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The Torah Reading Ceremony: a Birthright and Rite of Passage

This morning was our annual second-grade Torah Reading Ceremony, a critical rite of passage in the lifetime of a Beit Rabban education. Like most Jewish day schools, we begin studying Chumash in second grade. However, we do not induct our children into this practice with a performance ceremony culminating in giving a Chumash to each student. Instead, our children spend months preparing to earn their Chumashim. 

On the first day of second grade, children begin at the beginning, Bereishit (Genesis). As they study the story of Creation--reading, questioning, thinking--students learn biblical Hebrew, the layout and division of the Torah into chapters and verses, and the system of "taamei hamikra," the ancient notes that guide us in chanting the Torah in community. Why do we emphasize the chanting of the Torah as an integral component of its study when this skill is generally not taught until bar/bat mitzvah? Because we are teaching our children to notice everything on the page of our holiest of texts, to understand its purpose, and to master its use. If we approach literacy with this level of intentionality, as many progressive schools do, how could we approach the study of Torah with any less intentionality and rigor? 

Our second graders prepare for their Torah Reading Ceremony for months, all this time focusing exclusively on the story of Creation- just 34 short verses. During this process, they become one with the text: reading, translating, chanting, and analyzing each day... each word. In addition to the text, they explore the themes of Creation in their interdisciplinary period, looking at the science of light and dark and studying the various ecosystems created each day. They create watercolor portfolios of Creation, selecting a quote from each day of Creation to interpret with their paintbrushes. Finally, after all this, each student walks up to the Torah scroll and proudly chants their portion of Parashat Bereishit amidst the entire Beit Rabban community, using hand-mad yads (pointers) prepared for them by our fourth graders. 

Then, the students receive their first Chumash; each is inscribed with a personal blessing written by their parents. We tell them at that point that this Chumash is not a gift, it is entitlement and a birthright. But birthrights also get earned through rites of passage. They are ready to receive their Chumashim because they have worked long and hard to develop an appreciation for the Torah's multifaceted beauty, wisdom, and holiness. 

A critical feature of this experience has always been the communal celebration. All grades, from our smallest preschoolers to our eighth graders, join together for this event. Beyond attending, they, too, prepare for weeks before the ceremony. They make mazal tov signs for each second grader, design a hand-made yad (Torah reading pointer) for each student, paint wrapping paper for the Chumashim, interview the second graders to write bios for the program, and even write divrei torah in honor of the second graders (you can read them below!). Parents, grandparents, and alumni join the ceremony. In recent years, we have begun to livestream so relatives from a distance can watch as well. After the event, we all share in a celebratory kiddush and a Ktivat Stam (Torah calligraphy) workshop. And, of course, there is a photo booth. How can you have a simcha without a photo booth?

This day is so big that it rivals graduation for the biggest day on the Beit Rabban calendar. If you ask a student in middle school what their favorite memory of Beit Rabban has been, they will likely tell you that it was the Torah Reading Ceremony. Which begs the question... why do we make such a big deal out of a second-grade program? We invest so profoundly in this "moment" because it conveys this community's shared values to our children in the most affective of ways. We make a big deal out of this because we want our children to see that this very diverse Jewish community is committed to deep and thick Jewish fluency, which requires investment, thought, and partnership. We want our children to understand that the Chumash they receive is not a gift. It is a birthright. And we also want them to learn that birthrights also get earned through rites of passage. They are ready to receive their Chumashim because they have worked long and hard to develop an appreciation for the Torah's multifaceted beauty, wisdom, and holiness. We want them to feel that they are carrying a legacy and responsibility for our entire community, that carrying this legacy is hard work, that they have the power to carry it forward with creativity, and that it feels great to do so.

At times like these, watching our children read the Torah loud and proud is more affirming for their grown-ups than they understand. We need them to carry this legacy, and we need them to do it with confidence, obligation, and a lot of creativity. As I share with the students every year, God passed along the responsibility to continue to create and re-create the world to us, to them. We bless them that the words of the Torah always inspire them to create for the good of our people and the world.

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