Thinking Differently About B’nai Mitzvah

By Rabbi Daniel Brenner

A headline this week in the Forward highlighted another lavish bar mitzvah party, this one with an appearance by the hip-hop artist Cardi B who posed beside the bar mitzvah boy rubbing his chest and telling the crowd that he is handsome. The boy seemed to enjoy being the center of her attention – and when Cardi B left he was surrounded by a throng of Knicks City Dancers.

In the wake of #metoo, many families are questioning the practice of hiring young women to fawn over thirteen-year-old boys, but Vegas-style b’nai mitzvah celebrations continue to grab the headlines and to give pre-teens grandiose ideas about the party. Meanwhile, a quiet revolution is taking place in how today’s families are approaching the rite of passage of b’nai mitzvah. Two years ago, I sat with podcast producer Michele Siegel (Slate, The New York Times, and WNYC) and podcast host Sara Ivry (Vox Tablet) discussing the idea of exploring the contemporary b’nai mitzvah experience, untangling the complexities of gender, culture, class, and Jewish identity as they present themselves in family celebrations across the United States, and exploring the rite of passage as a contemporary threshold where a child doesn’t become an adult, but a teen.

@13, the podcast Siegel and Ivry created (produced by Moving Traditions) highlights some of the most pioneering thinkers on b’nai mitzvah and on adolescence in America. Voices include Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, best-selling author Peggy Orenstein, and Kveller parenting expert Jordana Horn – all who explore how parents and pre-teens can craft alternative, creative, and spiritually-enriching b’nai mitzvah services and celebrations.

Podcast guests are a microcosm of today’s families: A non-binary transgender child tries to navigate the codes of “bar” and batmitzvah; A bar mitzvah boy shuns a dance party for a role-playing game; A bat mitzvah girl wrestles with ideas about perfection as she grows out of her dress. These are just a few of the present-day storylines in @13, which also reflects on cross-cultural b’nai mitzvahs that acknowledge the multiple familial and ethnic histories of many of today’s almost thirteen-year-olds. The series is of the moment, exploring how new pressures regarding sex and sexuality are impacting pre-teens, diving into the middle-school pecking-order world of Snapchat and Instagram.

What is different about this generation of almost thirteen-year-olds?

Host Sara Ivry speaks with a diverse set of experts, including Dr. Andrew Smiler, Rachel Simmons, and Sara Voit to find out. Overall, what emerges is something of a paradox. Today’s pre-teens face extreme social pressures around body image and sexuality and they are developing new ways to resist these messages. Many pre-teens feel captive to the ongoing ‘unfriending’ dramas of social media and, simultaneously, they are finding new forms of support in digital forums. They are pressured to be more independent and “adult” and they feel coddled by teachers and parents. What is clear is that all of these factors play into the dynamics of planning a b’nai mitzvah – a rite which has an inertia of social conformity but also a pull to celebrate the unique story of every child.

In the weeks ahead, PJ Our Way (the latest chapter of PJ Library) will be helping @13 reach parents of 11 and 12 year olds and kick-start a conversation about how we mark the b’nai mitzvah milestone. For those who are preparing for an upcoming b’nai mitzvah, PJ Our Way is hosting a webinar designed for parents titled “Thinking Differently About B’nai Mitzvah” on November 7th.

The b’nai mitzvah headlines will likely continue to focus our attention on the celebrity sightings and the most lavish events. But given that b’nai mitzvah is a time when thousands of parents and pre-teens invest countless hours in Jewish education and Jewish celebration – it makes sense for those of us who work as educators and leaders in the Jewish community to pay attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle examples of generational change.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner is the chief of education and program for Moving Traditions.