Community Counts: The Power of Becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in a Communal Setting

by Rabbi Rachel Ain

It was apropos for me to read Rabbi Bradley Solmsen’s response to Patrick Aleph’s article on Kveller about banning the bar mitzvah because this week I will be facilitating the first of five sessions of an annual b’nai mitzvah family curriculum that I teach at my congregation. As I read both Aleph’s article and Solmsen’s response I had the following thoughts. He (Aleph) is not as radical as he would like to be and while yes, there is tremendous work to be done in the area of b’nai mitzvah education and Solmsen addresses the great work being done, I would like to add one other piece and that is the central role of the community in the providing meaning to a moment in one’s Jewish lifecycle.

First and foremost, Aleph tries to present a radical idea about banning the bar mitzvah (which he actually rejects, since what he is banning is in school instruction) but one of his conclusions is to have a service where the family, (the bar/bat mitzvah themselves, their family, and friends) have meaningful ritual roles. This is not radical, this is very standard for many communities. In many congregations there are opportunities, including reading from the Torah, chanting the blessings, and reading English prayers that demonstrate that the service doesn’t need to be all about the child.

Second, as Solmsen points out as a response to Aleph, Jewish life is not just about the home (sure, it needs the home and parental support) but Jewish life is also about a connection to the larger community. Solmsen writes “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.” It is this point that I would like to take one step further. While the experience of becoming b’nai mizvah isn’t always done as well as it could be for sure, I strongly believe that the “ritual” of marking one becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, should be done in a community setting, in the presence of family, friends, and yes, community members since this ideally affirms the child’s commitment to their role as a member of the “adult” Jewish community. This signals that learning about Judaism is not only for its own sake but demonstrates that Judaism is a tradition that has wisdom to teach people throughout the generational spectrum and often it can be infused better when experienced in this context. This is often expressed as the child is able to deliver a d’var torah (a sermon) assuming the role of learner and teacher, modeling for others that they too can understand, interpret, and share words of Torah to the larger community. This is not to say that critics of this weekly ritual don’t have valid points about the tension that can exist between the “regular” service and the way of integrating the celebration of a bar/bat mitzvah child, however just because something is wrong doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t find what is wrong and improve it and what is right and enhance it.

Finally, I would like to add my personal experience as a congregational Rabbi who has, for 9 years been actively involved in working with families to make the bar/bat mitzvah process more than just about the one day. Through a series of classes with parent and children learning in each others’ presence dealing with issues of values, ethics, observance, and identify, as well as through a comprehensive d’var torah writing process which complements what the child has learned in their religious school and/or day school, and in individual preparation with their tutor (in my current case a wonderful Cantor), the family learns that this is not a “one off” task that can just reside on a checklist. This connection to the entire community in the preparation for this moment provides an opportunity to affirm one’s connection to the past, present, and the future in a way that is joyful, meaningful, and substantive.

Rabbi Rachel Ain, a Conservative Rabbi, is the Rabbi at Sutton Place Synagogue in NYC. You can follow her on twitter @RabbiRachelAin