“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they’re looking for the experience of being alive.” — J. Campbell
When I was growing up, my family was not religious. Other than being bat mitzvahed, we didn't practice Judaism much beyond gathering with extended family to celebrate a few holidays each year. So in September of 2011, six months after my father passed, I was surprised to feel a deep pull to go to synagogue for memorial services (Yizkor) to honor my dad.
It was Yom Kippur (the holiest observance) and I didn't belong to a temple, nor was I seeking to join one. But that morning, on the way to the grocery store, I had a flashback of being a little girl watching my father clasp his cufflinks as he headed out to attend Yizkor for his departed mother. This memory lingered with me as I continued into Kings to buy milk. As the electronic doors opened, I was greeted by a floor-to-ceiling display of my father's favorite cookie, Mallomars. I immediately turned around and drove to our local temple in hope of catching the memorial prayers.
At the service, I was unexpectedly and compassionately guided through feelings of grief in ways that words cannot explain. I returned home feeling very open and connected to my father.
My expanded presence seemed to pique the interest of my son William (then 9 years old), and he said to me, "Mom, I will try Hebrew School if you want me to."
His statement took me by surprise because neither my husband nor I felt the need for William to receive a Jewish education.
But still, his words pushed me toward some deep thinking. I did, in fact, want William to feel a connection to our lineage, history, and traditions. I also often wondered...if we didn't offer my son some sort of religious identity, would he eventually feel the absence as a void?
We agreed to support his trying Hebrew School and told him, "It's great that you want to go, but know that if you want to stop at any point, you can." So, in 2012 he went for a trial week, which came to a beautiful conclusion on November 12, 2016.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Now, I'd like to keep you believing that it was my amazing afterglow from attending service for my Dad that committed William to his path. But we soon discovered that he was motivated by learning that the finish line included a big party and potentially a generous number of gifts.
It wasn't always easy. Over the four years of classes, he wanted to quit at least once each season. Whenever he complained about moving forward, we reminded him that he could stop when he wanted to. But each time, William ultimately decided to rededicate himself to the effort.
What became most meaningful to us as parents in this process was witnessing William, for the first time ever, commit to something that was not stimulating, entertaining, or immediately rewarding to him. As you may imagine, Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah lessons can be super demanding and for many, pretty boring.
Finally, his fourth year of study rolled in, and there we were, planning a Bar Mitzvah.
With no common ground among my husband, my son, and me as to what this day should entail, things got harder...and William decided he wanted not a big party, just a celebration with his friends.
Six months into the process, we still didn't agree upon a vision or feel a cohesiveness. So we decided to plan just the basics and book a party for William's friends and a small luncheon for immediate family.
Two months before the big day, we had an orientation meeting with the rabbi to ensure that we understood how the service (ceremony) was structured and what we needed to do to participate.
This was the turning point.
The Rabbi explained that this would be our day too, not just William's. A Bar Mitzvah can be a rite of passage for not just the celebrant, but for his whole family and community as well. This could be a ritual to celebrate the past 13 years of raising our son and to honor this threshold — from which we all are growing up, and out, and forward. This simple idea was like a light that was turned on in a dark room.
My husband and I understood it instantly and embraced it fully.
When we were invited to make it our own, to inject our family meaning into it and to create something relevant and personal, we literally came fully to life. One of William's tutors even further encouraged us, suggesting we "take back the Bar Mitzvah."
It was through this deconstruction or construction process that we became more connected to this day than we ever expected. We began to articulate and really feel what was most meaningful and important to us: family, friends, nature, kindness, music, poetry, lineage, politics, optimism, inclusion, participation, celebration, and joy. It was the progression of working toward the day of ritual when we spent the time pausing for reflection and introspection, taking stock, and feeling gratitude that gave the actual rite meaning and power.
This ritual culminated in one of the most potent moments of my life. My husband and I each had an opportunity to give a blessing to our son. Time stood still as we looked deeply into William's eyes while he listened to our heartfelt wishes for him.
This was a new day for all of us.
Not only did my husband and I revel in the experience of seeing our son standing on his own in front of his community and showing he has truly grown up, we also felt that we, too, had grown up. We had survived being first-time parents to an infant, then a toddler, and then a child...and William had survived with us as his parents. Not only did he survive, he thrived. Happy Bar Mitzvah!
While I've long loved leading rituals for myself and my students (New Year's Eve, solstice, equinox, etc.), I've come to believe that it's the preparation, practice, and process of moving toward the ritual that will make it sacred. For many, especially in a religious context, a rite or ritual can feel more like a responsibility, or protocol, or even just habit. We can also walk blindly through these moments and take them for granted. But the truth is that the magic and meaning in any ritual lie within you. The ritual's power to reorient, reconnect, and re-inspire you — even transform you — begins with what you bring to it.
While every day brings opportunity for ritual, this season is especially abundant with actual junctures: The Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and New Year's Day. So embrace this time to create your own personal moments of pause, introspection, beauty, and blessings all season long.
“Give Thanks for the Unknown blessings already on their way.” — Native American Prayer