25 August 2010

New Mexico: A frontier bar mitzvah

Readers who live in large Jewish communities don't always "get" what it's like to live in an isolated community, particularly when it comes to lifecycle events.

One year, during a ski trip to Taos, we met two young girls on the slopes. Their Jewish family lived in Taos, their father was an anesthesiologist, and their mother told us - over pizza at their home - of the shlepping involved getting the girls to Hebrew school in the winter to Santa Fe.

I only had to drive 15 minutes down Ventura Boulevard to Valley Beth Shalom (Encino, California), where snow never fell, and where our biggest problem was parking!

I just discovered this blog post, written by Lauren Reichelt of Espanola, Rio Arriba County, in northern New Mexico, describing the problems and practicalities of getting kids to Hebrew school, and of staying connected as part of a congregational family.

In Lauren's area, one must work hard to maintain Jewish connections. I think her message holds important insights for Jewish family history researchers who may understand more about their ancestors who settled in remote places.

Lauren's post addresses the challenges of Judaism in such a setting, and the stronger links formed because of the effort of dedicated parents to achieve success and maintain these connections.

Here's just some of Lauren's post. Read the complete post at the link above.

I teamed up with two other Espanola area families to help my children reach their B’nai Mitzvah ritual. It was a challenge to drive my children into Santa Fe two times a week on Wednesday and Sunday. Older children have class at six while younger children must be there by four. But my son and daughter attended school in two separate towns, Los Alamos and White Rock, thirty minutes from where I work, and an hour from Santa Fe. The Trujillo family lives in Chimayo, 15 minutes to the East of us, but also sent their children to White Rock and Santa Fe. The Bennett children attended day school in Santa Fe.

Here’s how we did it:

Early every morning my husband met Irvin Trujillo in Espanola and exchanged a child. One van headed to White Rock and the other to Santa Fe. On Wednesdays, Irvin brought one carload of children into Santa Fe at four while his wife, Lisa, dropped off the other at six. Scott Bennet, who worked in Santa Fe, picked up a carload of younger Bennett-Trujillo-Reichelts at six and drove them to his farm in La Puebla. I picked up the older carload of Bennett-Trujillo-Reichelts at 7:30 and drove to Scott’s farm. I dropped off the elder Bennett and picked up the younger Trujillo-Reichelts, dropped off the Trujillos at their weaving studio in Chimayo and drove my own children home. We were lucky if we made it by ten.

On Sundays, we took turns, meeting in a parking lot and loading kids into a van.
As various children aged out of the carpool program (or began driving themselves), moving on to high school or college, the regime became more complex. My son took the Park and Ride to Santa Fe where he was met by a rotating assortment of Temple members and driven to class. Imagine a ten year old boy standing on the sidewalk with a trombone case and a backpack full of books in a downpour waiting for his ride!

Sometimes it snowed or a child ended up on a Park and Ride going in the wrong direction. I once ended up in a ditch in Chimayo in the middle of a blizzard with a carload of cold children!
Getting the kids there wasn't the only issue.

The families of the bnai mitzvah class supported each other throughout the year, preparing and clean up after congregational meals following Friday night and Saturday services and working together to organize the parties.

At many large synagogues in North America, the bima is shared by two or three young people. At Lauren's Santa Fe synagogue, each child acts as the rabbi, leads the entire service, chants four aliyot and the haftorah, and prepares a d'var torah (sermon). Lauren writes that they want to prepare their young people to lead the community in the future.

During the bnai mitzvah year, all class parents, not only the young people, are expected to attend every bnai mitzvah, some 12-20 weekends during the year and a major commitment.

It's an inspiring story of community bonding.

Lauren Reichelt is director of Rio Arriba's (New Mexico) Health and Human Services Department.

Rio Arribo is a rural northern New Mexico county with a population of 41,200 residents in an area equal to Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined (5,858 sq.miles); 75% Hispanic, 14% Native American and 13% Anglo. The largest center, some 9,000 people, is in a 6,000-foot high valley surrounded by peaks of 10,000-12,000 feet, and it takes 3 1/2 hours to drive from one end of the county to the other.

She began getting involved in Jewish community organizing assisting Rabbi Michael J. Schudrich (another name familiar to Jewish genealogists - he is now Chief Rabbi of Poland) when she lived in Tokyo, Japan.

Read the complete post at the link above.


  1. eileenpatterson7:36 AM

    While I was growing up my family and I lived on the Navy base in Brooklyn, NY. Although NYC is the home to a large number of Jews, our location isolated us from the rest of NY. I have always felt isolated from the Jewish community, even when we moved back to NY and lived in a Jewish neighborhood. My parents made sure I was able to attend Hebrew school like those in your story but were unable to do so for my sisters. I still feel a strong commitment to Judaism, much strong than my sisters, but still live isolated from the "clan."

  2. Hi, Eileen,

    Thank you for sharing your own story.

    When we lived in Teheran, we were a small group of American Jews. Some were married to Persians, some were military families, embassy people and others were working at various companies.

    We gathered together and founded the American Synagogue of Teheran, brought in rabbis for the holidays and tried to create what we could of the best that we remembered.

    While those of us married to Persians were still surrounded by Judaism - which was very open in pre-Revolution days - we missed our Ashkenazi traditions recognized by no one in our new families.

    We created a community for a few years. It was an achievement that all of us involved still remember.

    with best wishes

  3. I was googling something else when your blog popped up. What a surprise to find myself here! I'm sure Michael will appreciate it too!

    Your experience in Teheran was fascinating. One of the families Michael introduced me to had escaped from Teheran after the revolution and resettled temporarily in Tokyo.

  4. Hi, Lauren.

    And we in the big city complained about our wimpy carpooling!!!!!

    Thank you for sharing that story in your blog.

    Anything that helps us understand about different people live helps us understand our ancestors.

    Do you remember the name of the Persian family in Tokyo?

    with best wishes, shana tova