December 18, 2018

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.