November 19, 2018

How to make b’nai mitzvah meaningful

I was meeting with an upcoming bat mitzvah girl the other day and talking with her about the Torah (what else?). I pointed out all the books that surrounded us in my study and mentioned that as someone who has published five books myself, how thrilled I would be if people were still reading even one of my books 20 years from now. 

Then we talked about what it would mean to imagine writing a book that was still being read even 50 years later, and how few books there are in the world — all of them now called “classics” — that are still around and read 100 years after they are written. 

She was listening intently and looking at all the books on my shelf as I was talking. Then I said quietly, “In a few weeks you will be standing at the podium in the sanctuary, you will unroll a Torah scroll and then read from a book that isn’t 20 years or 50 years or 100 years old, but more than 3,000 years old. Just think about how unbelievable that really is  — reading from a book that is literally more than 3,000 years old.”  

With that she looked up at me with eyes wide and blurted out, “That’s so awesome!”

For that young girl about to become a Jewish woman, “awesome” was exactly the word that expressed everything she felt about her upcoming bat mitzvah. That feeling of excitement and anticipation of being part of an ancient tradition that reaches back literally thousands of years into the Jewish past is one of the key reasons that our kids find their b’nai mitzvah experiences so meaningful. It is that sense of deep connection with the rituals and traditions, sacred texts and ethical values of our ancestors that should be one of the primary goals of our educational programs.  

At my Reconstructionist congregation, Kehillat Israel, the process of inculcating that deep emotional connection begins more than a year in advance of each bar and bat mitzvah with family days in which the clergy and educational professionals collaborate in our Jewish Experience Center (formally known as “religious school”). Creating an opportunity for young boys and girls to experience their bar or bat mitzvah as a true rite of passage from childhood to a more profound stage of personal responsibility for making their own unique contribution to the evolution of Jewish civilization is what the experience is all about for those of us who are privileged to work with our students and their families.

There are a few simple things that any parent can do as well to help make this same connection between their children and Torah in advance of the bar or bat mitzvah itself. First and foremost is for parents to actually be involved with their child in Torah study. Take the time to read through the entire portion for your child’s Shabbat together at home. Make it a family experience. Read several commentaries on the portion from different sources (easily found on the Internet) to understand how Jews over the years have approached this particular portion, and find at least two different ways that something in the portion can relate to your own lives. Making a personal connection between the stories of the Torah and your own lives as parents helps to make the connection even deeper for your children.

Second, if parents have had their own bar or bat mitzvah, they should take the time to share their personal stories and memories with their children. What was the best part for you? What was the most challenging part? What lasting memories do you have from your own childhood that inspired you to want your own child to have a bar or bat mitzvah as well?

Virtually every week at Kehillat Israel we have the pleasure of hearing visitors and guests who have come to share the bar or bat mitzvah experience with families and friends exuberantly telling us how much they loved the service, that they have “never experienced something so warm and personal and intimate.”  

This success, however, comes with a price. The price we pay is that the bar or bat mitzvah isn’t simply part of the service; rather, it’s the service itself that is part of the bar or bat mitzvah. The intensely personal and child-centered nature of our b’nai mitzvah experiences makes for a powerful, transformative moment for the child and his or her parents, but results in 99 percent of those who attend the service itself being those who were specifically invited by the family. 

It is powerful for our kids precisely because of the intensely personal nature of the training and tutoring that leads up to the service, the one-on-one relationships that Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Cantor Chayim Frenkel and I nurture with each and every child, and the emphasis we put on the feeling of accomplishment they have from the personalized tikkun olam mitzvah projects that every child undertakes as part of his or her bar or bat mitzvah experience .

We celebrate 80 to 90 b’nai mitzvah a year at Kehillat Israel and made the decision years ago that every child would have his or her own service. The result of that decision to personalize every bar and bat mitzvah experience is that virtually every Shabbat morning and every Shabbat afternoon except during the month of July there is a bar or bat mitzvah service taking place.  

The good news for us is that, week after week, when each child stands in our sanctuary and chants “veshinantam levaneha vedebarta bam,” (“Teach them intently to your children and speak of them …”) we take pride in the knowledge that the meaning our students experience from their bar or bat mitzvah is in large part due to the certainty they have that each and every one of the them matters, and we take the mitzvah of this challenge as one of the highest priorities of synagogue life. 

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.