L’Dor Va-Dor: Making Bar/Bat Mitzvah Meaningful for a New Generation

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This winter, the leadership of my dynamic congregation, Temple Beth-El, took the bold step of reconceptualizing everything about Bar/Bat Mitzvah. What follows is a description of what we’re doing differently, and why…

Why reconceptualize Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

We all know that a child doesn’t “have” a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Rather, they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. A ceremony but marks the moment that they become responsible Jewish adults in the community and in the world. These responsibilities encompass a great many things, but chief among them are the three pillars of Judaism outlined in the Mishnah by Simon the Just (Pirkei Avot 1:2): Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim (study of sacred wisdom, engagement with prayer and spirituality, and deeds of love and righteousness).

That’s why it is critical that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah not be the end of a child’s Jewish journey. It is, in many crucial respects, just the beginning. We want our children to feel empowered and inspired to see their Bar/Bat Mitzvah as but the first step of a lifelong love-affair with God, Torah, and the Jewish people.

And yet we know that, for too many years, this has not been our community’s reality. In recent years, we have experienced disappointing rates of post-b’nai mitzvah dropout, with b’nai mitzvah celebrations being seen by children, families, and community members alike as graduation ceremonies rather than initiation rites.

We believe, inspired by the recent “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution” initiative, that the root causes of this phenomena are:

  • B’nai mitzvah observances are too standardized, “taking into account neither the differences among thirteen-year-olds, in terms of maturity and interest, nor the differences among families, in their motivations and Jewish identification.”
  • B’nai mitzvah observances are too focused on the child as an individual, and not enough on the family/parents, which represents the bigger picture of the child’s Jewish life. The family and the home are where Jewish commitments are truly forged, nurtured, and strengthened; any Bar/Bat Mitzvah process that fails to engage the whole family as a family is destined to come up short.
  • B’nai mitzvah observances are too focused on the performance of ritual, and not enough on Jewish meaning: “Because these ceremonies are centered on the individual child’s performance of a ritual that s/he may not be able to fully understand or appreciate, current methods of b’nai mitzvah preparation in many congregations are inefficient, wasting much instructional time in the religious school.”
  • B’nai mitzvah observances are disempowering: By giving children and families very little choice in the experience of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, we make the process a schlep for everyone, rather than a joyous journey to Jewish adulthood. This drives children and families away from the synagogue and Jewish community, rather than strengthening their involvement. Additionally, by standardizing the experience and dictating all standards and procedures for it from the top-down, we unintentionally send the disenfranchising message to children that they cannot be trusted to take ownership of their own Jewish lives. This is exactly the wrong message at a time when we are supposed to be empowering children to take responsibility for their Jewish lives as adults within the community.

What We’re Doing About It

For these reasons, we have developed a new way forward for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, an approach to this sacred lifecycle moment that is rooted in three immutable values:

A Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth-El will be:

  • Personal
  • Meaningful
  • Empowering

These values will be the guideposts for the clergy, staff, community, and family for each child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience.

How It Will Work

At least one year in advance of a child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the child and parents will meet with the clergy to design a plan for the child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience that is personally tailored to the unique needs of that child and that family. The plan will outline details such as date and time of the ceremony (i.e., it doesn’t have to take place on a Saturday morning, or even on a Shabbat!), elements of Jewish prayer/ritual that we will work with the child to master (i.e., it doesn’t have to include chanting a haftarah!), concrete plans for gemilut hasadim and tikun olam work, and other shared commitments and expectations.

Guiding that conversation, and reinforcing it afterward, will be a refashioned set of communal standards concerning B’nai Mitzvah. The standards center on the three pillars of Judaism outlined above – Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim – to demonstrate that our Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience is focused on inspiring each child (and each family) toward a meaningful adult Jewish life.

To that end, the experience of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth-El will involve the following elements:

  • Torah – Sacred Wisdom
    • Religious School and/or Day School Education – The experience of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and the richness of adult Jewish life is enhanced when it is built on a solid educational foundation. That’s why we will continue require all of our B’nai Mitzvah to be enrolled for at least five consecutive years in our Religious School up to and including 7th grade, and/or to spend at least five consecutive years in a full time Jewish Day School, up to and including the Bar/Bat Mitzvah year.
    • Private Study – In the months before a child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the clergy will spend significant time with him/her in private Torah study discerning the wisdom embedded in our tradition’s sacred texts, with an eye toward helping the child fall in love with Torah and discovering the relevance of the teachings of those texts in our lives today.
    • Family Learning – Beginning in 5th or 6th grade, the child and the parents will join the clergy and the other families in that Bar/Bat Mitzvah class for group study and Judaic enrichment activities. These sessions will mainly take place on the weekends (on Shabbat or on Sunday mornings in lieu of that weekend’s normal Religious School schedule) on a monthly basis, though the exact schedule will be different each year, with sensitivity to the many demands on families’ time, and announced in advance.
    • Exposure to as much Jewish as possible – Since becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah means taking one’s place as an adult member of the Jewish community, we want each child to feel at home in as many Jewish settings – ritual, educational, communal, and philanthropic – as possible. To that end, we will provide opportunities for this type of exposure in the months leading up to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and we expect that parents will assume the responsibility to support these efforts by regularly bringing the child to synagogue services and programs as well as community events.
  • Avodah – Prayer, Ritual, and Spirituality
    • Mastery of some aspect(s) of Jewish prayer/ritual – We will empower each child to take ownership of some aspect(s) of Jewish prayer/ritual, like reciting the blessings over the Torah, leading parts of a service, reading from the Torah, chanting Haftarah, etc. Of course, every child and family has different wants and needs in this area, so the exact prayers/rituals that each child will work toward mastering will be part of a personal plan the family will determine in conjunction with the clergy.
    • Spiritual Engagement – We will work with every child and family to enhance the spirituality of the journey to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the child’s connection to God and his/her spiritual life, and the spiritual power of the celebration itself.
  • Gemilut HasadimDeeds of Love and Righteousness
    • Becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah means taking on the responsibilities of an adult Jew. Those responsibilities include the crucial tasks of supporting the needs of the local Jewish and non-Jewish communities, strengthening Israel and worldwide Jewry, and repairing the world. That’s why the journey toward becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth-El includes:
      • Community Engagement
      • Engagement with Medinat Yisrael and Am Yisrael (worldwide Jewry)
      • Engagement with humanitarian need worldwide

Of course, every child and family is different, so the exact engagement in this area will be part of a plan each family determines together in conjunction with the clergy.

My Temple leadership and I believe that this new process – our reconceptualized values, our refashioned standards – will make a family’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience more joyous, meaningful, and empowering. We believe it will strengthen families’ Jewish and communal commitments, inspiring them to remain deeply engaged with the Temple and Jewish life following the ceremony. And, ultimately, we believe this revitalized process will have reverberations throughout the congregation, infusing everything we do with more purpose, strength, and continued vitality.

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