Creating A New Path For A Bar Mitzvah

I’ve written about my family’s bar mitzvah issues before, but for anyone new to our “dilemma” (we should all have such dilemmas), let me provide a quick update.

Bryan and I have created a Jewish life for ourselves and our four children that does not fit into either the confines or the comfort of a denominational label. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center’s report on Jewish America we are hardly alone.

Our family does not, however, fall in the sought after “unaffiliated” camp. We belong in an odd category I’ve made up this instant called the hyper-affiliated. Our kids go to the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School; We are involved with three synagogues in the Twin Cities: Beth El Synagogue (Conservative), Chabad (Orthodox), and Knesseth Israel (Orthodox); And we also attend programs offered by Aish Minnesota, which is an educational organization, not a place.

Now that Sam, our oldest, is 10.5 years old, we’re starting to discuss his bar mitzvah options more seriously as most of his friends at Conservative and Reform synagogues have 2017-2018 dates. Despite our “hyper-affiliation,” there’s no clear path for our kids.

How can it be that not one of the three synagogues we’re involved with is an option?

Bryan and the kids go to Chabad three Saturday mornings every month, and all six of us go to Knesseth Israel once a month. As day school students, our kids do not need to attend Hebrew school during the week, but at some point they would need to join the Saturday morning preparation program at Beth El if we intend for them to have a typical Shabbat morning bar mitzvah there. Since we are not willing to change our Chabad and KI Shabbat routine to make that happen, the big Saturday morning Conservative experience is not going to happen, which makes sense to me. If we are not part of a shul’s Shabbat community, I would not expect to waltz in and snag a Saturday morning for our family.

A Saturday at Chabad or Knesseth is not a good option for us either. The spaces are far too small to accommodate our family and friends, and we want to share our joy with our wider community. (A blessing of a problem, I know.) Second and more importantly, we live in Edina, which is not in walking distance to either location. Although we are not shomer Shabbos, we would not want to drive Sam to his bar mitzvah on Shabbat as it’s just not in the spirit of the milestone. And no, we do not want to take over a hotel for the weekend as we don’t have unlimited funds to throw each of our four kids a Shabbaton.

All that said, there is one main question more important than the location for Sam’s bar mitzvah: How will Sam prepare for his bar mitzvah since we are creating our own path to get there?

We are leaning towards a Monday or Thursday morning and perhaps even a Sunday morning. Since Torah is not read on Sundays, that opens up even more possibilities for study. No matter which day we choose, I have many questions I’d love to hear fellow Jews answer. 

What core knowledge is important for a 13-year-old Jewish child to know? (Should they be able to articulate the difference between Torah and Talmud, for example?)

How much focus should there be on Jewish ethics, especially character development (middos) along with a commitment to community service (tikkun olam)? Most b’nei mitzvah programs seem to do a good job with mitzvah projects, but is there significant discussion about personal behaviors like how we treat friends and family? If not, why?

Do students have a sense of Judaism’s uniqueness? Could the average 13-year-old Jewish child describe anything about Judaism, other than talking about certain holidays, that makes it sound different from other faiths? I’ve heard people say, “Jews value family and education.” I mean, don’t most people of all faiths and many of no faith value family and education? I agree that many Jews do, but it’s hardly unique to us.

Is learning how to chant from the Torah the best use of a preteen’s time? How many Jews ever use that skill again? Does every member of a synagogue need to know how to read Torah on a moment’s notice? As a community would we do better to invest in some other skill set and knowledge base? If so, what would that skill set be? Part of my attraction to Sunday is the idea that we could find other ways to thoughtfully fill Sam’s course of study.

My kids know the prayers (or will by that age) from attending shul weekly and attending day school. But how should the deeper ability to pray and to feel a relationship with G-d be taught most effectively?

I would love to hear from rabbis, Jewish educators and parents across every denomination. An email is fine, too, if the comments section is too public or too limiting for this kind of discussion. You can reach me at [email protected]. My questions above are a start, but feel free to just answer the general one: What should a 13-year-old Jewish child know? Sam is ready to start this next stage of learning!

(Photo: Leo Reynolds)