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A discovery, a homecoming

Lily Waugh

Lily Waugh, daughter of Rachel Bernstein, was one of two girls who became a bat mitzvah at the Jewish Secular Community of Cleveland’s first such service since 2001.

Lily Waugh, daughter of Rachel Bernstein, was one of two girls who became a bat mitzvah at the Jewish Secular Community of Cleveland’s first such service since 2001.

Like so many of us, Rachel Bernstein gets junk mail. Like so many of us, she usually throws it away without even opening the envelope. But one day – in early 2013, she thinks – Bernstein opened one of those suspect letters and got a message that rang true.

The message suggested that the Jewish Secular Community of Cleveland, which began in Cleveland Heights 47 years ago, would feel like home to Bernstein, who teaches Suzuki cello at The Music Settlement and also is executive director of Heights Arts.

Bernstein, who is married to Richard Waugh, a violist in the Cleveland Orchestra, had been seeking a place where she would feel comfortable familiarizing herself with Jewish customs and lore, a place where she would not feel obligated to be observant. She wanted to share such a place with their daughter, Lily.

Her way into Jewishness was playing cello for High Holy Days services in Albuquerque, N.M., and her family celebrated the holidays but did not attend services.

So when JSC came calling, Bernstein was ready. She also told her friend Jessica Klein about that letter she had just happened to unseal.

“I mentioned to her about the letter and it struck the same chord with her as it did with me, so we went to an informational meeting at somebody’s home and it was sort of, like,” she pauses, “you know how people find religion? It was that sort of thing where I went and said OK, I have to do this.”

What made Bernstein think the JSC was the right fit? “Just the fact that it was dealing with the humanistic qualities of Judaism rather than focusing on the religion, so she (Lily) would be getting a lot of information about all the traditions rather than having to go to Hebrew school and temple, that kind of thing.

“I sort of consider myself culturally Jewish,” says the Cleveland Heights resident. “I had looked around to see about possibly joining a temple or synagogue, and I visited a few temples and synagogues and I just wasn’t sure if that was for me, especially since my husband wasn’t Jewish. So this letter came in the mail and – Rifke will laugh when you talk about this – she was struck by the fact that I throw out most of my mail but I actually opened it. I read it and I was intrigued and I thought this sounds just like what I’d be looking for for my daughter. And I myself was never bar mitzvahed.”

Her daughter was, however. A new tradition began in July, when Lily Waugh and a friend became the first JSC bat mitzvahs since 2001.

“Rifke,” meanwhile, is the nickname of Richmond Heights resident Roberta Feinstein, a retired teacher of special needs students who joined what would become the JSC in 1969, two years after five families from Cleveland Heights launched its predecessor, the Jewish Secular School.

She and most of her fellow JSC members “are secularists and they want a celebration of their Jewishness in a non-theistic way,” Feinstein says. “That, I think, is the best way to put it.”

With Eugene Bayer as its first principal, the Jewish Secular School met in rented space at Fairfax Elementary School, its first enrollment 26 students from 15 families, according to Feinstein. Enrollment peaked at 105 in 1974, a year after the organization changed its name to Jewish Secular Community. It is one of 21 affiliates of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations in the United States and Canada.

“We had lots of bar and bat mitzvahs during the school years,” Feinstein says. “My son was in the first b’nai mitzvah class that the Jewish Secular School celebrated in 1973, and my second son had his bar mitzvah in 1976, but then I moved to Michigan. These b’nai mitzvahs continued. I came back every year to celebrate.”

By the time she moved back to Cleveland in 2002, however, the b’nai mitzvahs had stopped. “People were not joining with young kids.” Why? “That’s a good question,” she says. “I could be in the White House if I could answer that question.”

According to Feinstein, the return of the b’nai mitzvah stems from a question JSC founder Mickey Stern posed at a JSC meeting in a private home some two years ago. Why not reach out to intercultural families who might want their children to go through a bar or bat mitzvah program?

Now the b’nai mitzvahs are back. In July, Roberta Feinstein and Richard Waugh’s daughter Lily was bat mitzvahed along with Kayleigh Mooney, the daughter of Cleveland Heights residents Jessica Klein and Kevin Mooney, a non-Jew.

The girls, who are seventh-graders at Roxboro Middle School, were bat mitzvahed after education in Jewish holidays and institutions courtesy of Danielle Copeland, a Cleveland Heights woman Feinstein calls a “wonderful teacher.”

“Each girl researched a Jewish hero – my daughter did Anne Frank, Kayleigh did Harvey Milk – and at the ceremony Dani officiated,” says Bernstein. “Each girl presented their project and each mom came up and we talked to our daughters about their accomplishments and I played the (Ernest) Bloch ‘Prayer (From Jewish Life No. 1).’

“Then we had a big party at the Settlement.”

“It was really fun, a really good experience,” says Lily. “It was just fun to learn about everything, and I liked that I did it with another person. It was just neat to have another person there.”

As for the party, “we wrote speeches with the help of my teacher, and there was a lot of good food and a lot of our friends came, and family. There was a lot of music and then there were games, too. I think it started around 5 or 6 and it lasted until about 9 or 10,” Lily says.

Was she tired? “Yeah.” Was it worth it? “Yeah.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Bar•Bat Mitzvah.

Jewish Secular Community returns to offering b’nai mitzvah services