September 16, 2019

Open Temple Welcomes B’Nai Mitzvah

Bat Mitzvah of Rose Lebow Electric Lodge, Venice, CA; Photo courtesy of Open Temple

Rabbi Lori Shapiro of Open Temple in Venice has been providing meaningful b’nai mitzvah services to her students for more than 10 years, allowing them to curate their own services. 

Shapiro said, “It always starts with asking, ‘Who is this student? What is their curiosity? How do we match what is their personal spirituality and then tie it so that Judaism has a deep starting point in them?’ instead of fitting them in this hole if they are a square peg. A big synagogue isn’t for every kid.”

She added the only requirement of a bar or bat mitzvah student is that he or she recites the Torah’s “Barcha banu” prayer. The rest is open to “invite the students to make it their own.”

Shapiro has helped more than 100 students become b’nai mitzvah and has helped craft their rituals to meet each one’s specific needs. The Open Temple rabbi has held b’nai mitzvah services on top of mountains, at black-box theaters and even on golf courses.

The venue isn’t the only thing in which students get to have a say. They also create their own tallitot, craft their own melodies to prayers and find connections to Judaism in whatever creative way that makes sense to them.

“We want the students to go deep and see what the literal woven tradition is about, being Jewish,” Shapiro said.

Currently, Shapiro is preparing a nature-themed bat mitzvah service that includes meditation and a nature walk for one of her students, who has been meditating with Shapiro as part of her bat mitzvah preparations.

Shapiro’s mission is to show her students there are other ways to connect spiritually to God and Judaism without holding a service in a traditional synagogue.

“We are trying to allow the students’ curiosities to grow through the lens of Torah,” she said.

One of Shapiro’s students had a passion for R&B and rap music, so for her bat mitzvah, she recited the “Adon Olam” prayer to the melodies to which she connected. Another student was drawn to Holocaust studies and survivors and held his bar mitzvah at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to share Holocaust awareness and history. Another wanted his service held in the Los Angeles mountains because the views reminded him of Israel and his connection to Zionism.

Shapiro said this year, Open Temple established a music studio and developed a Jewish “School of Rock” so students have access to songwriters, musicians and recording services for their b’nai mitzvah.

Because it’s so personal and the children run the service, Shapiro said the students’ passion always moves their families and friends. “They are ready to really officiate a service and they are creating ritual space,” Shapiro said. “I bring them into an empty box and say, ‘What is this space?’ and give them an idea that an empty space can also be a ritual space … and that’s why they all look so different.”

Whether you are a lover of tradition, sports, soundstages or stand-up comedy, a service can incorporate these passions, according to Shapiro. She added there is no end of possibilities for ceremonies because the idea of Judaism is that ‘Godliness is everywhere,’ so a b’nai mitzvah services should be no different.

She notes that it is easier to have this strong experience if a student is involved in at least two years of Open Temple’s religious School of the Arts program. 

“The whole idea is we have this incredible initiation ritual [bar and bat mitzvahs], the commencement of Jewish adulthood,” Shapiro said, “but so many times, we don’t pay attention to who this adult is becoming. Why is it that we force them to be in these rigid environments? I work a lot on life skills with these kids. What I see so often is that students are transformed through the work we are doing together.”

Shapiro added that with this freedom
and creativity, students truly reflect their likeness in the image of God (B’tselem Elokim) and other Jewish values that will stay with them as they continue their Jewish
adult journeys.

“They are the next innovation of what comes, because that’s where Judaism is going,” she said. “It’s really a validation of what Judaism is. It’s l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation — and this young generation that we’re nurturing will put their own soul print on it, unique and distinct to what we gave to them.”