How a New Model of Family Education Places the Parent-Child Relationship at the Center of the B’nai Mitzvah Experience

By Rabbi Daniel Brenner

[This is the second article in a series about revitalizing the field of family engagement for the Jewish community, written by Covenant Foundationaward recipients and grantees.]

I’ll never forget the moment when, as part of a parenting workshop I was leading, I heard a mother of an 11-year-old boy say, “I don’t talk with my son anymore, we just text!” Her comment filled the room with uncomfortable laughter – and then a moment of genuine empathy.

I am not the first educator to point out that the younger our children are when they receive a smartphone, the earlier we see shifts  – and in many cases, breakdowns – in parent-child communication. Many parents of pre-teens are acutely aware of the profound changes that this generation of middle-schoolers are experiencing – little to no free-time, hours interacting with friends online eclipsing hours spent with friends off-line, a “professionalization” of every sport and hobby their child expresses interest in, increasing rates of anxiety, and growing fears that the adults who are running things in our country will leave them with a broken, polluted, or fractured society.

So how can we, as Jewish educators, address these new challenges and support the 21st century Jewish family in ways that are empathetic, meaningful and productive?

In the early 1990s, Cantor Helen Leneman pointed to family education, and specifically family education during b’nai mitzvah, as a site of potential “intergenerational dialogue.” Leneman’s strategic guidance was informed by research she had conducted with 116 Jewish educators across the U.S. who had all reported that lack of parental involvement was a core obstacle to their success at reaching educational objectives. Leneman and others responded by developing parent-child dialogues focused on Jewish identity and ethics.

Today, as we face a generational “Crisis of Connection,” Jewish educators are beginning to expand the scope of that dialogue to address the social and emotional needs of both parents and pre-teens.

Moving Traditions’ new b’nai mitzvah program is one example of this emerging approach to family education and two defining characteristics set it apart. First, the program encourages educators to view the b’nai mitzvah as not only a life-cycle event for the child, but as a significant rite of passage for the parent.

Many of the parents of today’s b’nai mitzvah students are in their 40s and 50s, and reflecting for the first time on questions of professional fulfillment and legacy. They are becoming parents of teens during a time of rapid technological change that has impacted many of the expectations between parents and children around communication.

For that reason, this program looks at the developmental stages of senescence alongside those of adolescence, shifts the way we talk about b’nai mitzvah from “becoming an adult” to “becoming a teen” and explores the shifts that are required from parents as they make space for their over-programmed teens to develop healthy, independent relationships. Second, the program explores the fissures in parent-child communication that new forms of impersonal communication have exacerbated and promotes a return to empathetic, face-to-face encounters. By curating those encounters in Jewish spaces, families can experience the Jewish community as one that adds enormous value to the parent-child relationship.

This year, 101 pioneering rabbis, cantors, and educators from over 40 local Jewish communities participated in one of Moving Traditions’ Carol Lowenstein B’nai Mitzvah Training Institutes, a one-day program we ran in six cities. Now these educators have incorporated ten hours of family education curriculum, twenty hours of curriculum for pre-teens (including a preview of some of the themes covered in our teen groups), and Moving Traditions’ NPR-style podcast for parents – @13 (which recently surpassed 2,000 unique downloads) into their individual curricula.

Here are few of the responses to this approach to family education that reflect on the power of this new approach:

I valued connecting with my child and understanding her needs and thoughts about becoming a teen.”

I liked how students were asked about their perspective and it could be compared to the perspective of parents.”

These comments point to the role that Jewish educators can play in helping parents, preteens and the larger Jewish family navigate some of the cultural and generational changes that are afoot.

As we grow the program in the coming years, it is our hope that both the parents and the teens that go through this experience come to see the Jewish community as a place that responds to the anxiety and stress and tumult of the wider world and offers a space of healthy, honest dialogue where Jewish values can be put into action.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner is the chief of education and program at Moving Traditions. Moving Traditions’ B’nai Mitzvah work has been supported by The Covenant Foundation, the Breakthrough Fund: An Innovation of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, the Crown Family, the Lasko Family Foundation, Neshamot/UJA Federation of New York, and friends of Moving Traditions.