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The B’nai Mitzvah class of 5781 had a year they — and we — will never forget. As we pivoted and innovated to make their transition to Jewish adulthood meaningful even in a year of social distancing and Zoom celebrations, these brilliant young people lit up our screens with lessons from the Torah that took our breath away. We’re thrilled to be sharing excerpts from their d’vrei torah — speeches they made to share with their community all the things they learned from the Torah portions they chanted. We’re gathering them below in thematic groupings because it’s amazing how their ideas meld and stretch and meet each other, even across the internet.

On the Torah’s Treatment of Women:

“The general theme of my portion is counting and listing their MEN. And preparing to go on their journey.  But something is missing. Have you guessed it?  Why doesn’t it mention WOMEN, besides the obvious sexism?” – Alice Grossman, on Ba’midbar

On Community

“I think family is important because they stick with you. If you are wronged by someone in your family, it is important to remember that you are family and that they will help you in other times. It is often very hard to accept an apology, even when it is truly sincere. That is why I, and everyone else, need to try our best to be forgiving and to not hold grudges”. – Archie Stillwell, on Miketz

“…life and death are always present. For example, the way that we are gathering this morning is not what I expected for my B’nai Mitzvah but it’s been altered to protect the health of everyone in the JRC community and my family and friends.” — Nyx Greene, on Balak

“This idea of doing the right thing for the good of the community is like the current COVID-19 pandemic; even if a few people don’t wear a mask, a lot of people can get sick and even die. We need rules or laws to keep us, our society and our world safe. I think the role of the Torah is like an instruction manual because it shows all the rules you need to obey so your society will stay together and not fall apart. In order to keep these laws, we have to make sacrifices for the greater good in the present time, as they did in biblical times.” – Jacob Goldstein, on Shemini

“In addition to acting as a messenger through my social justice project, I am also serving as a type of messenger this morning. The word for a service leader is a shaliach tzibur or a messenger of the people, delivering prayers on behalf of everyone. I’ve never led a service before, so this way of being a messenger isn’t one that I’ve really thought about before. It feels like leading a service, being in charge, comes with a lot of new responsibility.” – Siobhan Monohan, on Vayishlach

On Our Relationship with Nature

“To me, this portion shows us that all animals of all types are meant to have an important place in the world. They should be able to get enough food, water, and comfort to survive, in the wild or in our city. I want the congregation to learn that all animals should be respected–even animals like pigeons, which a lot of people hate. But, not all animals are treated fairly, and not all animals are treated with justice.” – Atticus Rosenback, on Bereshit

“Since the year 70 CE, Judaisim has had no animal sacrifices. Instead, we have prayer, tzedakah which means righteousness and charity or we do mitzvot, which are acts of love and kindness. Instead of animal sacrifice, we do these. I think they had the right mindset, which was to cleanse people, but they did the wrong thing, which was killing innocent animals.” – Julia Miller, on Chukat

On Belief

To be honest, I’m not sure if I BELIEVE in G-d. 

“And I don’t know if I believe in GHOSTS. 

“But I do believe in kindness, love, and honesty—things that we care about that we can’t see, touch, or smell but we KNOW exist because of how they SHOW UP in the world.” — Emma Thomas, on Ki Tisa

“For me, part of being a Jewish adult is doing my best to live by Jewish values that I can learn from the Torah and develop my own opinions and thoughts on them. For example, one thing that I’m concluding from my Torah portion is that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and try to focus on the good. I feel like that is a Jewish value for me because I learned it from the Torah which is a pretty big part of Judaism. Another part of being a Jewish adult means I can start making more decisions about my Jewish identity for myself, so it will feel like I have more control. One thing I know for sure is that Shabbat has always been important to me and I’ll plan on continuing to celebrate it.. For me, that part is less about being observant and more about tradition and custom. I like the ‘belonging’ more than the ‘believing’ right now — not all the time, but most of the time. Community, traditions, and food are important to me. Like I said, I’m still figuring out the believing part and that’s ok. There are many different ways to be Jewish.” — Hannah Tauber-Weiss, on Sh’lach L’cha

On Compassion

“…this highlighted one of the main themes of the Book of Genesis: that people aren’t perfect; they make mistakes and they struggle. This doesn’t change their ability to do better…When I looked into the stories from the Book of Genesis deeper, I realized that without these mistakes, people definitely wouldn’t be who they are today. For example, if Abraham hadn’t had his first child with Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, instead of Sarah herself, supposedly Ishmael would not have been born and Islam wouldn’t even exist.” — Libby Moreno, on Noah

Giving food to people who need it directly correlates to our Jewish values. Some of these values are Tikkun Olam orrepairing the world, Gemilut Hasadim, which are  acts of loving kindness, and R’fuahwhich means  healing . These values are very important to me because right now this world needs as much help as it  can get and one of the main problems people in this world are going through is hunger and not having enough food.” – Sophie Levy, on Toldot

“With my social justice project, I thought of this idea of sanctuary and the stories of the Jews as slaves in Egypt. We tend to think that slavery is in the past, but it’s not. In China, there is a large oppressed minority group of Muslims called the Uighurs, who are experiencing genocide with forced sterilization and wiping out their culture. A recent New Yorker article said “Not since the Holocaust has a minority population been as systematically detained.” – Thomas Beazley, on Bamidbar

Our specially made B’nai Mitzvah Class of 5781 Torah, which passed from household to household each week, designed and inscribed by Rabbi Rachel Weiss.