Study Assesses B’nai Mitzvah that Bypass Synagogue

B'nai MitzvahIf you take the bar/bat mitzvah out of the synagogue, what’s the impact?

In the first of a series of research reports, the Community Foundation for Jewish Education of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago looks at the rising trend in families forgoing congregational education and/or membership while preparing and conducting their own bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies for their children.

CFJE Reports: A Closer Look at Independent B’nai Mitzvah in the Chicagoland Area” authored by long-time eJP contributor Abigail Pickus, provides a snapshot of this trend, offering a glimpse inside the motivations of families who undertake this process, the tutors and clergy who assist them, and the synagogue professionals who struggle with the loss of these families to the congregational community.

Demographic groups most likely to choose the independent route are unaffiliated, special needs and interfaith families, the study found. But many others, including those actively engaged in Jewish life, also have opted for alternative approaches.

One tutor estimated that 60% to 70% of the families she has worked with “didn’t understand the value of the Jewish community,” but were motivated culturally to have a bar mitzvah. The others “really wanted to be involved in a synagogue and in Jewish life, but finding a perfect fit with a synagogue in today’s world is very hard. It’s a struggle even for a committed Jew who wants to be part of the community.”

The report offers local educators and others insight into the reasoning for, and impact of, this phenomenon so they can better understand and work with b’nai mitzvah families, CFJE Executive Director Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D., said. The do-it-yourself push also reflects the larger challenges congregations face today in maintaining their historic position as central institutions of Jewish communal life.

“Even though [rabbis interviewed for the study] disagree on whether the independent b’nai mitzvah is a rising trend or a passing phase,” Pickus reports, “they all concede that in the face of this phenomenon, it is the congregations – and by association, organized Jewish life – that is the most at risk and therefore has the most to lose.”

“We released the report to educators at an open-invitation gathering,” Aaron said, “and it was telling that half of the non-Orthodox congregations in our community were represented. Some participants were from synagogues more than 30 miles away.”

Going forward, the CFJE Reports research series will chronicle understudied areas of Jewish education in the Chicago area, informing and guiding educators and others throughout the community, Aaron said.

“Rabbi Leo Baeck once said ‘There is no new knowledge without a new problem.’ Our CFJE Reports series attempts to glean new knowledge by looking in-depth at new and emerging issues in Jewish education here in Chicago in order to reframe potential problems into potential challenges,” Aaron said.

“By providing our community professionals, planners and stakeholders with new information, we are able to help them be more strategic in their work as it relates to Jewish education.”

The complete report “A Closer Look at Independent B’nai Mitzvah in the Chicagoland Area” is available for download here.