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.” 

What’s a parent to do?

A concerned parent once stopped me in the hall of the temple and said, “Rabbi, I have a couple of questions about my daughter’s bat mitzvah service and I wanted to …”

I heard the stress in his voice and interrupted him with the words, “It will all be fine. Don’t worry, I’ve led a couple of services over the course of my career.”

“Good for you,” he replied sarcastically. “But I haven’t.” 

He was right. My level of comfort had nothing to do with his. At that moment, I realized that the goal isn’t for me to be comfortable, but for parents and their children to feel fully immersed in the b’nai mitzvah process so that they feel comfortable. I know what I am doing because I have done it so many times before, but for parents, this experience is limited to the number of children in their family.  

Clergy often wrestle with the question of how to integrate parents into this process, and every synagogue has its own way of going about it. At Temple Kol Tikvah, we have expanded the b’nai mitzvah experience from one day to four years. Starting in fourth grade — three years prior to b’nai mitzvah — our B’nai Mitzvah Revolution program gathers our fourth-graders and their parents for a family program that focuses on the importance of l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation). 

From left: Karen, Adam and Liam Friedman interact at a B’nai Mitzvah Revolution session.  Photo courtesy of Temple Kol Tikvah

Over the course of the next three years, we run family programs focusing on biblical heroes, tikkun olam (healing the world), stress and tzitzit (yes, we connect these ideas), conflict resolution and tefillin, the Torah, bullying, teen suicide prevention, and drug and alcohol abuse. All of these programs include parents. 

This multiyear process focusing on a young person’s maturation provides parents with opportunities to reflect with their children on a variety of topics. The goal is for every parent to understand that their child is transitioning into a young adult, and that every parent needs to have conversations about topics that weren’t appropriate when the child was younger. Prior to the creation of these programs, many parents only focused on the party; now they focus on their child’s transition and maturation.

The parents’ participation in this process is not limited to these sessions. Last year, we instituted a ‘’parents only” event. Here, we review the Torah blessings and, more important, we discuss the comments that parents will share with their children on the big day. We call these comments a charge, not a speech. 

As part of this program, we ask the parents to list three characteristics that define their child and two stories that embody these characteristics. We have them share these characteristics and stories with one another. Then we teach them the “Ten Commandments” of writing a charge:

1. Do not talk about every first in their life (e.g. birth, walking, talking, going to school, etc.) because it does not make your child unique unless they took these firsts under special circumstances.  

2. Remember that it is their day, not yours. 

3. Do not make fun of them.

4. Be positive.

5. If a joke is questionable, don’t say it.

6. Avoid the following words when talking about your child: crowning, tushie, poop, vomit, hate, obnoxious, self-centered or any negative or embarrassing language. 

7. Keep your comments short.

8. One idea will be remembered. Ten will not. (OK, you can stretch it to two but no more.) 

9. Don’t compare your child to their siblings or your friends’ children or Disney TV stars.

10. Look them in the eye, talk from your heart and give your kid the charge you want them to follow. Then make sure you give them the biggest hug you can after you’re done speaking.

While these rules seem obvious, parents often lose sight of what their speech should focus on. Every rabbi has a story about a parent who thanked everyone for coming to “their” event, or a parent who embarrassed and insulted their child with their comments while believing they were being “real” or funny, or a parent who went on for 30 minutes saying nothing important after the first minute or two. 

There are few opportunities to make a teen listen to you over the course of their middle school and high school years. This moment is one of the few where they will not walk away or put on headphones, so it is important to say words that will be remembered.

At my congregation, the last experience we give parents occurs the night before the b’nai mitzvah. It is a Kol Tikvah custom to give each child a Torah to take home and to return the next day. It is the child’s job to protect it, just as our ancestors have. 

That night, the parents stand behind the child on the bima, with the only light coming from the ner tamid (eternal light). They listen to the words I speak to their child. As their child exits the darkened sanctuary, I remind the parents that it is their responsibility to open the Torah with their child, to explore its words and to feel its presence in their home. I ask the parents to become the teacher of the tradition. While I have heard many stories of how this ritual has affected the lives of the child, I have heard just as many about how it has affected the parents.

It is the clergy’s goal to lead the entire family into the b’nai mitzvah process so they understand the importance of this ritual. But it must go beyond understanding — families must be fully immersed in the experience. Only then can they truly embark on a journey together that will strengthen their relationship as a child enters the teen years.

Rabbi Jon Hanish is the senior clergy at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. He is the chairman of the West Valley Rabbinic Task Force and sits on the executive committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Revolutionizing B’Nai Mitzvah

“Rabbi, I never expected to be so proud. I go to bar mitzvahs all the time. I never understood what other parents were kvelling about until today. My kid was amazing!”

As a congregational rabbi, I am still surprised at the number of parents who have rushed up to me after a bar or bat mitzvah service and expressed this revelation. They are shocked at their sense of euphoria. At this same moment, the child is beaming. It does not matter whether they delivered their d’var Torah like a trained actor or they mumbled every word of the service. The entire family is moved by this spiritual and communal experience that generates lifelong memories and a whole lot of photographs.

Then, six months pass.

“I guess you don’t have to go back to religious school. You did finish the b’nai mitzvah program.”

From intense involvement to no involvement. In the year following their last child’s bar or bat mitzvah, many of these same families are no longer involved in congregational life. Their euphoria has dissipated. They allow their children to convince them that their coming-of-age ritual was the end of a journey, not a stop along the way. Teens say that continued involvement will hurt their grades and get in the way of college applications. Besides, they have learned everything already. Look — they just went through this big ceremony that showed how fluent they are in Jewish rituals.  

As any parent of teenagers knows, a child can be quite vocal and convincing in what they want. Yet, most 13-year-olds only know the peshat, the simple meaning, of Jewish tradition. They stop their education just as their education is in its infancy and don’t allow it to enter its own emerging adulthood. They leave the only community centered wholly on Jewish values and ideas believing they have already learned everything worth knowing.

“You want me on a committee to revolutionize b’nai mitzvah? What does that mean?”

Three years ago, the Kol Tikvah clergy determined that a more systematic approach needed to be taken to create a better process. We began to wrestle with ways to strengthen our b’nai mitzvah program. Soon after we began our own reflection, we were chosen to be part of the Los Angeles cohort of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. This is a local effort that is part of a national one spearheaded by the Union for Reform Judaism and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Through a series of meetings with lay leaders and professionals, we began to shape our priorities. Our process was designed and overseen by Isa Aron, professor of education at HUC-JIR and co-director of the national B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, and facilitated by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, a consultant. 

Working hand in hand with this team, our transformation began. We wrestled with the question, “What is a bar or bat mitzvah?” In answering this question, we engaged thoughtful and insightful lay leaders whose children were about to begin the b’nai mitzvah process. In a group that would seemingly want to maintain the status quo, they were receptive to change. They welcomed the ideas of enhanced engagement in both the child’s and family’s Jewish journey. 

“A bar or bat mitzvah is a two-hour ceremony, right?”

We soon developed a new definition of b’nai mitzvah. We realized that to deepen involvement and commitment, we needed to expand the moment from a mere few hours to four years and then, hopefully, to a lifetime. At any one time, there should be four b’nai mitzvah groups paralleling our students’ grade level from fourth to seventh grade. It will no longer be just the ceremony, but a multiyear experience where students and parents develop lifelong connections by praying, playing, studying and reflecting together. This year, we rolled out our program for sixth-graders, next year we will add our fifth-grade program and, the year after, our fourth-grade program. The response from parents has been positive.

“Wow, we never did stuff like this when I was a kid.”

One of the keys to Jewish engagement is connection. To continue to strengthen the relationships between students, we implemented our Kemach program. This program incorporates the dual goals of connecting our pre-b’nai mitzvah students to mitzvot and facilitating youth relationship building through a series of informal engagement opportunities. While the child still can do an independent mitzvah project, we direct the majority of our children toward participating in group projects. The goal is for every child to work at least 10 hours over the course of the year prior to the bar or bat mitzvah in synagogue-organized programs. When the pressure to do their own projects disappears, they learn about the mitzvah opportunities found throughout the community and they bond with their peers.

“You’re giving my child a Torah?”

An additional step we’ve taken is a spiritual one. The night prior to a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, after oneg is over, the child and the parents are brought into a darkened sanctuary, the only light coming from the ner tamid and the ark. With wide eyes, they take the Torah in hand, elated and a bit scared. They are reminded that Judaism survives because past generations have protected the Torah. They keep the Torah in their possession, returning it to the synagogue the next morning. Families describe the sense of calm the Torah brings to their homes and many families share with their children stories about grandparents and great-grandparents who smuggled Torahs out of hostile lands.

Our experiment continues. Hopefully, the process we’ve created will aid our children and our families in realizing that the b’nai mitzvah process lasts a lifetime and that the service is just a stop along the way. 

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.

For more information about B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, please visit