Celebrating My Bar Mitzvah in Israel at 32 Years Old

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On the REALITY Reunion, I had the opportunity to experience my bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. I’d been thinking about doing it for years. My mother passed away when I was 11, and by the time preparing for a bar mitzvah came around, I had no interest. As I reconnected to my Jewish heritage in college and after, on my own terms (and spirituality thereafter) it felt like more and more of something I’d value and love of marking my life and the role both of those, as well as manhood, play. Especially as, in the last year, my own relationship to masculinity has evolved, both in my felt sense of it, as well as through the role men play in society. I work with an organization, Evryman, that focuses on building new tools for modern men around our lived experiences and emotions. The experience ended up not just being deeply important for me, but also, as I was told, impactful and evocative for many of the other 124 fantastic humans who I had the pleasure of sharing this experience with. 

This is the d'var Torah that I gave on that special Shabbat morning in Jerusalem, on May 12. 

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been telling many of my friends and people I meet about my choice to become a Bar Mitzvah in Israel. Many asked me if I was even Jewish, because of my last name. Others asked me, with no irony, if that meant I had to get a circumcision too. Almost all asked, why? To me, it’s about the stage of life and growth I have found myself at.

I’m having my Bar Mitzvah today to mark choosing publicly and ritually naming my identity as Jewish. I wasn’t ready to do that at 13 years old. I could only see the literal reading of the Torah. Parts of it said things that I felt were downright immoral. Even this book I recited from today, Leviticus, condones slavery, and has been used as a biblical justification for homophobia. Yet, as I’ve studied for this day, I’ve come to understand that this book is simply the experience of the creator, put into words by humans. THAT is, to me, the core essence of Judaism.

But, like with so many other things in life, I felt like this was exactly the right time, for all the right reasons. Here, a year ago, I decided to revel in the mysteries of life rather than assuming I have all the answers, and in doing so, connected to myself, and Judaism, in a different way. This last year, too, has been about coming to truly understand and love the essential nature of who I am.

So this gets me to the portion I just read to you: Leviticus. 26:1-2. In it, it is said, “Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image.” In a word, what is being said here: make no idols. In this text, that was literal but also metaphorical. In other words, don’t be controlled by ideals or stories that we haven’t chosen. We can connect to the essential nature of Judaism, and the essence of who each of us is as a person. In this way, being truly connected to Judaism is visible in the way one uses Judaism to express our true nature.

I’ve spent so much of my life trying to discard the stories and ideals I thought I was supposed to have: stories about myself and who I was supposed to become and things I told myself I was supposed to be or do.

But, many of the ideals we build around ourselves serve us. These can be the identities we choose, like work or our lived experience. In thinking on this, I’ve come to see that we build these identities, these ideals, around our essential nature. When we want them to, they can serve us and protect us. It’s the false ones, the ones that obscure our true nature, the ones we feel like we’re supposed to use, that can mislead us when we serve them, instead of them serving us and our greater good.

It’s like the Torah says here: make no false idols, and certainly don’t bow down to them. In that way, the Torah itself is the earliest form expressing the essential nature of Judaism.

Through the process of preparing for today, I came to see that the written Torah is just one way of expressing Judaism. And today, I fully choose Judaism as an identity I carry with me, amongst others I’m proud to carry as well. Judaism serves what I want to create in the world and leads me to serve my truest, most essential nature. It cuts a pathway to serve the divine. The Torah helps us get in touch with our true nature, our core self, by helping us identify the idols we are bowing to and the ideals we reflexively allow to drive us. It gives us the tools to see, understand and mindfully make use of them. It helps show us the home that we return to again. It shines a light, a beacon, to bring us back to our essential nature, even when we have trouble seeing it — even when we cover it up with ideals and stories that don’t serve us.

And so, with that, may you all be blessed with a self that you can truly love, experiences and identities that enrich your life and the wisdom and vision to see all of them together as a core part of who you and who we are. Shabbat shalom.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.