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Teaching Nervous B’nai Mitzvah Students How to Deliver a Great Speech

Ben Elterman has always been a multitasker.
[additional-authors]
November 23, 2022
Asher Blinkoff with Ben Elterman Photo by Jonah Light Photography

Ben Elterman has always been a multitasker.

“I have a background in theater,” he said, “so I know how to get up in front of people and talk. I also have been a freelance writer, a screenwriter, and I do consulting and development.” Five years ago, Elterman discovered a new, unplanned career. 

The bar mitzvah of Zachary Light, the son of his friend Jonah Light, at The Community Shul was approaching. As Elterman recalled, “Zachary needed to do a speech, and I decided to work with him.” Classroom teaching was another of Elterman’s careers, so working with the young man came naturally. Having become Torah observant five years earlier, “I had a backlog of parsha ideas. I sat with Zachary a couple months before his bar mitzvah,” helping him create and shape his remarks. A few weeks later, Zachary’s bar mitzvah at The Community Shul turned into a life-changing experience. 

“When Zachary went up to speak, people were just blown away,” Elterman recalled. Afterwards, a community member, Zeev Korn, approached him and told the proud teacher he should be doing this on a regular basis. 

That marked the launch of Elterman’s new part-time career.

“It’s what I call mining memories, asking students what means the most to them, not just that your dad is generous, but how is he generous? Give me examples.”
– Ben Elterman

Sounding as if he had been born to teach, Elterman described what has evolved into b’nai mitzvah speechwriting lessons as “a creative process. It’s what I call mining memories, asking students what means the most to them, not just that your dad is generous, but how is he generous? Give me examples. Specifically, how has your mother comforted you? When you watched ‘Charlotte’s Web’ the first time, how did she comfort you when the spider dies?”

There are no templates for the speeches, he said, “Every speech is unique.” Working with the bar or bat mitzvah, they find a d’var Torah (an idea from the weekly Torah portion) that resonates. “Then I’d help them perform it,” the 39-year-old Elterman explained. “I help them with tips I had learned from acting over the years: slowing down, attaching yourself to the audience, taking a breath.” He stresses that “I don’t actually train them, just help them with their speeches.”

Elterman sees a bar or bat mitzvah as the first time a child is starting to engage in questions on his or her own. “Now you are responsible for the mitzvahs,” he said. “This is about responsibilities — and most kids do not know the why of what that means. What you do as an adult matters more because you do not have someone spoon-feeding it to you anymore.” 

He says he wants each child “to know that he or she is receiving something special. Because they are doing this, it means they have independence. Now they will be thinking differently about morals than what their parents gave them. They will need to question: Why do my parents think this way? If they don’t engage in that process, they are going to be robots. To me, that is the opposite of being a bar or bat mitzvah.” 

The other big change in his life occurred when he met Rachel Windler in July 2020 and married her in the next year.  They are now a team, personally and professionally.

Ben and Rachel

When they were still dating, Rachel said, “Ben mentioned helping prepare bar/bat mitzvah speeches. I asked, ‘why didn’t I know about that? Why isn’t it your primary parnassah (livelihood)?’” She added that “what Ben does is so unique, and he is the perfect person for it. The fact that he has an acting and writing background and is so passionate about Torah — it encompasses all of his interests and skills.”  Elterman said the b’nai mitzvah speeches “would not be where they are if not for Rachel,” who added, “I push Ben.” Helpfully, she also has a background in teaching. 

Rachel has taken on the marketing side of the business. She keeps tabs on Facebook groups dedicated to bar/bat mitzvah planning and regularly checks in on moms’ chat rooms. Their website is mitzvahspeeches.com, and Rachel adds they have a Facebook page, and are active on Instagram and Yelp. Ben says she is also “my second set of ears. I am the writer and she is the editor.” 

Significantly, they started reaching beyond the observant community and began working with families across the spectrum and from outside the Los Angeles area.  Both said they accept virtually everyone who contacts them. “I don’t turn anyone away, though there may be people I will not be so quick to call back,” Ben said. “I’m always available to help people in some way.”

“Here is something often neglected,” Rachel said. “Ben works with students of all denominations. It seems like a lot of rabbis, while they may help with the heart of the parsha (the weekly Torah portion), then they have a tutor who teaches the student how to lain the prayers. But when it comes to the speech, students are left to their own devices. My father wrote my bat mitzvah speech. I could have used Ben’s services then.”

Asked about the difference between girl and boy students, Ben said that “Boys run the spectrum of how committed they are.” By contrast, “girls can be really sharp, smart. They ask questions and the speech almost writes itself. They are in touch with their emotions. It is a little easier to find the connections.”

They’ve also started working for the b’nai mitzvah’s mothers and fathers. “Parents have jumped up a lot more,” Ben says. “Student-parent speeches are nearly 50-50, and most of the parent speeches are not local.” While Elterman spends six to eight weekly sessions training a typical b’nai mitzvah – in the student’s home if local, otherwise on Zoom – forming a parent’s speech is significantly abbreviated. “I do a phone call,” he said. “I ask questions, and they talk about their kid. I put it down, shoot it back to them, and we do about three drafts. Many are in the range of a thousand words, three to five minutes. The typical bar mitzvah speech runs five to 10 minutes. “Rachel edits the drafts I do for parents. She is my safety net.” 

Becoming so involved with Judaism was not something Ben could have imagined growing up in Dallas, Texas in the 1980s and ‘90s.  He was a bar mitzvah boy (parsha Lech Lecha) but doesn’t remember his speech. “For me, it was the normal Reform lifestyle,” he said. “I did not wear a yarmulke. We didn’t keep kosher … My dad lit candles on Friday nights. That was the extent of our observance. My two older siblings and I were sent to Sunday school. I went off to college at  the University of Washington – for acting.”  Elterman “occasionally” checked into Hillel, and later moved to New York, “which is when I was least connected.”

But when he moved to Los Angeles to find work as a screenwriter, Elterman met director Saul Blinkoff, an Orthodox Jew. “He kind of took me under his wing,” he said. Blinkoff was learning Torah regularly with Rabbi Shalom Denbo, and he introduced his new friend to the rabbi. Soon enough, Elterman became a regular student of Rabbi Denbo’s learning sessions. “One night I was exhausted,” he said. “But something clicked – and I never wanted not to be learning with Rabbi Denbo at that table. From then on, I started to nerd out on Torah.”

That “nerding out” helps in his new career. Currently, helping b’nai mitzvah students provides around 50% of Ben’s income. But “I’d like it to be my main way of making a living,” he said.

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