February 20, 2020

Teenagers reveal why this service is different from all other services

Since the recent holiday of Passover was one of asking questions and thinking about transitioning from one state of being to another, it is an appropriate time to think of the bar and bat mitzvah in a similar context. These four questions — or more accurately one question and four answers — can be recited by 13-year-olds, but their explanations are particularly relevant for all of us.

Why is this prayer service different from every other prayer service?

At every other service I didn’t count, today I count for the first time.

All too often we forget that we count. In fact we discount how much our voices and our actions matter or can matter. At every prayer service from this time forward the bar or bat mitzvah literally counts, literally matters. Without his or her presence a group of nine other adults (or eight if one’s tradition is to count the Torah) would not be able to chant Torah or recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, as well as several other prayers.

Knowing that one’s presence not only counts but matters is very powerful for any one of us, let alone for a 13-year-old who so often can get lost in the crowd. The power of this counting can be traced back to the story of Abraham’s argument with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, a story which not only serves as the source for the 10 that make up the minyan, but also reminds us of the obligation of each individual to stand up on behalf of others.

On this day let each bar and bat mitzvah be given the message that he or she counts.

At every other service I listened to others, today at this service they listen to me.

When I do a walk through “rehearsal” with families the day before a bar or bat mitzvah, the young person practices announcing pages and telling the congregation to stand or sit. Often the parents remain seated when their child says “Please rise.” I joke that the parents and siblings need to do whatever the bar/bat mitzvah says and must follow his or her directions. Then I let the young person know that he or she shouldn’t get too used to this — that in 24 hours things will go back to normal. But the fact is that they should get used to this. The young person is leading the congregation in prayer and a d’var Torah (words of Torah). The bar/bat mitzvah is taking a place among the adults in the community and is letting us know (or reminding us) that he or she has something to say.

On this day let us give the bar/ bat mitzvah (for the first time or yet again) the message that what he or she has to say is worth listening to and hearing.

At every other prayer service I was a participant, today at this service I am the leader.

We know that a community needs leaders and participants. Many of us would also agree that for a community to be healthy there needs to be fluidity in these roles. Participants need opportunities to take leadership, and leaders need to take opportunities to join with participants and give others the opportunities to lead.

A central part of becoming a leader is the active and continuing pursuit of knowledge and the implicit message that learning is lifelong. (Some congregations have given the education director the title “director of lifelong education.”) It is the parents’ responsibility to model their own continuing Jewish learning and to make it a priority for their children. (Encouraging young people to continue to learn post bar/bat mitzvah should come with a parental commitment to do the same.) It is a Jewish community’s obligation to offer compelling opportunities for continued Jewish learning.

On this day, let us give the bar/bat mitzvah student the message (including by example) that to be a participant and a leader we need to recognize how much we have to learn and we must continue to learn.

At every other service I was seen as a child, today I am seen as the adult I will some day become.

A parent once shared with me the bittersweetness of observing how her child moved from one stage of life to the next. As she began to love her child in each stage of his growth, he would move on to another stage thus morphing into a new child, leaving her to cope with the loss of the child she had just gotten to know and to adjust to this “new” son.

When a child becomes a bar/bat mitzvah we see aspects of him or her that we may or may not have glimpsed before. As parents there is an obligation to treasure the pieces of those previous stages and recognize all those parts that will one day come together and become the adult that the child will one day be.

On this day let us recognize all the parts of the child and let him or her know how much we treasure all of who he or she is.

May this question and the four answers open our minds to new ideas and to even more questions.

Jeff Bernhardt is a b’nai mitzvah teacher at Temple Israel of Hollywood. He is also a writer living in Los Angeles.