Don’t Ban the Bar Mitzvah. Revolutionize It!

by Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

In a controversial blog post on Kveller.com that’s making waves within the Jewish community, rabbinical student Patrick Aleph proposed earlier this week that the Jewish community dramatically rethink b’nai mitzvah, which he says are “not really worth anyone’s time or money.” Aleph, who studies at the Rabbinical Seminary International in New York City (and is not affiliated with any movement), says we should instead replace the bar mitzvah with a “a new type of [b’nai] mitzvah system where the entire family learns the curricula for the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, and passes it on to the child through in-home learning, as opposed to outside religious school.”

It’s true: In some places, bar and bat mitzvah are falling far short of their potential, and in some cases Aleph is not far off in his assessment. But Aleph does a disservice to the Jewish community by not mentioning our many success stories. Reform Rabbi Yair Robinson, who serves Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Del., responds thoughtfully to Aleph, pointing out that many communities approach bar and bat mitzvah as a point of meaningful continuation or a true beginning – a time for learning, practice and celebration. In my short time in my new position as the Reform Movement’s Director of Youth Engagement, I have encountered several congregations that are, as Rabbi Robinson says, doing important work in helping young people and their families connect to a meaningful, relevant Judaism before, during and after bar and bat mitzvah. Many congregations and communities are aware that there is tremendous potential to be unlocked in the bar and bat mitzvah process.

We in the Reform Movement, too, see the value in rethinking b’nai mitzvah so synagogues and their members can focus on what is most important about Jewish living and learning. This year, the URJ, in partnership with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, launched the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. We share Aleph’s – and many synagogues’ – concern with and growing unease about the way b’nai mitzvah are celebrated, and the fact that b’nai mitzvah preparation has, in many cases, supplanted other goals of synagogue educational endeavors. The perception is that b’nai mitzvah celebrations are like graduation ceremonies; the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution aims to empower synagogues to return depth and meaning to Jewish learning and reduce the staggering post-b’nai mitzvah dropout rates. With a pilot cohort of 14 congregations across the United States, we’re exploring and experimenting with new, creative approaches to b’nai mitzvah observance and preparation, as well as more effective models for learning Hebrew, kavannah (intentionality) in prayer, and Jewish literacy in general.

And we’re not alone! The revolution is happening elsewhere, too. In the New York City area, Rabbi Joy Levitt is leading a change process through the newly launched Jewish Journey Project, with buy-in from major players such as the JCC in Manhattan, the 14th Street Y, and the local Jewish community at-large.

Though we can agree that b’nai mitzvah needs to be revamped, I take exception to Aleph’s recommendations for doing so. Aleph would have us replace the children in our classrooms with adults, their parents. Early on in his piece, he praises Jewish camping and Israel programs as the experiences that “[help] kids connect Jewishly, and remain passionate about Judaism,” yet he seems to forgets these statements when he adamantly insists “Children learn Judaism and Jewish identity at home” – and seemingly only at home. Yes, Judaism thrives in the home, but it cannot be so limited that it thrives only there. We need to remember – and present to our young people and their families – that Judaism is a practice, a permeating way of life not confined to a home or a synagogue, a camp or a trip to Israel.

Our tradition is filled with beautiful images that connect doing and learning. Indeed, just as we read in the Torah, naseh v’nishma, “We will do and we will hear/understand” (Exodus 24:7), so too must we do Judaism in order to understand Judaism. It is incumbent upon all of us – children and adults alike – to mark our significant and not-so-significant moments in life by connecting to each other and to our rich Jewish heritage, practices and traditions.

Rabbi Bradley Solmsen is Director of Youth Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism.

cross-posted with RJ.org Blog

Print Friendly
Send to Kindle

Comments

  1. Bill Robinson says:

    As we experiment with new, creative ways of re-shaping Bar and Bat Mitzvah, let’s not forget that the attainment of this life-cycle moment in a child’s and family’s life has arguably maintained family engagement with Judaism and synagogue affiliation at rates still averaging around 70% of non-Orthodox Jewish families. While us Jewish educators may rightly decry its limitations, it’s continuing demand among families (willing to pay for years of synagogue membership and religious school to attain it) speaks to it’s ongoing value to our community in its imperfect state. So, yes, let’s be creative about its future, as we at The Jewish Education Project through our Jewish Futures conference on February 27th will help support and energize. But, let’s ntheory the ideal be the enemy of the good. And, let ‘s understand the Bar and Bat Mitzvah from the family’s perspective, not just or primarily our own as Jewish educators.

  2. Nathaniel Warshay says:

    I would like to know where Bill Robinson’s promising or optimistic information that 70 percent of non-orthodox Jews have synagogue affiliation, when the national studies show it hovering around 50 percent for all Jews. More to the point of bar mitzva, however, is that its meaning got lost when American Jews assimilated this Jewish life-cycle event into a Hebrew debutant party. The bar mitzva, i.e., the boy on his 13th birthday, or bat mizva, the girl on her 12th, becomes a bar/bat mitzva by virtue of the sun setting on the eve of his/her Jewish birthday. Period.

    There are historic provisions in synagogue for prayer, being called to the torah, and priority for aliyot, etc. Yet, there is no obligation to lain the Torah, for example. We American Jews have emphasized the laining, haftorah reading, named kippot, bentchers, over-the-top kiddushes, after parties, renting out of entertainment complexes, ponies (there was a $750,000 bar mitzva party in Detroit a few years ago, larger ones in New York), all at the expense of Judaic learning, yiddishkeit.

    Rabbi Solmson’s mention of family learning is a worthy enterprise, something that sadly is necessary, as so many of us are more familiar with our college and professional sprorts teams than the avot adn eimahot, the prphets, books of the Torah and bible.

    But let’s scale back parties, instead spending time, not bounty, on the real meaning.

  3. What a timely conversation to be having. Although the content or the tone of the original blog posting that Bradley refers to may have been abrasive and ruffled a few feathers, I’m glad to see that people aren’t shying away from the conversation. The conference that is referred to above has been designed to meet this challenge head on. If you’re interested in participating in this conversation in person on February 27th then I encourage you to log on and register to the Jewish Futures Conference (http://jewishfutures.net) – and do so quickly as seats are limited and going fast.

  4. I agree with much of what has been said by Bradley and others–as I also agree that we need to re-think how we do b’nai mitzvah. The social aspect of the event has taken on such enormous proportions (and costs) that it’s easy to lose sight of the meaning. The ritual can be a strong potential doorway into Jewish life for people and an important marker in a family’s life. This discussion has implied, but not fully stated another aspect of the challenge: the ritual marks the young person’s “official” entry into the community of adults–and I stress the word community. Too often, b’nai mitzvah is focus for family, relatives and friends–and not the entire synagogue commnunity. Congregants who are connected to the family attend, and maybe kids from the b’nai mitzvah class. But if we are serious about making this age old ritual a truly meaningful one, we need to make it more than the private affair it has often become. We need to make the ceremony a communal one, open to all, and explore ways of engaging the rest of the community in it, which may mean finding ways of making the service not just about the kid on the bimah, but about all of us. A big challenge, I admit, but an important one, because it speaks to the goal of making our synagogues more caring, involved and committed communities.

  5. Deborah Hammond says:

    As the financial officer for synagogue I want to caution all to ‘follow’ the money. One key exercise I recommend to any Rabbi, President and Treasurer is do a ‘b’nai mitzvah’ accounting design for the last 5-8 years of your finances. Take the incoming cash for dues, religious school, building fund payments and other fees associated with the b’nai mitzvah for all members of a family with at least one child in the third grade to middle school. Add up just that span of years. I believe nearly all of our shuls will find this is well north of 50% of total operating income. This exercise excludes major capital campaigns and other fund raising such as high holy day campaigns. The average dollars spent per family are significant. These families are contributing the backbone of your synagogues financial house. So what ever we do as leaders to enrich the b’nai mitzvah experience make sure you understand the bones of your financial house and how any changes may impact the overall religious community your shul supports.
    I would be happy to discuss how to do this by the way if you want to do this exercise for your synagogue.

  6. Is Patrick Aleph an actual person? I can’t even find a webpage for his rabbinical school. In any case, kids reading Torah and families belonging to synagogues is a good thing. “You shall teach them to your children” is elemental to Judaism. Extravagance and competitive expressions of financial means at Jewish celebrations extends beyond Bar/Bat Mitzvahs to weddings, homes, clothing, schools, cars–you name it. Those broader questions of class values ought to be addressed as well. I think Bar/Bat Mitzvahs is a mere symbol for the diminishment of particular Jewish values over the past two hundred years of civic freedom and assimilation. The best example may be that after Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the goal and focus of education is to get into Harvard, Yale or Penn. And who can fault families for that? Those are good schools.

  7. Howard Marks says:

    Mr. Ball is totally correct. In the Reform Movement, the bar mitzvah has evolved into a family only private affair. My wife and I are one of the handful of congregants who attend Saturday morning services at our Reform shul. Hardly anyone in attendance can join in the communal melodies because friends and family are from elsewhere. Until the Reform Movement shifts its main Shabbat service from Friday night to Saturday morning (such as Temple Micah in Washington, DC) nothing will change.

  8. Dan Brown says:

    Yes, Patrick is a real person. Here is his easy to find bio on the web: Patrick is the co-founder and executive director of PunkTorah, a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to independent Jewish spirituality, culture, learning and debate. PunkTorah hopes to connect people to G-d and Judaism through a network of online multimedia, community-created projects including the PunkTorah.org blog, OneShul.org (the world’s only online indie minyan) and the foodie website, NewKosher.org.

  9. Sandra Ehrlich says:

    This is a wonderful conversation to be having. As the parent of three adult children who had b’nai mitzvah I feel somewhat qualified to weigh in on this subject. We chose a synagogue that is small enough to have only one b’nai mitzvah on any weekend. Our usual practice is that our main service is on Friday night. On the weekend of a bar/bat mitzvah, the BM family lights the Shabbat candles, the child (young adult) is on the bimah and participates in leading the service. On Saturday, while the service in some sense “belongs to the family” many members of the congregation are present. One of the ways we assure this is that every b’nai mitzvah family is required to invite every child (which may be as few as 5 or as many as 20) in their child’s religious school class to both the ceremony and any reception that they hold. Our synagogue has a much greater than average participation rate in our Hebrew High School program and five years ago started a youth group that is a NFTY chapter, which has been a great success. Many of the young people who have had this enriching experience will, as I did in my college years, allow their Judaism to “lay fallow.” But I believe that, as with my children, they will continue to identify as Jews and will be more likely to want that experience for their own children than they would be if they had not had the B’nai Mitzvah experience of learning, personal interaction with our clergy, and celebration and support at home. Whether a child has a small, meaningful Bar/bat mitzvah or a full stage production depends mostly on the choices their parents make and the values they share.

  10. I am a member of Temple Emanu-El Dallas and am about to turn 67. For people, mostly men, who are about ten years older, TE Dallas had no bar or bat mitzvot. This was out of doctrine as part of classic reform. For that generation, there was a well worn path for people who grew up at TE Dallas. When it was time to start studying for a Bar Mitzvah, the family would change their membership to the large Conservative Synagogue until after the Bar Mitzvah, and then they would change their membership back to TE Dallas. Even the Classic Reform eventually got the message.

  11. judy aronson says:

    Let’s ask our post b’nai mitzah students why they stay. My hunch is that it may be about good teacher/mentors, friends, responsibility within their synagogues, dedication to meaningful causes beyond their safe space, pride in having completed something with a positive outcome, curriculum that challenges their minds, good food when they are together, excitement about standing at the Torah and connecting with Jewish history, and much more. That happens in many places and might happen in many more. I agree that this is a wonderful conversation.

More in The American Jewish Scene
Got Chutzpah?

by Rabbi Charles Savenor» There is a story I like to use when I speak at leadership training seminars: Once...

Close