Members of Memphis Jewish community search for Torah mentor

Temple Israel before a Bar Mitzvah. The torah is kept inside of an Arc that only a rabbi can go into.

The rabbi looked him in the eyes, gaging his mood before he began his Torah reading portion. Before his preparation could ever be put into question, Brian Burns looked up at the rabbi and said “Don’t worry Rabbi Greenstein, Mrs. Appleton taught me everything I need to know.”

Fifteen years later, Burns, now 28 with a child of his own on his way, he remembers the lady that helped mentor him and lead him through his bar mitzvah. In Judaism, a bar or bat mitzvah is the right of passage into adulthood. A child normally begins preparation a year before his or her set date.

“They make you learn a ridiculous amount of stuff to go through a bar mitzvah,” Burns said. “If it wasn’t for Mrs. Appleton I’m not sure I would have even cared enough to actually get it done.”

Sylvia Appleton is the current Welcome Center Operator at Temple Israel in Memphis. For the last 18 years, she has volunteered to take on the responsibility of mentoring children through their path of bar/ bat mitzvah. She is one of three mentors available at Temple Israel.

Temple Israel before a Bar Mitzvah. The torah is kept inside of an Arc that only a rabbi can go into.

Temple Israel before a Bar Mitzvah. The torah is kept inside of an Arc that only a rabbi can go into.

Appleton admits that at first she was weary of taking the job.

“When I was asked by Cantor Caplin to teach students, I didn’t really know if It was the best option,” Appleton said.  “It is a lot of work, but I fell in love with the job. Don’t regret it at all.”
According to the rules of Judaism, a boy at the age of 13 or girl at the age of 12 are no longer considered minors. At that point all Jews must accept responsibility for their own actions and begin living by the rules of the Torah.

A teacher or mentor is a very important person in the child’s life. Jewish practice defines the teacher as the person who must make this process a meaningful period in the child’s life while also preparing them for the responsibility they will step into.

Students looking to complete a bar/bat mitzvah must learn the way to uphold Mitzvahs. learn to read and speak Hebrew and perform a mitzvah project. The project involves taking one of the 613 mitzvahs within the Torah and researching to make it your own. Mitzvah simply means good deed. In that regard, a mitzvah project is defined as a community service project.

A strong knowledge of the Torah and its teachings is required to qualify as a bar/bat mitzvah teacher, but completing rabbinical education is not mandatory. A google search for Bar Mitzvah teachers will come up with a handful of links to independent guides.

Debbie Jackson, president of the Women of Reformed Judaism Sisterhood, has watched two sons achieve bar mitzvah. She said that a teacher should be someone that a family trusts and respects.

“My children were never forced to go to Hebrew school because their father was Christian,” Jackson said.  “However, when they decided to partake in bar mitzvah, I knew I wanted a good teacher to make it enjoyable.”


If a family feels comfortable with a bar mitzvah teacher, they may even rely on that teacher for other family members.

Burns and his brother received their teaching from Appleton, and Burns hopes she will still be teaching by the time his child is ready to move into adulthood.


“I hope she is still able to teach when I have to start looking for a teacher,” Burns said. “That whole process could have been much more annoying but she did a good job keeping me interested.”

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About the Author

Matt Thomas
Matthew Thomas is a reporter covering religious minorities for the Memphis Mirror. Matthew is a senior at the University of Memphis and an advent sports fan. For the past four years he has done the play-by-play for Memphis football and basketball and is now interning at Yahoo Sports. He enjoys talking on air, reading and hiking.

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