Why a Bar Mitzvah Isn’t a DIY Event

Photo from "Taking the Torah Home at Kol Tikvah"
Photo from “Taking the Torah Home at Kol Tikvah

By Vicky Glikin

A congregant brought to my attention a recent Crain’s article that discusses the growing phenomenon of the “do-it-yourself b’nai mitzvah.” While the article does contain one quote by a rabbi decrying this practice as completely missing the point of what it means to become a bar mitzvah, the bulk of the article covers the reasons some parents choose to have a DIY bar mitzvah, as well as the benefits some clergy members and Hebrew tutors see in providing these services.

The benefits as described in the article can be summarized as follows:

  • Convenience: private tutor scheduling sessions around the child’s schedule rather than the synagogue’s schedule
  • Personalization: the experience being “anything, but cookie-cutter” versus synagogues, which one rabbi (who officiates at about 15 DIY b’nai mitzvah a year) alleges is “not working”
  • Cost: hiring a b’nai mitzvah tutor for 30-40 sessions at $75-100/hour and clergy for the service instead of the cost of sending their children to religious school and paying membership dues
  • Privacy: holding the service in an “intimate” country club/restaurant/hotel instead of a synagogue, where “anyone who wandered into the temple” could witness the ceremony
  • Individualism: the focus of the service being solely on the bar mitzvah child

I want to make the case for the tremendous benefits of joining the synagogue and having your child become a bar mitzvah within a community, rather than in a vacuum described in the article.

1. A bar mitzvah is meant to be a communal event.

A bar mitzvah is a rite of passage that a Jewish child goes through in order to demonstrate to his community that he is ready to take on the privileges and responsibilities associated with becoming an adult in the Jewish community. If he does not belong to a community of fellow Jews, then what is he demonstrating? And to whom?

While it is certainly appropriate to celebrate this momentous occasion and the child, the primary point of the ceremony is to help the young adult realize that he is a part of something bigger. When he leads the congregation in prayer, reads from the Torah, and interprets and teaches some of the most sacred words in our tradition, he becomes a part of history and a part of a community, a long line of generations who have come up to the Torah and made it their own. He once again facilitates the giving of the Torah to his community as it had once been given on Mount Sinai (whether actual or mythical).

In the same way that “every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, both your woodcutters and your water drawers” (Deut. 29:9-10) stood at the original giving of the Torah, so too the modern-day re-enactment of the giving of the Torah must happen within the context of an ongoing Jewish community.

2. There is a point to Jewish education.

It is true that it is possible to teach a child the alphabet and to get her to read from the Torah in 30-40 individualized lessons. But most of us want more for our children. Most of us want to teach our children what it means to be Jews and how to make good Jewish choices in our ever-more-complicated world.

The bar mitzvah is a marker along the way, but it is neither the goal, nor the culmination of a religious school education. The point of Jewish education is to teach Jews what it means to be Jews. And even if we send our children to religious school beginning in kindergarten and through confirmation, these lessons must be reinforced at home to teach our children that Judaism is important to us. As the Kotzker Rebbe said, “If you want your child to study Torah, study Torah in front of them. Because if you only tell them to study, you will instead have children who will one day tell their own children to study Torah.”

In other words, if we want to raise our children Jewish, we cannot completely outsource Judaism, let alone cram it into 30-40 tutoring sessions. Rather, we must raise our children with the understanding of why Judaism is important to us. It is less important how we express our Judaism, so long as we express it in some way and exhibit to our children that it is important to us.

3. Joining a synagogue is meaningful in itself.

Many people join a synagogue because they want to give their children a quality Jewish education, including a meaningful bar mitzvah experience. This is a valid reason to join, but there are other reasons to belong.

Joining a synagogue symbolizes our commitment to a significant Jewish future. When we join a synagogue, we invest in a living, breathing, local Jewish community. This is the community that will be there for us in times of joy, as well as in times of hardship. This is the community that will advocate on our behalf for the rights of the less fortunate and bring to light ancient Jewish values, which are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. This is the community that will collectively carry into the present and the future the conversation that has been taking place over millennia by our ancestors whom we have never met, but to whom we are inextricably connected. This is the community that will offer us moments of awe, grandeur, and inspiration in a world where so little remains sacred. This is the community that will help us to be grounded in our oftentimes rootless society.

How can this Jewish community and the wisdom it contains thrive if Jews opt out? In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors) 1:14, we learn, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” If each of us does not support the local Jewish community, then who will?

4. B’nai mitzvah at congregations are not cookie-cutter.

Finally, a word on what it means to become a bar mitzvah at my congregation, Congregation Solel, which is also true of congregations across the continent. We are not a bar mitzvah factory. Over the years that our families are a part of the temple, as well as through the b’nai mitzvah process, we get to know them and what they care about. We spend significant time with the students and families individually, striving to build a meaningful relationship with them. Each ceremony and process is tailored to the abilities of the student and the needs of the family.

Each service looks different. We have had families create their own prayer books, we have had students sing or play instruments within the service, we have had as many or as few family members participate in the service as desired, in ways that felt most appropriate and authentic to the family. There is a tremendous amount of room for the family and students to express their individuality, as well as for the service to be personal and intimate, even as it takes place within the walls of the synagogue – and, I would add, because it does.

And our process is not the same as it always has been. We constantly reevaluate the b’nai mitzvah process to make it as relevant and fulfilling for the whole family as possible. This year alone, we introduced several innovations in the b’nai mitzvah process. One was a workshop for families where they learned about the structure of a Shabbat morning service and created visual representations of a prayer that they got to study in more depth. Another one was a new ceremony called Kabbalat Parsha, a moving experience for the families where they received their bar mitzvah Torah portion and officially began their b’nai mitzvah adventure.

In partnership with the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, an initiative sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism, we are reevaluating the role that the mitzvah project plays within the b’nai mitzvah process. Our goal is to elevate the mitzvah project to more accurately express our congregation’s historical commitment to social justice. As part of this process, we held a highly successful workshop for families in which they learned that social justice is a Jewish value. The families, then, drew a specific value out of the student’s bar mitzvah Torah portion, such as helping the elderly, or not standing idly by in the face of injustice, or honesty, to name a few. Based on the value, the family designed a “mitzvah action plan,” which included specific ways in which the bar mitzvah student can express the value at home, at Solel, and in the larger community. Currently, we are working on a framework of volunteer opportunities that would be available to b’nai mitzvah families at Solel and in the broader community through the auspices of Solel.

Becoming a bar mitzvah at a synagogue is special and meaningful. It is a personal and individualized experience, where each family is valued and each individual child is honored. It is also a process in which the child becomes a part of the bigger Jewish community and gains new rights and responsibilities. Most importantly, it is a process through which the child and the family as a whole have the opportunity to appreciate the importance and relevance of Judaism in their lives.

Cantor Vicky Glikin is the cantor at Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL. Her congregation is a participant in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a project of the Union for Reform Judaism and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Cantor Glikin is an alumna of the Wexner Fellowship Program. She resides in Deerfield, IL with her husband Vlad Leybovich and their children Adam, Michelle, and Sam.