Q: My wife and I have been very involved in climate activism, it’s an important part of what brought us together. We decided about five years ago to move to rural Maine to sustainably grow blueberries. We now have a thriving business and enjoy our lifestyle. The one problem is our son; he’s now 10. We are surprised to realize that we would like him to become a bar mitzvah. We didn’t think about this when he was younger, but we’d like him to have some degree of Jewish education. There isn’t a synagogue for miles, nor any well-educated Jews! Any suggestions?
A: Post-COVID, this is an easy one. If nothing else has come out of the pandemic, we all have learned to use the internet. It is extremely easy to hire a bar mitzvah tutor for your son online. The question then becomes how you find someone you feel good about.
You might begin by asking friends in more populated places if they know of anyone. You might look at some websites. EighteenDoors has a vetted list of clergy for life-cycle events that might be able to tutor your son. OnlineJewishLearning has bar mitzvah tutoring too. In fact, it is easy to find learned people and those willing to help with life cycle events through the internet, though be vigilant when connecting with online strangers.
You might also connect with synagogues in the closer cities. They might have resources that feel more familiar.
We shouldn’t assume that Jews don’t live in rural America; Jews are strewn across rural America, and have been for the history of this country. Just think about Levi Strauss and the Jews who took the migratory routes out west in the nineteenth century. Nowadays, social media and word-of-mouth can help you find formal and informal Jewish networks and communities.
However, I’m making a potentially incorrect assumption here: I’m assuming you have reliable internet. We have seen the worrying trend of rural America being underserved by internet service providers and cable companies. While the internet has become a necessity taken for granted in cities, in rural America, it may be expensive, inaccessible, or nonexistent altogether.
The internet, for as helpful as it has been, does not have to be the only solution. You would be within your rights to object to a Jewish education experience that starts and ends online, even if the internet connection wasn’t an issue. You may want your children to learn, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be done in the same organized fashion of older generations.
A recent study by Rabbi Laura Geller suggests that older Jews are feeling underutilized in the Jewish community. If you can find an older, learned Jew near you or through a friend, chances are they’d be happy to help and feel that their expertise is appreciated and wanted by the newer generations.
A friend of mine wanted to have a bar mitzvah in Alaska. While there’s a small Jewish community, there hadn’t been a bar mitzvah in several years. His mother hired a tutor from Connecticut to supplement some sessions with a local learned Jew to prepare her son. He inspired younger kids to also study. Now, there are a number of bar mitzvahs planned in the coming years.
Another family I know lived in the city, but the parents worked weekends and were unable to fulfill their synagogue’s requirement of getting their son to services every Shabbat. Instead, they sent their son to a Camp with terrific bar mitzvah classes in the summer and virtual meetings during the year. This way, the son had both the chevra, or group of friends to learn with, along with more traditional tutoring.
I don’t bring these examples up to tell you what to do, I bring them up to illustrate the spirit of non-traditional Jewish education. Just like the Jews of the Oregon Trail trailblazed new Jewish spaces as they moved into rural America, young Jews today are creating new ways to feel close to Judaism in a time where it seems connectivity over the internet is prioritized above all else.