s annual joint program with Beth El Congregation and the South Hills Jewish Community Center. That morning, Temple Emanuel’s Shabbat service, in effect, would be the Shabbat service at Beth El, rendering the temple empty.
“I presented the Schlesingers’ request to our worship committee,” Mahler wrote. “We discussed all the ramifications and the ‘politics.’ No one was resistant, yet everyone tried to speculate where resistance might arise and what those reservations might be. For every reservation that we anticipated might arise, we had not only a good response but also a more compelling reason to honor the request.”
Temple Emanuel was not looking to change any of its policies regarding religious observances or b’nai mitzva, Mahler said.
“We are a Reform congregation whose rituals and practices conform to the tenets of Reform Judaism,” he wrote. “But given the confluence of circumstances … the committee heartily approved the Schlesingers’ request. In sum, we felt it was an affirmation of Klal Yisrael (the Community of Israel) in deed as well as in word.”
The board of Temple Emanuel approved the decision of the worship committee, as no policy was being changed.
“Temple’s board ‘got it,’ just as surely as our worship committee ‘got it,’ just as I ‘got it’ when Ed and Liora first made their request,” Mahler wrote.
In addition to holding their Shabbat service at Temple Emanuel, Ben also had an aliya at a minyan at Chabad the previous Monday morning, the day on which he halachically became a bar mitzva. By the time Saturday rolled around, Temple Emanuel had been prepared to accommodate the Orthodox service and celebration.
While no rabbi presided, Ben’s grandfather, Mordechay Schlesinger, led the Shacharit service; Ben did the entire Torah reading, and led the congregation in the traditional Musaf prayers.
“Everything was perfect,” said Ed Schlesinger. “And I have to say, the individuals we worked with at Temple were remarkable. They took care of everything.”
“In my view, this was a true manifestation of achavat achim, love of one’s fellow Jew,” he added.
Temple Emanuel, Schlesinger said, is a “true bet knesset.”
“When you translate what that means, it is a house of gathering, a place where Jews gather,” Schlesinger explained. “So what Temple’s congregation really said, in my view, is that this is a place where Jews gather, and they can gather to approach God and to approach their celebration of being Jewish in their own way.”
“Temple Emanuel serves as a role model for the Jewish community,” he added. “Isn’t this the way we Jews should be behaving toward one another?”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)