The gift of belonging

In Short

In the Open Tent Be Mitzvah program that I direct, we encourage our students to be and do who they are and to create a ceremony that aligns with how they want to Be in the world.

The Talmud teaches that “Whoever saves a life, it is as if they have saved a world.” The recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s youth behavior risk survey is a terrifying reminder of how the lives of many teens in this country are at risk. The study found that, “22% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year.” This number is far higher in girls and LGBQ+ teens. Even more striking is the number of teens who reported feeling sad and hopeless every day. The report makes it clear that our teens are hurting and they need a lifeline. 

One such lifeline proposed by the CDC is creating a sense of connectedness, which can “ help reduce high-risk substance use and mental health issues, and help keep students from committing or being victims of violence.” An amazing opportunity already exists for Jewish students to feel this sense of connection and belonging, the Be Mitzvah process. Yet, to create this feeling for belonging; the Be Mitzvah process requires more flexibility. 

In the Open Tent Be Mitzvah program that I direct, we encourage our students to be and do who they are and to create a ceremony that aligns with how they want to Be in the world.  Witnessing the impact of the Be Mitzvah process on our students, as well as some wisdom from Dr. Brene Brown, has shown me the potential that Be Mitzvah has to create a sense of belonging.   

In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brown writes that “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world… True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Brown contrasts belonging with “fitting in,” in other words, trying to be like someone else, in order to be accepted. 

When I have initial conversations with Be Mitzvah students, often they are hesitant to participate in the process because they believe that in order to have a Be Mitzvah, they will need to do things that they are uncomfortable with such as: pretending to believe in God, leading prayers in a language that means nothing to them, or, even being in a synagogue, a space where they have never been before. In other words, they fear that in order to participate, they are going to need to “fit in.” 

However, belonging is one of the core values of Open Tent Be Mitzvah and so we help our students create a ceremony around who they are as individuals. Some of our students choose to read Torah, whereas, other students share their personal Torah or wisdom at the pinnacle of the ceremony. Many of our students do a deep exploration into themselves the year leading up to their ceremony by taking on challenges and reflecting upon them. Some of our students have created original one act plays, art pieces and choreography. And our students who are more shy and introverted, have been able to share their wisdom in ways that are not frontal.  We have yet to have two ceremonies that are identical because our students are all unique and create a ceremony that reflects who they are as individuals. 

By being able to stand in their authority, while bringing their full selves, our students really do develop a sense of belonging. Perhaps the best indicator of this feeling is the number of our alumni who participated in leadership roles this past year during High Holidays. The majority of our Torah readers had their Be Mitzvah’s over the prior summer. Other alumni got up to lead prayers, some which they even wrote, and even more volunteered to setup, greet or cleanup. These students were not being forced to participate by their parents, rather, many reached out to us and asked how they could be involved.   

I recently had the opportunity to learn from Rabbi Julia Appel who was presenting the findings of a CLAL study on belonging. This presentation helped me better understand the “secret sauce” of our Be Mitzvah program. Appel explained that there are four stages to developing a sense of belonging: being noticed (someone talks to you when you are present), being named (someone knows who you are), being known (feeling comfortable being your full self) and being needed (one’s talents are recognized). Our program allows our students to experience all of these levels of belonging but where we excel is the last two levels.   

When it comes to the level of being known, our students are not forced to conform in our program. Rather, we give them the tools to think critically about who they are and what is meaningful to them. We invite them to fully bring that self into our classroom and into their ceremony. As my rabbinic colleagues and I often say to anyone who approaches us for lifecycle events, “You are perfect exactly the way you are.” 

In terms of recognizing skills and talents, we invite our students to think about their gifts and passions and make those central to the experience. Because the students are fully crafting and leading the entire ceremony, they are integral to the process. They are “needed.”   

To be fair, I don’t work in a synagogue setting, where congregants are showing up weekly and expecting a standardized service and specific melodies. However, in many synagogues, it is not members of the congregation showing up for the simcha, it is the guests of the Be Mitzvah student. Surprisingly, even those accustomed to a traditional matbeah are often moved and at almost every Be Mitzvah ceremony, a guest approaches me after the ceremony and shares that they are members of a Conservative or even Orthodox synagogue and they were surprised by how meaningful the service was for them, even if it was out of their comfort zone. 

The lives of countless Jewish tweens and teens could drastically improve with some tweaks to how we approach Be Mitzvah. Let’s give the next generation of Jewish adults and leaders a lifeline and the best Be Mitzvah gift they will receive, the gift of belonging. 

Rabbi Amanda Schwartz is the family life director at Judaism Your Way in Denver, Colorado. Her work primarily focuses on Be Mitzvah students and families.  She was ordained at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2016, where she also received a masters degree in Jewish educational leadership.