Bar Mitzvah Options: No Easy Answer

from the blog www.stuckincustoms.comLast month I questioned the educational path my son would take as he becomes a bar mitzvah. Sam is only ten and a half so we have time to decide, but since his hyper-affiliated parents belong to three synagogues, it left us wondering what would work best for our family.

I promised readers that I would share a summary of the helpful notes that I received in response to last month’s questions. I’m only sharing a sample as I read many emails and messages on Facebook, and I met with community leaders throughout the month.

At least one professional I spoke to in person, Jonathan Paradise, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew at The University of Minnesota, agreed with a concern I mentioned that too much rides on the Torah and Haftorah readings. Professor Paradise is developing his own bnei mitzvah curriculum that focuses on Hebrew fluency. He pointed out that many Hebrew school graduates (like me) say we can read Hebrew when we’re only able to decode syllables and sounds. Many of us memorized prayers from the siddur and verses from our parasha, but never learned the language or got an introduction to modern cultural Israeli texts like poems and songs that could be the gateway to Jewish understanding, literacy, and pride.

Professor Paradise would like to see a bar mitzvah that, in his words, “publicly celebrates the study of Modern spoken Hebrew and the flowering of its culture and rebirth—one of the most remarkable achievements of the Zionist enterprise.” He added, “It’s important to call attention to the fact that the child has devoted many years engaged in the work of acquiring a degree of proficiency in Modern Hebrew.” My kids go to a Jewish day school where they take Hebrew every day, but our conversation left me wondering how the average after-school Hebrew student could achieve similar or even greater proficiency. I hope I get to see Professor Paradise’s alternative curriculum become a track students can choose in the Twin Cities and beyond, as it might be the perfect fit for some kids.

Personally, I love the idea of kids becoming proficient in Hebrew, but the study of Judaism matters to our family, too. I also met with local teacher and Chabad leader, Mrs. Rivkie Grossbaum, who helps run the shul where our family spends most Shabbat mornings. Mrs. Grossbaum reminded me that Chabad has kids coming from all different backgrounds for bnei mitzvah mentoring, which means the preparation is tailored to each one based on his/her Jewish schooling, knowledge, and practice. There is no exact model everyone has to follow, but in all cases the focus is on learning what will lead to an active Jewish life. They will also teach the trope and Torah reading, but that process is not the main piece of the learning so as not to distract from the significance of what becoming a bar mitzvah is all about. As it happens, Sam will learn the trope from his Zaide, who is an excellent Torah reader. What could be more meaningful than passing on that skill from one generation to another?

The idea of a bar mitzvah as a beginning, not an end was repeated by almost everyone who contacted me. Rabbi Alexander Davis of Beth El Synagogue, a Conservative synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, (and one of the many wonderful rabbis in our family’s life) stressed the journey over the end product. “The day is important, but not as important as the day after. We realize that the kids are not fully adults after their simcha, but there should be something different. I ask them, ‘What’s the mitzvah you’re going to take on? How are you going to behave differently? How are you going to live differently as a Jew?’”

Rabbi Ilana Garber of Beth El Temple, a Conservative shul in West Hartford Connecticut, wrote:

“We are the people of the book so that means I want kids (and adults) to be literate, to know Judaism and Jewish life and Jewish living. To feel it. To live it. To be fluent in it as much as possible. I don’t think there should be an aptitude test or a measure in some way of how much or what a child has learned. Let him ask the questions, and direct the learning. We don’t teach “to” the bar mitzvah (just like we shouldn’t teach to the test). We teach for life.”

Samantha Brinn Merel, a reader in New York, wrote that the intentional way my husband and I are going about our kids’ education is reminiscent of her upbringing. She described how her parents created a path for her bat mitzvah that was entirely removed from the regular one at their synagogue even though they were active members there. They found her an inspiring teacher and a curriculum that motivated her.

“I remember every detail of it, right down to the entire opening paragraph of my speech, because it was an incredibly meaningful experience. I feel strongly that the whole point of a bar/bat mitzvah is to create an environment that celebrates Judaism and learning in a meaningful way. Sometimes the cookie cutter models don’t work for us, and we have to find another way.”

I’ll end with a beautiful note from Rabbi Zalman Bendet, a Chabad rabbi in St. Paul who had never met me or my family, but felt moved to write to me after reading last month’s piece.

“I think it matters little what knowledge your son accumulates before his bar mitzvah, or if he can chant the Torah like a pro or if he ticked off hours of bar mitzvah lessons so that he can reach his “rite of passage.” If he (and you, his parents) manage to appreciate this one value, that is all that matters: To be a Jew means to live Judaism, to grow Jewishly. Each at their own level, but in a constant and consistent upward motion. The seed is planted with earnest Torah study, and it grows into a strong and sturdy tree which bears the beautiful fruit of the mitzvot. A bar mitzvah is just the beginning, an induction or sorts. It is the first step into the wonderful life of a Jew committed to growth.”

Here’s where my husband and I stand now: We’ve made no final decisions, but we’re dedicated to creating our own Jewish journey, and I have no doubt that the path will look different for each of our children. In about a year and a half, Sam will have a better idea which rabbis feel like a good match for him, and then the process will begin. In the meantime, our family gets to enjoy the best of what all three of our synagogues and the broader Jewish community has to offer. I suppose this is what “hyper-affiliation” looks like: We ask many questions and accept that there’s rarely one easy answer, not even for what a bar mitzvah looks like. I wouldn’t want it any other way.


(Photo: Trey Ratcliff)