Don’t Ban the Bar Mitzvah. Revolutionize It!

by Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

In a controversial blog post on 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 Blog