By the time she was 9, Mariel Brunstein knew she wanted to have a bat mitzvah. The problem, which kept her from having a ceremony when she turned 13, was that her family didn’t belong to a synagogue in their hometown of Miami. Mariel’s parents had grown up in secular Jewish homes and wanted their daughter to have a Jewish education, but not a religious one. They were in a bind.
“There was just no convenient person to work with,” Mariel says.
That’s where the Society for Humanistic Judaism and its “cultural b mitzvah” came in. It’s a new online pilot program, geared toward Jewish teens like Mariel, who don’t affiliate with a religious Jewish movement, or who live in areas with few Jews and fewer Jewish options.
When Mariel was 15, her mother, Alla Brunstein, found the Society for Humanistic Judaism, based in Birmingham, Mich. Dedicated to secular humanism and cultural Judaism, it has about 10,000 members nationwide. In Washington, Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism; and Beth Chai belong to the movement.
Raised in the Soviet Union, where practice of religion was outlawed, Alla Brunstein learned about Judaism from her parents and great-grandparents. Holidays and traditions were celebrated at home.
And while Alla wanted Mariel to at least be familiar with holidays and traditions, she was more interested in her daughter learning about Jewish culture and history.
Online, Alla Brunstein found B.J. Saul, a teacher at Congregation Beth Adam, a humanistic synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla. Saul agreed to work with Mariel over Skype on what the movement calls a “cultural b mitzvah,” a gender-neutral term meant to be inclusive, according to Paul Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
Golin said a typical cultural b mitzvah includes traditional Kabbalat Shabbat blessings and the presentation of the student’s research paper, which can take up to two years to prepare. At some congregations, students read from the Torah, followed by a personal reflection.
According to Mariel, Saul “expanded my beliefs and helped me understand that…it was OK to believe that Judaism could be other things than what people always necessarily assumed.”
Once every two weeks, she and Saul used Skype to discuss books and movies that Saul had assigned to stimulate Mariel’s thinking.
Alla Brunstein was skeptical at first about how the tutoring sessions would go.
“My daughter is a strong-willed individual,” she says. “You know how teenagers are. They are moody, they are suspicious, everybody is stupid.
“But there was an instant connection. My daughter just fell in love with her.”
“I feel it’s so important to educate the next generation,” says Saul, a former speech-language pathologist. “And to make things relevant to kids so that they want to learn and want to continue and want to be a part of the Jewish community.”
At the conclusion of their learning together, Mariel had a small ceremony at Congregation Beth Adam in Boca Raton. Mariel, who wants to be a lawyer, delivered her research paper on Jewish women involved in social justice work.
Saul has now taught several teens online. She says she’s often approached by people who are far from Humanist synagogues and crave a non-traditional approach.
The movement is looking to standardize the online teaching process in terms of curriculum and marketing, Golin says.
For Golin, who says he was alienated by his traditional bar mitzvah, the cultural b mitzvah program is a reflection of his and the movement’s desire to teach their children how to think critically.
“We get to actually say what we mean and mean what we say,” Golin says. ”You don’t have to pretend. You don’t have to go through these rituals and liturgies that you don’t believe.”