August 22, 2019

How to reduce restlessness among tweens and teens at services

Before any bar or bat mitzvah student walks onto the bimah to read from the Torah, Wilshire Boulevard Temple goes into high alert.

Three weeks before the service, the child’s parents must submit the names of three adult guests who will sit close to the younger guests to make sure they don’t disrupt the service.

Additionally, two ushers are placed on back-up duty to combat loud talkers, gregarious gigglers and super-fidgety seventh- and eighth-graders. Besides the usual reminder for guests to turn off cell phones, the rabbi also requests that youngsters refrain from text messaging during their pal’s Jewish rite of passage.

“Since we have implemented [these] … measures, the [children’s] behavior has improved,” said Rabbi Steve Leder, whose synagogue has used these tactics for the last three years.

The rules were adopted following a dramatic increase in the number of kids attending the ceremonies. The youngsters tended “to group together, at which point it is virtually impossible for them to remain attentive,” Leder said.

As Generation Y Jews filter though their bar/bat mitzvah years, the young guests now seated in the sanctuary have grown up speaking their minds and questioning their parents. With this kind of confidence, it is small wonder that preteens are pushing boundaries more than ever.

And this tendency carries over into shul.

“The days where you could gather a bunch of kids in a room and expect them to behave well seem to be gone,” said Gail Anthony Greenberg, author of “MitzvahChic: How to Host a Meaningful, Fun, Drop-Dead Gorgeous Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

Greenberg, who lives in Elkins Park, Pa., attributes the change to a societal trend empowering kids to make their own decisions. “These days, we give children more latitude,” she added.

As a result, many rabbis, administrators, parents and even bar mitzvah party vendors take preventative measures to quell chatty, restless or precocious preteen guests from being disruptive at bar mitzvah ceremonies and receptions.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino expects and understands the need for preteen bar/bat mitzvah guests to chat during the often-lengthy service.

“There are certain rabbis in the community who demand silence [during bar mitzvah services],” he said. “That’s not going to work.”

Feinstein insists that socializing during services is age-appropriate behavior for seventh- and eighth-graders.

He suggests that religious leaders make adjustments to accommodate the children’s needs during the long bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.

“Let’s be a little more realistic, giving and forgiving, and find ways to include [children] in the service so they can feel that [the synagogue] is their place,” Feinstein said.

At Valley Beth Shalom, Feinstein encourages bored youngsters to take breaks and explore the shul’s garden before returning to the service. Another tactic is for kids to skip the beginning of the service to keep things shorter and more manageable.

For many preteens, a bar or bat mitzvah is the first formal event they will attend without their parents, and expecting them to behave appropriately may be a tall order.

“It’s a quantum leap from a party at Chuck E. Cheese,” said Greenberg, who also runs the Web site The author suggests that parents prepare their children for the event, letting them know ahead of time that the service will be long and that they’ll need to dress up.

“Tell your child the basics: behave decently, don’t use foul language, thank the host and behave the way I’d want you to behave if I was there watching you,” Greenberg suggested.

One group that tends to be on their best behavior is non-Jewish children. “They’re afraid that they’re going to inadvertently do something wrong,” Greenberg said.

With Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan as fashion icons, it is not surprising that appropriate synagogue attire is an issue.

Rabbi Feinstein is appalled by current teen fashion. “Dress for young people is ridiculous and it’s actually psychologically damaging the way we force young girls to dress,” said Rabbi Feinstein, referring to skimpy, tight and “over-sexualized” clothing.

“Appropriate synagogue dress is counter to the way the fashions are, so I’m always impressed when a kid is dressed appropriately,” he said. “I give them credit for bucking the trend.”

At Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the bar or bat mitzvah family is given a dress code for family members and those who will approach the bimah. Women and girls must wear appropriate necklines and hemlines; men and boys should wear a dark suit, a tie, a white shirt and dress shoes. Rabbi Leder said that in general, young guests come dressed “fairly respectfully.”

If parents are concerned that a bar or bat mitzvah student’s tween or teenage guests may dress improperly, Greenberg suggests giving the parents a heads up beforehand, which could mean a conversation, an e-mail, note or manual detailing what is expected. “The more you can do to inform people is part of good hosting,” she said.

Keeping kids quiet and involved during bar mitzvah ceremonies continues to be a challenge for shuls across the Southland. But many agree that the struggle is worth it, saying it’s important that Jewish children return to shul and participate as adults.

“If we tell kids ‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ and if that’s your memory [of the synagogue], why would you want to come back?” Feinstein asked. “So we have to create a happy situation.”


Bar Mitzvah 101 for the Non-Jew

Know a non-Jew attending his first bar or bat mitzvah?

Here’s what he or she needs to know:

  • Bar or bat mitzvah means “son or daughter of the commandment.” The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony marks the time when a boy or girl begins to observe the commandments and commits to studying Jewish beliefs.
  • At a Reform, Reconstructionist or Jewish Renewal synagogue, the service often lasts 60 to 90 minutes. For other branches of Judaism, like Conservative and Orthodox, the bar/bat mitzvah service can last at least three hours.
  • Non-Jews should stand when the other congregants stand during the service, but they are not expected to recite prayers or perform rituals.
  • Women and girls should wear dresses, suits or pantsuits and men should wear suits.
  • Bar and bat mitzvah guests should bring a gift. The same kinds of gifts one might give a 13-year-old on his/her birthday are appropriate for a bar/bat mitzvah. If giving a cash gift, it is traditional to give multiples of $18 since chai, the Hebrew word for “life,” has the numerical value of 18 in Judaism.
  • Anyone can wear a yarmulke (skullcap), but the tallit (prayer shawls) are for Jews only.
  • In general, it’s OK to leave the sanctuary during the ceremony, but know that there are a few moments when it is not. An usher will usually keep the doors closed during this time.