The subject of history may not be on the minds of most 12-year-olds.
But when it came time to choose a bar mitzva project last January, Ethan Solender applied his photographic skills to create a 22-page biography of his synagogue in Summit.
Three months after the Short Hills teen became bar mitzva last Oct. 30, his work, Congregation Beth Hatikvah — A Picture History from 1994 through 2010, is receiving impressive reviews from his rabbi and fellow congregants.
“It was wonderful that Ethan found a project that was perfect for him,” said Rabbi Amy Small. “It allowed him to use his skills, it helped him to learn and share his learning with everybody else, and it offered a gift to the community that has lasting value.”
The project also represents a shidduch among the teen, the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, and The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life.
JHS executive director Linda Forgosh helped Ethan launch the project when he attended the 2010 Mitzvot of MetroWest program last January in Whippany. Run by the Partnership, the mitzva “fair” allows youngsters to meet representatives of various organizations and get ideas for social service projects (see sidebar).
“This is just what we are hoping for,” said Michal Greenbaum, assistant director of teen initiatives and Jewish service learning coordinator at The Partnership. “We hope that a student will find a project that is meaningful and that they will enjoy and will engage them with the community.”
Forgosh represents the historical society at the fair, offering students an opportunity to lend their efforts to preservation of local Jewish lore.
“We had the idea of having them construct histories of their synagogues that we would be happy to guide step-by-step,” she said. “That way, we could have a copy of their work that tells a story of a Jewish family in MetroWest.”
Ethan and his parents, Daniel Solender and Lynne Whitman of Short Hills, found that idea intriguing.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if he could take a trip around the community with a camera and photograph where his synagogue, Congregation Beth Hatikvah, began?’” said Whitman.
Beth Hatikvah is a Reconstructionist synagogue with a short life and a rich history. Whitman called it “a small microcosm of the history of the Jews.”
It was formed in February 1994, when some 25 families split off from a Reform temple. As Ethan wrote, they came together through belief “in the equality of all people, its perspective about chosenness, and the idea that Judaism is a progressively evolving civilization.”
In an odyssey congregants have sometimes compared to the Israelites wandering in the desert, the growing congregation moved from private homes to Presbyterian and Episcopal churches and a Quaker meeting house in Chatham. In May 2007, Beth Hatikvah found a permanent home in a renovated factory in Summit.
Bob Max, a World War II veteran, former JHS president, and a founding member of the congregation, was the key source for Ethan’s project.
“I told him I would be glad to help out. Nobody knows the history of the synagogue as well as my wife Shirley and I,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Jan. 12 telephone interview. “We made the history. We lived it.”
Max said Ethan’s key interest was how the congregation — which was homeless when it was founded — migrated from one temporary location to another. Max said he took Ethan “on a tour, and he took a lot of photographs. He did a nice job.”
With a keen interest in history, Ethan has undertaken another relevant project: chronicling the lives of his grandparents. He is also a singer and guitarist in an AC/DC cover band, which will perform tribute concerts to the Australian heavy metal rockers next weekend in Garwood and Stanhope.
The Whitman-Solenders are a year away from the bat mitzva of their 12-year-old daughter, Hazel Solender, who has been volunteering as an aide to an autistic child and runs arts and crafts projects for children in inner-city schools.
At nine, the family’s youngest sibling, Zane, has not yet begun to contemplate a project for his bar mitzva.
But the family is very pleased at the outcome of their oldest child’s work.
“We just thought he was doing a great thing,” said his mother. “We didn’t realize how many people he actually touched.”