B’nai Mitzvah revolution

At Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, the Torah has left the building — not permanently, but as part of a new ritual of sending the holy scroll home with a child the night before his or her bar or bat mitzvah. 

The Reform congregation’s Rabbi Jonathan Hanish said the experiences have been transformational — even calming. One child who hadn’t slept in a week due to anxiety reportedly slept like a baby with the Torah at home.

What sparked this new ritual? The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution (BMR), a national project to change b’nai mitzvah culture and encourage youth to stay engaged in synagogue even after these coming-of-age ceremonies. Temple Kol Tikvah is one of 10 local congregations taking part in the initiative by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

Two local participants — Stephen S. Wise Temple and Temple Isaiah — are among 13 pilot synagogues nationwide that began work in November 2012. Together with the other local shuls, with support from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, they have formed a separate L.A. cohort. The BMR was the subject of discussion at the URJ’s Dec. 11-15 Biennial in San Diego.

Isa Aron, BMR co-director and professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, said the project spans a wide range of possible goals, outcomes and timelines, and that it will take a few years to assess results. 

“For some, success equals increased engagement of b’nai mitzvah students and their families; for others, a higher percentage of retention after bar or bat mitzvah; for others, a greater sense of community; and for some, a mixture of all of these, and possibly others,” Aron said.

From structural overhauls of their religious school system to tweaks in the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, each synagogue hopes the changes will pay big dividends. Here are some of the changes under consideration.

In late October, IKAR, an independent L.A. congregation, began offering a pilot program of parenting classes. By engaging parents, the synagogue hopes to help foster a sense of community at the family level that will bleed over into the children’s lives. “These sessions will cover topics such as teaching teens responsibility and consequences, understanding normal teenage self-centeredness and allowing teens the space to fix their own problems, all presented through a Jewish lens,” said Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, IKAR’s education director.  

Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, wants to make sure there are opportunities for younger students to learn about its high school programs, interact with high school kids and meet other families — thereby creating connections that will make them want to stay involved after their bar or bat mitzvah. “The ultimate goal is to have students participate in a ‘Mitzvah Masters’ program at the high school level, which helps them explore their spirituality, study Judaic content and understand what it means to live in a caring community while developing self-esteem,” said Rabbi Carrie Vogel, Kehillat Israel’s assistant director of youth and family education. 

The plan at Stephen S. Wise Temple is to embed the requirement for b’nai mitzvah projects into the elementary school and religious school curriculum, according to Ariana West, communications director for the Reform congregation in Bel Air. The approach to Jewish service learning will include learning about a social issue and the Jewish response, a hands-on experience and a reflection session.

Temple Akiba in Culver City is implementing an annual daylong retreat for parents, staff, students, teachers and others that is focused on looking at the meaning of b’nai mitzvah from various viewpoints. The first retreat was held on Nov. 23 at Camp Max Straus in Glendale, and will include follow-up throughout the year, said Randee Bishoff, religious education director at the Reform synagogue.

Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation in Woodland Hills, is using the BMR process to address the issue of students not focusing enough on the meaning of their parasha (Torah portion). Starting this winter, sixth-grade students will learn to read the parasha together with their families prior to joining an adult study group. “We have begun with baby steps toward getting families to participate with their children in this process, while making it more interesting for the kids as well,” explained Rabbi Adam Schaffer, Temple Aliyah’s religious school director.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, wants to engage children and their families in the b’nai mitzvah process at an earlier age. “We are looking to create community-building and learning opportunities for parents as early as when their children are in the fourth grade, when they first receive their bar mitzvah date, and are actually beginning to think about b’nai mitzvah,” Temple Emanuel’s Cantor Yonah Kliger said.

In West Los Angeles, the Reform Temple Isaiah’s religious school started offering different tracks — religious immersion or prayer, for example — that students can take with the hope of making the process more interesting to them. “We want to start thinking about [b’nai mitzvah] in third grade, and not just as a ceremony that is an ‘end’ but as growth that is just one stage in a much longer process,” said Hannah Rubin-Schlansky, director of informal education and coordinator of Temple Isaiah’s BMR team.

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation, fifth-graders will go through a unit to develop their family tree, using genealogy Web sites, seeking out documents and interviewing as much of their family as possible. “Passing the Torah from our tradition through the generations will now be combined with passing the Torah of our students’ individual family traditions. Its purpose is not only to discover our students’ unique family histories, but to link that affective experience with the Jewish tradition
as a whole,” Temple Israel’s Rabbi John Rosove said.

Temple Kol Tikvah, in addition to sending a Torah home with b’nai mitzvah students, will ask youth to work together on mitzvah projects. “Each month, we are offering a different tikkun olam opportunity to our sixth- through 12th-graders. Once our pre-[b’nai mitzvah] students have done five projects, they have fulfilled their tikkun olam requirement,” said Hanish, using the Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world.” Other changes being discussed are life-skills classes that would teach such things through a Jewish lens.

At the Encino Conservative congregation Valley Beth Shalom, the focus is on afternoon b’nai mitzvah services, said Cantor Phil Baron. In order to make them more communal, students will be invited to read their Torah portions in another service the following week, and a member of the board of directors will attend to present the synagogue’s gifts.

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