Questioning the Essence of B’nai Mitzvah

courtesy HaHashem
courtesy Har HaShem

By Kathy Schwartz

A case study in B’nai Mitzvah Revolution at Congregation Har HaShem, Boulder, CO.

At a recent breakfast with the chair of the senior rabbi search committee, Congregation Har HaShem’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Core Team had the opportunity to speak about what kind of rabbi we were seeking. Our requirements: the rabbi should be willing to embrace change; be willing to partner with us in continuing our exploration of imagining what b’nai mitzvah can be; and must understand that at Har HaShem, professionals and lay leaders do things together. BMR is our joint project.

Our b’nai mitzvah revolution journey began over two years ago with a family in the synagogue. Josh was approaching 13, but because of his severe autism, his parents weren’t sure they wanted to consider bar mitzvah for him. I started a conversation with Josh’s mother by saying, “let’s begin with what bar mitzvah means to you and what you want it to mean for Josh and your family.” Together, we began to craft an experience that was individualized for Josh, but deeply grounded in our tradition. There was not a dry eye in the sanctuary during his bar mitzvah, and the expression of Jewish community was palpable. Many congregations are well practiced at adapting b’nai mitzvah to suit students with differing learning styles or particular challenges, but Josh’s bar mitzvah taught me something profound about how we should approach all b’nai mitzvah. What might a bar mitzvah look like if it could emerge from on-going conversations with each family about what they hope to mark in this ritual? How might we imagine a bat mitzvah that developed from student learning rather than dictated by a set of prayer requirements?

Our BMR team, comprised of synagogue professionals and lay leaders, began with the second question, leading us to completely reconceive our middle school curriculum. When we examined the hours of preparation to which our families and students commit, we saw that the overwhelming majority was spent on enabling our students to become excellent chanters of prayers. Minimal hours are devoted to writing a d’var Torah and doing a mitzvah. What we had always done all of a sudden seemed so obviously out of balance. We began to consider the conversations and actions our students could explore: What does it mean to pray? How do we find our own voice in Jewish texts and how do we become God-wrestlers? We wanted them to experience, first-hand, repairing the world. Our first experiment focused on a yearlong project to combat homeless, an issue the students chose. They studied texts, learned from homeless individuals and professionals, interviewed Har HaShem adult volunteers, and ended up finding their own voice and agency in their response to homelessness. When one of these students spoke to an interim rabbi candidate about what makes Har HaShem special, she talked about this class. This normally shy, quiet teen spoke with eloquence about how Judaism compelled her to impact the Boulder homeless community and how it made her feel like she mattered and had something to contribute to Jewish life.

This year, armed with the carefully documented learning from our experiment, we replaced the rest of our middle school curriculum, adding opportunities for students to discuss and experience prayer, to forge connections with Torah and wrestle with ideas of God. Next on our team’s agenda is addressing the type of b’nai mitzvah ritual (note here, that I am not using the word “service”) that could come out of such learning. We don’t know exactly where this will take us or what our “product” will be, but we do know we want to provide options and preserve a sense of community. We want b’nai mitzvah to be a process by which students take up Judaism, but also take it on by making it their own. We want them to tie themselves to our community and to honestly express their own individual beliefs and learning. We want our students and families to consider what they are marking and yes, choose to do something that is a challenge for them, but we’d like them to do something that is difficult and meaningful, as opposed to just difficult. I want our students to say, “I’ve accomplished something and this is what it has taught me, not about me, but about Jewish me and where I fit into the Jewish world.”

Our team has asked and is continuing to ask more questions: “What constitutes community?” “If b’nai mitzvah is a rite of passage, into what are our young people transitioning?” “What could a bar or bat mitzvah ritual look like?” “What are the non-negotiable pieces that must be included?” “How can we think big – how can we be revolutionary?” When I look back on our BMR journey and what we’ve accomplished, I think about the foundation we’ve laid for larger, unfolding changes in how we define and celebrate b’nai mitzvah at Har HaShem. I’m most proud of the mindset for innovation that we have cultivated: one that has led our BMR core team to be tasked with writing the “what is your comfort in partnering with lay leaders towards change” interview question for rabbinic candidates. And while I’m often aware and sometimes frustrated that we have just set out on the road, I believe the most exciting steps are yet to come.

Kathy Schwartz, RJE, is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, CO, and a doctoral student in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

B’nai Mitzvah Revolution (BMR) is a joint project of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education and its Experiment in Congregational Education.

You can learn about the ways congregations are transforming the b’nai mitzvah experience by visiting BMR’s Innovation Guide, an interactive tool that includes innovative programs, goals, venues, participants, and more.