It was her first day in Jerusalem, and it was Shabbat. Rachel Kaffey could not believe how deeply Jewish she felt. It was December 2013 and Kaffey was in Israel for a 10-day trip as part of Congregation Beth Or’s confirmation curriculum.
“We went to the Wall early in the morning and it was extra crowded because it was Shabbat,” she says. “To be praying with everyone and feel the energy was amazing. Although I have always had a strong Jewish identity, I felt even more spiritual, more Jewish by standing at the Wall.”
Kaffey stood with two of her best friends, Carly Steinberg and Sydney Wolff. “That made it all the more special,” says Wolff. “Being in Israel is amazing on its own. Sharing the experience with my best friends made me process it on a different level. It wasn’t just about sightseeing. It was about learning about our Judaism and taking another step in the path to becoming Jewish adults — together.”
The path traveled by the three friends includes all of their Jewish milestones: Hebrew school, summer camp, B’nai Mitzvah and now, confirmation at the Maple Glen synagogue, which takes place in May. “Going through confirmation has been amazing because I am very committed to my Jewish education,” Steinberg says, “but we’ve also been learning about Jewish views on adult topics, and having Rachel and Sydney in class with me adds a different layer to the whole experience. We’re learning how to be Jewish women — together.”
Although they have walked side-by-side on the path to becoming Jewish adults, their secular lives are separate. The trio attend different schools: Kaffey at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Wolff at Upper Dublin High School in Ft. Washington and Steinberg at Methacton High School in Eagleville. They’d never have met if not for their synagogue — and Steinberg can’t imagine that. Methacton does not have a large Jewish population. “There are about five Jews in the school,” she explains. “That’s why having friends like Rachel and Sydney is so important to me.”
Steinberg and Kaffey met at Beth Or’s preschool and became fast friends. Wolff came into their life later, at Camp Harlam, the Reform movement’s overnight camp in the Poconos.
“I was always going to attend Jewish summer camp,” Kaffey says. “It’s practically in my blood.” That’s because Kaffey’s parents met at one — Camp Lakeland in New York. In the summer of 2007, after Kaffey and Steinberg had finished third grade, it was their turn to experience camp. They were in the same bunk — by request — and had a blast. It was the next summer that Wolff attended Camp Harlam and wound up in the same bunk as Kaffey and Steinberg. “After that summer, they were the two closest friends I had,” Wolff says. The girls arranged to be in the same bunk every subsequent summer.
So it was no surprise that, when it came time for their B’nai Mitzvah, the girls lit candles on one another’s cakes. And it was not a surprise that the trio decided to continue their Jewish educations. “Well, ‘decided’ might be overstating it,” Kaffey cautions. “Our parents had to apply some pressure in the beginning. But then we came to really like what we were learning at the Academy and that we were learning it together.”
The Maurice H. Kornberg Academy Program is Beth Or’s curriculum for grades 7 through 10. The 7th grade year is preparation for becoming a Bat Mitzvah; the 10th grade year focuses on Confirmation. Classes are held on Monday nights from 7 p.m. to 8:30 pm and are discussion-based, led by either Rabbi Gregory Marks or Rabbi Laura Abrasley. The topics directly relate to the lives of modern Jewish American teenagers.
Steinberg gives an example. “We did a project pretending that we were on the board of a synagogue in the South in a time period when there was a lot of racism,” she says. “We had to decide whether or not to allow black Jews into synagogue. It was a very controversial issue. Would we take a stand and allow blacks into the synagogue? Or was it too risky? We discussed what would be the right thing to do — and that’s a situation that we deal with today in different forms. Do we stand up for people who are different than us? Do we include them in our community or not?”
Kaffey gives another example. “We did a unit on sex and sexuality,” she says. “A physician came in and talked about the physical part of having sex, which we all knew. But then we talked about the emotional part of it and how to know if you are ready or not to have sex. We also talked about the consequences, especially getting pregnant and abortion, and the laws around abortion. Then we got the rabbi’s perspective about what Reform Judaism says about sex and abortion. We had an open discussion and people in the class brought up good points, like what rights does a boyfriend have if his girlfriend decides to have an abortion, and how that would make him feel. So, while my friends and I have certainly talked about these things because a lot of us are dealing with these issues, it was very helpful to know what my religion says about it and what other Jewish kids think.”
Values, self-esteem, beliefs; they are all crucial parts of forming adult Jewish identities, the girls agree. “It’s not that I have to believe everything that Judaism says about a topic,” Wolff clarifies, “but it helps me figure out what I think by hearing different opinions.”
Steinberg says that going through confirmation has been transformative. “I thought I had a great Jewish education through Hebrew school and camp,” she says with a laugh. “But confirmation is taking it to another level. Our rabbis said that confirmation would prepare us for being Jewish adults — and they weren’t kidding. I can see how what we are learning is laying a Jewish foundation for the issues that we face today and that we’ll face as we get older.”
No one knows what the future will bring — college, marriage, children, careers — but Kaffey, Wolf and Steinberg firmly believe that they will be friends forever. They know the mantra: There are your friends, and then there are your Jewish friends, and then there are your Jewish best friends. “It sounds clichéd,” Wolff says, “but it is a special bond that you can’t break.”
Melissa Jacobs sends big hugs to Stephanie Hewitt Mraz, her best friend from Temple Sinai Nursery School in Cinnaminson, N.J.