A case study in B’nai Mitzvah Revolution at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, PA.

Keneseth Israel StacyBy Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler

For my first nine years as an educator at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, I spent a great deal of my time on Hebrew prayer learning, but something wasn’t quite right. We looked at teacher knowledge, special needs support, curriculum, teacher ratio, materials, and parent communication, but we couldn’t specify what needed to be changed. We all agreed that what did seem right was the product: our students’ ability to lead prayer with comfort, ease, and skill. The big “aha” moment came when I sat down to lunch one day at the URJ Biennial with my professor, Isa Aron. The conversation summoned new questions: Was the b’nai mitzvah experience productive? Is the ability to lead the congregation in prayer the key to becoming a Jewish adult? What about the other components of Jewish adulthood, where did they fit in? Two months later, when the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution was launched in 2012, we jumped.

We began by asking what it meant to be a Jewish adult by analyzing the experience from post-b’nai mitzvah families. What emerged was a desire to strengthen the connection between the bar/bat mitzvah student, the family, and the congregation by increasing students’ mitzvah work within the congregation.

Our BMR project at Reform Congregation Kenneth Israel, Mitzvoteinu, asked sixth graders to do a “mitzvah project” for the synagogue, with help from existing synagogue leaders, so that they and their families could contribute to their community in the process of becoming a Jewish adult. The Mitzvoteinu project would not only teach teens about different mitzvot, but also about their synagogue, its leaders, and their impact on the community.

For one of our Mitzvoteinu projects, students planned a dinner for Holocaust survivors and each invited one of their non-Jewish friends to participate in the experience. Some students work in our garden, some volunteer at services on our ushering team, and now we are asking our 6th and 7th grade to work with our existing synagogue committees so they can see what it’s like to be an adult leader in a synagogue.

In 2013, with the collaboration of clergy, parents, teachers and students, we re-organized our religious school as JQuest, a 21st century model of Jewish education that focuses on helping Jewish students find deep meaning in their tradition through project-based learning and arts education. We expanded our b’nai mitzvah program to focus not only on Hebrew, but on prayer, individualized expression of spirituality, and synagogue engagement through acts of g’milut chasadim, or deeds of loving kindness.

Through our participation in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, we were coached through the difficult process of change. The greatest adjustment was a shift in our congregants’ cultural expectations on how Jewish rituals, ceremonies, and activities should look. Up until 2013, we had engaged in the same method of Jewish education for over 50 years. Our congregants were not used to experimentation in Jewish education or Jewish tradition.

We recognized that we had to hold the hands of those going through the change; that their discomfort and anxiety was understandable; that their lack of enthusiasm for the new and different was based in the stress we were causing. We received praise, encouragement and guidance from the BMR staff, those who enabled us to continue persisting through our transition phase. The staff reminded us to study our work, to share our results, and to display our successes so that parents would have the words and the understanding to explain the challenges.

Almost three years after my initial conversations with Professor Isa Aron, we have a new b’nai mitzvah process, where over half of our students give back to our congregation through mitzvah projects and by creating their own visual tefillah to illustrate their Jewish spiritual expression. Because of our BMR “makeover,” our students pray, learn to transliterate Hebrew effectively, and comprehend the Hebrew language, and study core questions of Jewish identity and theology. Through this process of change we were able to craft a new vision, and have the strength to forge ahead towards innovation.

As the Hebrew expression goes…”all beginnings are hard.” To those on the “inside” it truly takes a belief in your vision, a willingness to listen and adjust, and a sense of patience to adjust to the “new normal.” But change can be worth it, and it was for us.

Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler is the Director of Religious Education at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA.

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.

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