October 22, 2019

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.