By Lisa Langer and Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
What do we want students to say and do as they prepare for and mark b’nai mitzvah? How do we want them to experience this part of their Jewish journey? For the last three years, the URJ B’nai Mitzvah Revolution has supported more than 150 congregations in asking and answering these questions, spurring congregations to experiment in areas that inspire b’nai mitzvah students to express what matters to them in the experience. Here are six areas of innovation:
1. Repairing the World
At this age, students have a growing awareness of the world around them and want to play meaningful roles in making it just and whole. Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL, engages b’nai mitzvah students in projects that reflect their interests and questions and that relate to the values reflected in the Torah portion they will read. The Mitzvoteinu program at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, introduces fifth-grade students to the congregation’s existing social action activities, then asks sixth-grade students to volunteer with one of the projects multiple times as preparation for planning a project of their own.
2. Innovative Rituals
The typical b’nai mitzvah service is filled with ritual and meaning, serving as a peak Jewish experience for many families. In fact, though, there are many other moments throughout a young person’s Jewish journey that are ripe for ritual. By recognizing and ritualizing them, we can contextualize b’nai mitzvah as one special time among many within a lifetime. Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, has done this with Milestones, which celebrates key moments in the learning process, beginning with consecration. Students receive a siddur at the end of third grade, a Tanach at the end of fourth grade, and a yad at the end of fifth grade; each milestone is marked with ritual and celebration.
At Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, VA, each b’nai mitzvah family is invited to meet the rabbi on the bimah one year before the child’s service for a special ritual that marks the beginning of the formal preparation process. Parents bless their child, and the child blesses his or her parents, a ritual that reframes preparation from a set of mundane tasks into the realm of the sacred. Such innovative rituals enrich families’ lives by giving pause to mark sacred moments and acts with meaningful ceremonies.
3. Participating in Community
Emerging adolescents are working to develop their identities and find their unique place in the world. Some innovations encourage students to share themselves with the community, weaving their interests and questions into every aspect of the b’nai mitzvah experience. Some clergy encourage creative interpretations of Torah through painting, dance, sculpture, drama, game shows, or comics, designing and exploring individual learning plans tailored to each child.
At Congregation Bet Ha’am in Portland, ME, b’nai mitzvah students bring questions about a Torah portion to their individual meetings with the rabbi, who uses these questions to determine which verses the student will read. The rabbi also responds to one of these questions during the b’nai mitzvah service, personalizing the teaching to the individual student while also offering learning with depth and meaning for the general congregation.
4. Becoming an Adolescent
The process of becoming an adolescent impacts both the child and his or her family, and as such, Jewish communities seek ways to support teens and adults as they move through this phase of life. B’Naiture at Wilderness Torah uses nature as a vehicle for exploring transition from childhood to adolescence, linking it all to Judaism. Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion in Oak Park, IL, offers a 15-week class for sixth graders and their parents to learn about Judaism and Jewish life.
B’nai mitzvah preparation offers a unique opportunity for young teens to build relationships with older teens and adults, incorporating mentoring as an important feature in the b’nai mitzvah experience.
At Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, CA, post-b’nai mitzvah teens tutor and guide younger students throughout the b’nai mitzvah process. At Har HaShem in Boulder, CO, research revealed that the tutor/student relationship is one of the most powerful experiences for b’nai mitzvah families. Through intense training and careful matches, tutors build meaningful relationships with students as they nurture skills, beliefs and a sense of belonging, responsibility and agency.
6. Family Engagement
Parents are the most powerful role models, and family engagement in Jewish life – including the b’nai mitzvah process – makes a strong impression on children and adults alike. Many congregations include family retreats as part of b’nai mitzvah preparation as a way to build community and share experiences among a cohort. Central Synagogue in New York City provides families with a special journal for tracking their Jewish journey. They also share a B’nai Mitzvah Brit that specifies the values and responsibilities of all parties involved in the b’nai mitzvah process.
These innovations and many others are included in the newly expanded URJ B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Innovations Guide, a gallery of cutting-edge innovations and approaches to b’nai mitzvah. We invite you to share this valuable resource with others in your congregation and to let us know how it sparks your imagination.
Lisa Langer, RJE, is the associate director of the URJ B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, and Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE, is the Los Angeles cohort senior project manager of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.
Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog