A quinceañera is a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. This major life cycle event originated in Latin America but is now observed by many Hispanic families wherever they may be living. It is much more than a birthday party. It marks the transition from childhood to womanhood. This rite of passage should sound familiar. In many ways, it reflects the same values as a bat mitzvah. In addition to a big party and celebration, it includes a variety of different rituals that date back over 2000 years.
We are hosting a quinceañera at our temple soon. As it turns out, it is not for a temple family – at least not the way we traditionally define a ‘temple family.’ Rather it is an offering of love that we are co-hosting with The Second Step, an organization that fosters the safety, stability, and well-being of survivors of domestic violence. When our partners at The Second Step told us that a family with a 15-year-old daughter had to flee their home, that there was no way the mom could celebrate her girl’s quinceañera, then our role was clear. Our door is open, and the lights are shining.
When we began to explore what our work might be when we agreed to focus on social justice for victims of domestic violence, we imagined all kinds of activities and programs. We envisioned helping fleeing families by getting them the necessities of life: cookware, food, and clothing. We figured that we could get various gift cards from places like Target or Wal-Mart and then give them to victimized women. They would then have autonomy to choose the dish things they wanted without anyone demanding what they must buy, which is a hallmark of domestic violence perpetrators. We anticipated programming for our kids and our adults so that they would learn that domestic violence is as prevalent among the affluent as it is among the needy. Most of all we wanted to create a congregation willing to actively respond to the scourge of domestic violence – no bystanders allowed.
What we didn’t expect was a call to decorate the boardroom with pink ribbons and miniature Eiffel towers. What we didn’t anticipate was enabling a family of another faith and culture to find a safe, secure, loving place to mark a lifecycle event every bit as big as a bat mitzvah.
I imagine that 20 or 30 years ago we might not have so readily jumped to co-host this celebration. After all, it’s not Jewish. We’d help find a place. We’d donate some supplies. But such an event was not in our purview.
But the times, they are a changin’… When someone needs us, we are duty-bound to respond. We are not on earth to merely look out for our own. We are all connected, one to the other. Those who oppose such truth are always looking for how we are different rather than acknowledging how closely we are allied to the other. In the dialectical scrum between particularism vs. universalism, we postmodern Reform Jews are constantly trying to achieve a balance between the two. More and more, we seem to lean toward opening our arms and our hearts and the door of our temple. This does not diminish our Jewishness. In fact, I’d be willing to go to the mat for the claim that a quinceanera enhances our Judaism. We share our love with the other who then becomes a partner.
Magda Trocmé, the wife of the local minister of a little French town, explained how it was that a French village saved over 3500 Jews during the Holocaust. She wrote, “Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done-nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, “How did you make a decision?” There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help!”
In the months and years ahead, we will need to make all kinds of alliances with others, people whose culture and faith may diverge from ours, but whose values for diversity and plurality are like our own. We need each other: it’s as simple as that.
Madame Trocmé’s intention must be our credo: “Let us try to help.” A quinceañera at Temple Beth Avodah? Absolutely. If not now, when?