Noa Kattler Kupetz
We sat cross-legged on the floor, grades ten and eleven expecting nothing more than another Oneg experience of quick prayer and free challah. No student was fully prepared for the teachings of Rabbi Chaim Mentz of the Chabad of Bel Air, who would be sharing his views on the topic of creation. The fact that the majority of students felt unprepared for Mentz’s views is a testament to Milken’s wavering concept of pluralism– as well as a great step towards achieving the school’s mission of being a smooth running pluralistic community.
Walking out of the theater after exposure to Mentz’s concept of Judaism, my classmates’ reactions can be summed up into three responses: anger, a passive (and ignorant) “whatever,” and inspiration after picking out wisdom from Mentz’s teaching that correlated to their personal beliefs.
“There are a lot of conflicts that need addressing within Judaism, and at Milken we really try hard to offer lots of different opportunities for learning,” Cheryl Cohen, Judaic Studies teacher, said. Despite this effort, many of my classmates put “foreign” forms of Judaism in cages of alienation which they are quick to not only disregard, but also to delegitimize. That is exactly why hearing Rabbi Mentz speak was so important; the cloud of discussion kicked up after his teaching brought out an active side of the Milken community.
Though some students complained about not being given an advanced warning about the (in their minds) radical views of Rabbi Mentz, the spontaneity of the speech added to the buzz it created around campus. Mentz’s teaching generated discussion on the importance of eliminating ignorance through education, defining what authentic Judaism is, and even the feminist standpoint in Judaism.
Six days after Mentz’s lesson, the eleventh grade spent their entire Spiritual Practice session discussing their reactions to his speech.
“[The Spiritual Practice discussion] happened because the Jewish Studies faculty- made up of teachers who are Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews- felt strongly that after Rabbi Mentz’s presentation, we needed to check in with our students, give them forum for discussion, and allow them to voice their ideas,” Rabbi Shawn Fields-Myer said. Many teachers overseeing the discussions reported meaningful conversation.
“I think a lot of people are reluctant to find criticism in their own world or community,” Alison Rollman ‘14 said. “In 9th grade history we learned about Christianity and Islam, and talked about how ignorance relates to prejudice. We forget that bringing up issues inside our Judaism is really important.”
Though members of all large Jewish movements can be found at Milken, the majority of students enrolled at the school identify with the Reform and Conservative movements. Hearing Rabbi Mentz’s Orthodox outlook on Judaism was a shock to their systems; a wake up call to the other views that are connected to our religion.
Though Talia Kamran ‘14 agrees with the importance of hearing Rabbi Mentz speak, she left the discussion with focus on another part of his presentation.
“The way he was speaking to girls was very patronizing, and gave you a view into the way he felt– I don’t like it when people discredit my Judaism [because I’m a woman],” Kamran said. The gender expectations Mentz mentioned stirred up other students as well. Jessie Mallor, Judaic Studies teacher, pointed out that contrary to the message some picked up from Mentz, Milken has many female rabbis.
“What people were noticing seems to reflect a certain predisposition to put people in boxes,” Mallor said.
Regardless of where students identify themselves on the Jewish spectrum, hearing Mentz’s viewpoint is beneficial to their cultivation as Jewish individuals. The Oneg guest speaker line up plans on bringing in Jewish leaders of other backgrounds, with the purpose of exposing Milken students to the rich diversity of Judaism and popping the so called, “Milken bubble.”
“Without hearing from all sides, who are we to draw conclusions of who is correct?” Dorel Meiri ‘14 said. Many other Milken students, as well as faculty member Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, agree with Meiri’s feelings.
“To truly be in a pluralistic community means to make space for all kinds of Jews with all kinds of beliefs and opinions. To truly be a Jew means to wrestle with those many views. We are, after all, Bnai Yisrael — the people who strive and wrestle with God,” Fields-Meyer said.
Though some students found Mentz to be commanding us to believe his way, I left the discussion focusing on the profound value he placed on time. Rabbi Mentz mentioned that every moment, every second, is creation– that the reason Judaism works, the reason why it’s so important to light the Shabbat candles at a precise time, and to plot ahead your week in order to reserve time for prayer, is because the religion depends upon the connections, purpose, and traditions fostered by realizing the potential in time.
Despite the differences in Mentz’s beliefs and my own, I found myself greatly appreciating his words.
That precise moment as countless numbers of Jewish women strike a match and light Shabbat candles in near unison; a second of surreal wholeness. This is an image of power and beauty that Rabbi Mentz has left with me.