Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bar Mitzvahs and a worthwhile cause

This will probably be my last blog entry until after my son’s Bar Mitzvah in a couple of weeks.  Every night has at least one appointment, and some have two, as we get ready for the big day.  Details, details, details.

     I thought I might use this opportunity to get our readers involved and thinking about your own experiences.   What do you remember about your Bar/Bat Mitzvah?  Was it common for girls to be Bat Mitzvah’ed in your day?   Did the shuls treat women differently?  Obviously Brothers of Israel had a Mechitza.   How were Bar Mitzvahs celebrated?  Were Bat Mitzvahs celebrated on the same scale as Bar Mitzvahs?  If the parties weren’t held at the synagogues, was there a hall that hosted them? 

Think back to your coming of age and click on the comments button at the end of the blog or e-mail me your thoughts.  I will use them in a future blog.

This past Saturday night was the 75th Anniversary Gala of Jewish Children’s and Family Service of Greater Mercer County.   I had the privilege of producing the video that was shown at the party.   Linda Meisel contacted me about producing the video in October and over the ensuing 4 months I gained a firsthand education in what this remarkable agency does.   I interviewed past and present board members, clients who have received services from JFCS and met staff and volunteers who make it all happen.  The first step in putting together the video was to go through the JFCS archives and look at the articles that dated back to the beginning.

A history of the agency, written by Judge Sidney Goldmann, for the program for the 40th anniversary in 1977 details many of the predecessors of today’s JFCS.   Although there is no direct link to many of the groups, what they had in common was that they were Jewish groups, dedicated to helping the less fortunate Jews in Trenton.   In the video, I included these organizations in an opening graphic, which include among them, the Chevra Bikur Cholin (1877) the Har Sinai Charity Society (10/1893), the Hebrew Beneficial Society (8/1895), the Hebrew Charitable Association (2/1908), which became the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Trenton in 1930, the Sons of Zion and the Ladies of Zion Aid Society (1900) and the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society of Trenton (1/1909).    The Judge also details the family tree for Greenwood House, with its roots dating back to the Chebruh Buker Cholin (1877) and the South Trenton Ladies Bikoor Chailim Society (6/1921) , which later became the Trenton Ladies Sick Benefit Society in April of 1938.  Direct lineage begins with the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society, whose work was “formalized with the incorporation of the Jewish Welfare Bureau in January 1937.”  The article talks about the Depression and the increase in the number of families serviced by the Ladies from 10-15 previously to more than 80 when the economy fell apart.  A report to the Trenton Council of Social Agencies said “the Bureau cared for 66 families,  issued 1,500 food orders, 28 tons of coal and wearing apparel for over 100 children, and it found homes for 4 aged persons and hospitalizations for 5.”  In the 1940’s the Bureau was involved in resettling refugees from Germany and by 1944, there were 50 refugee families here.  In 1944, the agency hired a professional Executive Director, David Tanenbaum and in 1949 the Bureau changed its name to Jewish Family Service.  The history continues and as I moved on to the archived news articles what struck me was that although the clippings were old and yellowed, many of the subjects of the articles were as relevant today as they were when they were written.  The names have changed, but the problems that people face are relatively consistent from generation to generation.  In the 1950’s, the refugees came from Hungary, in the 1960’s from Egypt, in the 1970’s from Soviet Union, and in the 80’s from Ethiopia.  Hunger was and still is an issue and the demand at the Kosher Food Pantry today is at an all-time high.    Counseling on a sliding fee scale has been a hallmark of the agency and for the video, I met a woman who had lost her job in NYC and was able to get counseling through JFCS at a reduced fee and was able to get help “in a Jewish way.” 

On a personal note, I first heard about JFCS because my wife has been volunteering at the Kosher Café in Ewing since shortly after we moved to the area in 1996 and my sons have helped out there when school vacations have permitted. (Shameless plug time---The Kosher Café is a phenomenal program that operates Tuesdays through Fridays in the basement at The Woodbrook House in Ewing.  Kosher food is provided by Greenwood House.  It's a great place for seniors to meet and eat.  Reservations are required and transportation can be arranged--call JFCS for more information at 609-987-8100.)

Another personal note-A college buddy of mine was the CEO of the Philadelphia JFCS until last year.  When my father fell ill on a visit to Texas in 2008, I called my friend and through a counselor in the Philadelphia office, I found out about a caregiver support group in Dallas, which my sister and mother started attending, reluctantly at first.  At the time, my Mom was really struggling with being stuck in Texas (she had lived in Pennsylvania for 42 years) and watching my father's health deteriorate for a 9 month ordeal.  Both she and my sister found the group to be a source of strength and made new friends through the group.

Treating the clients with dignity was a phrase that I heard over and over again while doing the many interviews for Saturday’s video and a gentleman named Harry told of how a caregiver support group helped him get through hard times while taking care of his father, keeping a promise to him to have him live out his days at home.  In the end, he said the most important thing was that the group helped validate that what he was doing was the right thing for him and his father.

In interviewing the board members, I asked each of them whether they had any idea of what the agency did when they joined the board.  They all said, they knew of one or two areas where JFCS made a huge difference, but only through the presentations by staff members at the board meetings did they become aware of all of the facets of life that this remarkable agency touches. They went through a similar learning experience that I went through in producing the video.  I also asked, “What would this community be like without a JFCS?”  The consensus was “I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like.”  Linda told me that last year, the agency touched more than 5,000 people's lives.

JFCS has decided to start a 75th anniversary endowment, in an effort to provide a cushion for bad economic times when their funding from philanthropic organizations and individuals fluctuates due to variables outside of their control.   With the income produced from the new endowment, the plan is to smooth out those rough patches and be able to deliver the kinds of services that they provide so well.  With the perspective of all I learned while doing the production, it’s the same kind of foresight that the early Trentonians had when they started all of those charitable groups in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  The names have changed, but not the problems.   Jews taking care of their own, in a Jewish way.  Good luck Linda and JFCS.  For information on how to support JFCS, click on this link.

Thanks for reading.


1 comment:

  1. I was bar mitzvahed in May of 1956 at Har Sinai Temple on Bellevue Avenue in Trenton. Up until that time no girls had been bat mitzvahed there. My memory is hazy, but a young lady, Tula Schnorbus, younger than I, MIGHT have been the first Bat Mitvah at Har Sinai.

    Parties were normally held at the home of the bar mitzvah boy. They were not lavish by any means. As I remember: pretzels and potato chips and cookies and soft drinks and dancing to '50's rock and roll music. Boys wore suits and ties, girls, pretty dresses and hose. Each of the invitees would give a gift to the bar mitvahed boy, sometimes a religious item like a mezzuzah, sometimes a fountain pen or piece of Boy Scout equipment. Never anything elaborate. The parents and perhaps a few friends of the family served as chaperones. Sometimes the party was held in the Bobby Blaugrand (in memory of a lad who had died young)Room of Har Sinai. The folding doors that normally separated two classrooms were opened to accomodate the party.

    Being a reformed synagogue, Har Sinai treated females "equally," although back in those days there were no bat mitzahs, no female rabbis or cantors. The sexes were seated together in the sancutary and both girls and boys were eligible to be confirmed at about age 15.

    My own bar mitvah was unusual in two respects: I was the first bar mitvah at Har Sinai who ever (perhaps to this day?) translated his Torah portion directly from the scroll: no typed-out English translation. Cantor Marshall Glatzer tutored me in this project, and could never resist a chuckle when we came to the word in my Torah portion, "tachus," meaning "under" but also...

    The other unusual event was that the rabbi, Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, would normally, at a bar mitzvah, say a few nice things about the bar mitzvah and his family and then get on with his weekly sermon. In my case, Rabbi Haberman omitted any sermon and took the time to praise my accomplishment at the bimah and also to praise my parents, Herman and Irene. No sermon.

    On a personal level there was a third unusual aspect to my bar mitzvah: my grandfather, Samuel "Pop" Brodner, a member of the Brothers of Israel Synagogue vowed that he would wear his yarmulka on the "bimah" during my bar mitzvah. There was no arguing with him. But...on the day of my bar mitzvah, Pop Brodner sat in a beatiful gray suit on the Har Sinai bimah...with no yarmulka. I took this as a sign of high respect from my grandfather, that he would forego his tradition and belief for his grandson's bar mitzvah. (In those days no one ever wore a yarmulka in a Reform Synagogue and no one ever went without one in an Orthodox or Conservative shul: there was no mix-and-match back then.)

    Bar Mitzvah was preceded by a number of years of after-school Hebrew School, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for about an hour each day. We studied Hebrew but also our own Torah portions. Some boys who had difficulty with reading Hebrew were helped with vinyl recordings of their portions.

    To have held the "yad" in my hand in front of the sacred scroll, to have sung the Torah blessings, to have looked out into the congregation and addressed them in my bar mitzvah speech was a major moment in my life, one that I will, of course, never forget, but one that also inspires me to this day.