November 13, 2018

Students connecting with growing B’nai Mitzvah Revolution

A revolution doesn’t happen overnight — especially when it involves centuries-old rituals.

But members of the Union for Reform Judaism’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution have spent the last few years trying to bring relatively quick and drastic change to b’nai mitzvah preparation and the ceremony itself.

Fourteen local synagogues have joined the national effort since it started in 2012 — although some are no longer participating — and a $70,000 grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles announced earlier this month will enable the program to continue its work and bring three other congregations into the fold.

The problem at the heart of the initiative: a journey that for many young adults feels overwhelming and rushed. An education that doesn’t sink in and which often stops as soon as the party is over.

Isa Aron, a professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, is co-director of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. She and her team want religious schools and families to see the bar and bat mitzvah as a much longer and deeper process. 

“It’s not just about memorizing Torah portions,” she said. “Families should understand what bar and bat mitzvahs are and why they are important.”

When a nationwide pilot program started, Temple Isaiah and Stephen Wise Temple represented Los Angeles. A grant of $85,000 from Federation enabled eight more synagogues to get involved, and up until now Federation has contributed a total of more than $275,000, Aron said. The newest grant, pushing the total even higher, will add Temple Judea in Tarzana, Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village and University of Synagogue in Brentwood. 

Overall, there are about 150 congregations taking part in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution nationally. Beginning in July, 11 of them will be in Los Angeles, Aron said.

Although Aron originally worked with only Reform congregations, after she received funding from Federation, she took on Conservative and Reconstructionist ones, as well. “It’s our hope to have input in all the movements,” she said. 

Those congregations that have instituted changes already are reporting positive results. At Temple Emanuel, Cantor Lizzie Weiss said the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution project has helped ramp up excitement from students as well as foster friendships among families.

“We talk about Torah and focus on trying to build a community among the parents and the children that come to these seminars,” she said. “By the time they get to the bar and bat mitzvah, all of the students are much more community-driven.”  

As part of the program, Weiss and her staff created 52 laminated posters depicting each Torah portion. They set it up in a room and invite fourth-graders and their families to find the parsha corresponding with their bar and bat mitzvah birthdays. Students can choose a portion based on that date or on which portions resonated with them the most.

In the fifth grade, students go through an orientation on what a mitzvah project is and ultimately choose what they’d like to do for it — meaning whatever they pursue is done over the long haul. 

As Weiss said, “At the bimah they can say, ‘I’ve dedicated two years to this project.’ They can take ownership of something they dedicated their lives to instead of just doing it because it was required of them.”  

One parent, Melissa Greenspan, is among those meeting with the families and staff a few times each year to prepare for her fourth-grader’s bat mitzvah. In one of the gatherings, the kids talked about how they were anxious about reading from the Torah, while parents discussed how they were going to pay for the celebration. She said so far, B’nai Mitzvah Revolution is “an in-depth buildup to the bat mitzvah experience. … When my daughter is 12 or 13, she will have a deep understanding on what the Ten Commandments are all about.”

The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution provides direction for synagogues and schools to help guide their teachings and workshops. It also shows what other synagogues are doing in order to generate ideas. 

For example, Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills does “Taking the Torah Home.” The night before a bar or bat mitzvah, the student literally takes home the Torah scroll. He or she also will have a private meeting with the rabbi and learn about the importance of the Torah and its relation to the Jewish community.

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, which formerly participated in the project, Rabbi John Rosove said the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution helped the rabbinic staff and lay education leaders focus more clearly on engaging both parents and children.

“Each family investigated, beginning in the fifth grade, in our three educational programs (day school; traditional Sunday religious school; Shabbaton with families), on the child’s family tree and personal connection with generations in their families in a project of interviewing and writing a favorite older person in the bar/bat mitzvah family not only about their early Jewish memories, but on their own grandparents and the history of the family,” he said. “This was linked to the history of the Jewish people, the history of each Torah scroll in our congregation, the role that Torah plays in the life of the Jewish people through the millennia.

“Each family took on other study projects on a voluntary basis as directed by Rabbi Jocee Hudson, our rabbinic educator. Studying as a family together, committing to practice Judaism together in specific holiday, ritual and life cycle activities enhanced the experience of the bar/bat mitzvah as part of a Jewish family.”

At Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, Rabbi Carrie Vogel, director of the Jewish Experience Center, puts emphasis on teaching Hebrew early. This way, she said, students won’t feel pressured in their learning. 

“For most of them, it’s so paralyzing,” Vogel said. “We made a lot of changes. We give more support early on. We want them to feel like they’re coasting in sixth grade and not like they have to cram. This makes it easier. It allows parents to relax and enjoy the process.”

Amy Bersch, a member of Kehillat Israel, has one son who became a bar mitzvah over a year ago, as well as a daughter who will go up to the bimah in a year and a half, allowing her to experience the process with and without the help of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. For her daughter, she’s taken part in a Shabbat dinner with the other fifth-grade families and learned that her daughter will receive 20 one-on-one Hebrew sessions.

“There are changes since my son was bar mitzvahed, like more of a focus on Hebrew and set milestones,” she said. “I already see a difference in how much my daughter has prepared for her bat mitzvah. I anticipate that she will be prepared for it.”