September 22, 2018

The 21st century b’nai mitzvah

When Isa Aron considers b’nai mitzvah today, she gets the impression that parents — and sometimes synagogues — care more about their son or daughter performing flawlessly when on the bimah than they do about their forming lasting connections to Judaism.

“The moment itself is wonderful because the kid is up there performing and all that, but Jewish value of the moment is not really in there,” said Aron, co-director of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, an initiative launched in partnership by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) to radically change the ritual.

Those who gathered in Long Beach for the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis convention learned more about the initiative on March 5 from Aron’s co-director, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen.

“One of the major places where we are engaging youth or disengaging youth is around the aftermath of the bar mitzvah,’” Solmsen said. “People find the bar mitzvah experience itself very fulfilling, but then they check out. It’s more a graduation ceremony than anything else.”

A study from the Avi Chai Foundation supports Solmsen’s claim. According to its 2006-07 census of Jewish supplementary schools in the United States, “The dropout phenomenon after bar/bat mitzvah is dramatic. More than one-third of students drop out after grade 7 and then the rate of decline accelerates so that by grade 12 only one-seventh of the number of seventh-graders is still enrolled.”

Tackling the issue in several ways, the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution has created a pilot cohort of 14 congregations across the country that is working on experiments to change b’nai mitzvah preparation and the ceremony itself. Los Angeles-area synagogues that are participating include Temple Isaiah and Stephen S. Wise Temple.

With assistance from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which awarded the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution an $85,000 grant, eight more area synagogues are rethinking their approaches to the ritual. They are IKAR, Kehillat Israel, Temple Akiba, Temple Aliyah, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Temple Kol Tikvah and Valley Beth Shalom.

On a national level, the Shevell Youth Innovation and Training Fund has awarded more than $1 million to URJ youth engagement efforts, and part of those funds go to the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, Aron said.

The initiative is also attempting to change the status quo through its “Active Learning Network.” This involves 69 synagogues in North America engaging in online learning, at Professionals and lay leaders from these congregations will convene in December at the 2013 URJ Biennial in San Diego to discuss innovations and challenges.

Aron, a professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, became interested in transforming b’nai mitzvah after rabbinical students at the Reform seminary expressed challenges they faced while teaching Hebrew in religious schools. Students were focused on decoding Hebrew letters so that they would be ready for their bar or bat mitzvah, instead of learning to read and comprehend.

“For a lot of kids, it’s a pretty alienating process,” Aron said.

In response, Aron started a program several years ago called the Hebrew Project, a wiki-space for Jewish educators from across the United States who are struggling with issues related to Hebrew education in supplementary schools. When Aron and her colleagues sat down for a meeting about the Hebrew Project, they came to a realization.

“Halfway through, we took deep breath, and a bunch of people said at same time, ‘We won’t change any of this unless we can change bar mitzvahs,’ ” Aron recalled. “Parents and clergy are so hung up on performance at bar mitzvahs that it becomes a litmus test of how well religious school is doing. … If we want to change [how students learn] Hebrew, we have to change bar mitzvahs.”

Around that same time, the URJ hired Solmsen, who had served as director of Brandeis University’s office of high school programs, to develop strategies toward increasing youth engagement in Jewish life.

In early 2012, Aron and Solmsen met in person. Discussing their mutual desire to transform b’nai mitzvah, they exchanged ideas on how to accomplish this.

It turned out that they share ideas of what the b’nai mitzvah should be: a time when the young adult and family connect to the larger community of their congregation and a time of meaning for all involved. They believe in multiple approaches to the preparation and ceremony — no one-size-fits-all — and that the process must involve deep and authentic Jewish learning.

With this in mind, Aron and Solmsen launched the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Web site last June. The next month, they selected the pilot cohort of 14 congregations, which then spent the next several months doing preparation work. In November, they convened in Baltimore to officially launch the initiative.

Here’s how it works: The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution provides a grant to each congregation and two “action research facilitators” to work with the synagogues on articulating and developing experiments toward the end goal of changing the ritual.

As of the beginning of this month, the congregations had come up with experiments that can be clustered into three groups, Solmsen said. One group is focusing on creating a mentoring process during the preparation stage of the b’nai mitzvah that involves each family meeting regularly with someone in the congregation to work on connecting who they are as a family and as individuals with who they are as congregants.

Another group is working on how to change the ceremony, using a system that would allow families to play a role in creating it, rather than being told what kind of service to lead. Lastly, a group is looking at how to connect social justice to the preparation and ceremony.

Leaders at Stephen S. Wise want to improve on a b’nai mitzvah program of which they are already proud, said Rabbi Lydia Medwin of Stephen S. Wise. The temple’s leadership is unhappy with the separation between its Shabbat minyan and b’nai mitzvah ceremonies and wants to bring them together.

As a member of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution’s pilot cohort, Stephen S. Wise is also creating more gateways into b’nai mitzvah preparation, whether it’s the outdoors, the arts or Israel. And it is looking at ways to get parents more involved, Medwin said. 

“[We] hope that we can bring some depth and added meaning to the experience that is already a pretty powerful one,” Medwin said.

For this to happen, parents need to be open-minded, according to Aron. She pointed to a recent bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills that was implemented with a high degree of collaboration between the young adult’s parents and clergy.

The parents — a Jew-by-choice and a non-practicing Jew — told Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller that they were unsure if they were going to give their son, Simon, a bar mitzvah. Geller asked the mother what she wanted for Simon as he turned 13. The woman said she wanted Simon to become more independent and to do something like taking the bus alone from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles.

Geller thought the bus idea was a good one. They decided that riding the bus across L.A. would earn Simon one of 13 badges in the months leading up to his bar mitzvah. To get the other badges, he would have to perform other tasks — some Jewish, some not — such as teaching his parents how to use PowerPoint and serving meals to the sick. When Simon delivered his speech during the ceremony, he connected his Torah portion, which dealt with the counting of the Israelites, to his bus experience. Simon explained how in Los Angeles, the haves count more than those who have less and have to ride the bus.

All over the country, synagogues are figuring out ways to avoid what Aron called the “assembly-line” model that sees every child following the same process — working with their tutor, meeting the rabbi, writing their speech and performing the other steps along the way to the bimah. Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colo., has the parents and children do project-based learning. A Philadelphia synagogue is allowing students to express what interests them when deciding on a mitzvah project. A congregation in Northern California is playing with changes to the portion of the service involving the passing of the Torah.

The 14 synagogues in the pilot cohort are required by the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution to implement some of the experiments beginning this September.

Because the initiative is just one part of a larger effort to increase youth engagement with Judaism, URJ has set a goal that by 2020 all youth will be more involved in Jewish life, while working on a definition of engagement and on ways to measure it, Solmsen said.

That comes later. For now, Aron said, “Our goal is to make our b’nai mitzvah around America a lot more thoughtful.”