There are few times as momentous and special in a young Jewish person’s life as when they’re called to the Torah as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. All the months of preparation, planning and practice finally come together as the proud students read aloud their Torah portion and officially becomes an adult member of the Jewish community. But post-B’nai Mitzvah, how do you keep teenagers engaged and interested in synagogue services and study? Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles may have come up with one solution—start students earlier, and get them participating together.
This year, the synagogue celebrated the five-year anniversary of its highly regarded and popular Torah Club. What started informally as a small group of eager fifth graders now consists of more than 60 teenagers who regularly—and voluntarily—read from the Torah in one of the Temple’s three synagogue services held each Shabbat morning.
Torah Club provides students extra opportunities to practice their Torah-reading skills years before their special day, so when it comes time to learn their Bar or Bat Mitzvah portion, they’ll be enthusiastic and confident. And still others, who have already completed their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, enjoy the benefits of reading Torah and doing so with their friends. These post-B’nai Mitzvah students have begun to take part in other parts of the service, from reading Haftarah to davening Shacharit, Torah service and Musaf.
Though Torah Club has grown tremendously over the years in both members and popularity and shows no signs of slowing, its origins were very organic. The Temple’s former cantor, Magda Fishman, was teaching fifth graders to read Torah at Pressman Academy, the K-8 day school associated with the synagogue, as they prepared for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in two year’s time. Cantor Fishman was delighted to discover how enthusiastic and motivated the students were when it came to learning trope. Generally, non-Bar or Bat Mitzvahs wouldn’t get up and just read from the Torah, nor would they necessarily have the opportunity to do so. From the fifth grade class, so many students wanted to read Torah for the special Fifth Grade Shabbat that senior rabbi, Adam Kligfield, found himself breaking up the reading into 14 pieces so that everyone who wanted to participate could read.
During that service, one of the fifth-grade parents, CSUN Professor of Business Law Nina Golden, noticed that many of the kids were regulars at Library Minyan at the Temple. “It gave me the idea to set a date to have them read Torah formally in the chapel for Library Minyan,” she says. This was the genesis of Torah Club. The pack of friends regularly hung out on Shabbat afternoons, so for a number of weeks, Nina sat and worked with them one-on-one to practice their aliyot. “The boys got together every week anyway, so why not use this as time to help them improve on something they could already do?” says Nina.
The goal of Torah Club in the beginning was simple: “Engage the kids who were already in the building—many were already attending the “lobby minyan” what we jokingly refer to as those kids hanging out in the lobby during services—and encourage other kids to come be with their friends by creating a structure where they would participate together in one of the minyanim and work on their Torah reading skills,” states Nina.
It became apparent that the kids would not simply be assigned an Aliyah and then show up to the designated Torah Club Shabbat ready to read Torah—Nina’s practice of working with them one-on-one became the surest way for the students to learn their individual aliyot. “All the kids have different learning styles,” she explains. “I really try to tune into each kid’s specific talent and skills and help from there.”
The first group of Torah Club members was made up of 18 kids, from 6th to 8th grade, some having already finished their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs with others in the process of studying for their simchas. Word spread quickly, and more and more kids came to join their friends in Torah Club.
“With popularity and participation rising, it quickly turned from ‘What’s Torah Club?’ to ‘Oh, yeah, I’m joining Torah Club,’” notes Nina, who coordinates the program with support from Beth Am’s senior staff, particularly the current cantor, Rabbi Hillary Chorny. From its first year to its second, membership doubled, the system evolved and participation opportunities expanded. Torah Club expanded beyong just reading Torah on Shabbat—on Torah Club Shabbatot, post-b’nai mitzvah members would frequently daven Shacharit, Torah service and Musaf, as well as read Haftarah. A small number of members were even able to participate in High Holy Day services starting a couple of years ago by learning High Holy Day trope.
“As Rabbi Lucas, Beth Am’s Associate Rabbi, has told the kids repeatedly, reading Torah is probably one of the hardest skills to acquire as a Jewish adult” Nina commented. “This is a way you can serve your community, and it’s not something that just anyone can get up and do. You have to be able to read Hebrew fluently and have at least a bit of a musical ear.” Not only are these kids strengthening their Hebrew and prayer skills and building a personal connection with the Temple, but this is also great for their spirits, helping them build confidence and self-esteem doing something they’re good at and enjoy. “We help them to be successful, but I point out to the kids that it’s not about perfection, it’s about persistence,” says Nina. “I remind them that making a mistake is not the end of the world. Part of being a Torah reader is learning how to take a correction from the gabbai.”
Now in its fifth year, the original group of kids are well past their B’nai Mitzvah days but are still dedicated to reading Torah. Only now, a number of them also get to help others who are in the shoes they once were in. Nina piloted training a few older, more experienced kids to mentor and help prepare some of the younger kids for their Torah reading. Not only does the mentorship program aim to broaden the number of expert Torah readers available to help other Torah Club members prepare, but mentors also enjoy the leadership opportunity and Nina certainly appreciates the help. This idea of mentorship is one area in which Nina plans to take the program. Additionally, for the first time this summer, Torah Club began a partnership with Camp Ramah.
Torah reading coordinators at the renowned Jewish summer camp met with Nina and were given a roster of all the Beth Am Torah Club members who are attending the camp’s second session. “When it’s time to assign Torah reading, they’ll know who is able to read,” explains Nina, adding tongue-in-cheek that she warned some of the kids—there would be no hiding this summer. “Our hope is, eventually this can expand to one-on-one mentoring situations between kids while at camp, solidifying bonds with each other, Camp Ramah and with reading Torah.”
The future is bright for Torah Club and Temple Beth Am, and they’re on the cusp of expanding the program further. More students will be trained as mentors, and a parental advisory committee just completed its first year and its members contributed greatly to forming the partnership with Camp Ramah. That partnership will undoubtedly help reinforce one of the core goals of Torah Club: instilling an expertise in an love for reading Torah. Still, Nina has even bigger dreams for it. “Ideally, we’d love to develop a template for what we’re doing here that we could share with congregations anywhere,” she explains. “We want to take the success that we’ve had and make it so that others can enjoy it, too. Truly, it would be my dream to travel the country and teach other synagogues how to put a program like this in place and get more kids engaged in reading Torah.”
“Seeing these kids get up and do what they’ve been practicing, and to see them so proud of themselves, that really gives me so much gratification for what I do.” —Nina Golden
“When it is a Torah Club morning in a minyan, the whole of Shabbat services that day is utterly transformed. The energy in the room is lively as TC members often come to support their friends even when they are not leyning or leading that day. Our adult regulars regularly remark that they feel uplifted and inspired watching the kids take ownership of these ritual skills. As cantor of this congregation, I have observed the extraordinary transformation of kids’ attitudes to leyning as a result of TC. At my year-out meetings with families in preparation for bar/bat mitzvah, I have noted a pervasive can-do attitude in regards to leyning. Our young adults now understand the leyning is an accessible, achievable skill.” —Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor
For more information, contact Temple Beth Am at (310) 652-7353.