Posts Tagged ‘bar mitzvh’

 Is it really a surprise that the pivot point for the future of American Judaism is being exposed through discussions over the signature Jewish right of passage – the bar/bat mitzvah?  Our institutional mainstays are battling to remain relevant in a rapidly changing and fracturing American Jewish community.  Synagogues, particularly in large urban areas, are struggling to keep members.  They battle a legion of freelance rabbis willing to conduct any ceremony, for almost anyone – for a fee.  They battle a Judaism available on the internet that feeds the notion one does not need the synagogue to be Jewish.  They battle the increased secularism among members who find little relevance in the God depicted in Jewish liturgy.

Enter the time of our ultimate rite of passage.  The exit from synagogues is highlighted through the rising number of families refusing to enroll their children in years of religious school, plus pay huge membership dues, plus tuitions, plus b’nai mitzvah fees.  They see a cheaper, easier alternative to celebrating what is becoming the Jewish equivalent of sweet 16.  Even more, in this age of ultimate celebration of the self, families reject the “cookie cutter” formulae characterizing the b’nai mitzvah process of so many congregations.  Why should my child, a parent reasons, be one of 3 or 4 crammed into one morning?  Why subject my child to months of memorizing prayers in an arcane language?  Why not create our own celebration that includes and reflects our family?

And there are more spices to add to this stew.

Let’s start with the decrease in ethnic/national loyalty as succeeding generations of Jews are farther removed from the immigrant generations.  We see the consequences of this throughout American Jewish life.  It is evident in the increase in interfaith marriages.  It is evident in the decreasing levels of charitable giving to strictly Jewish causes.  It is evident in increased antipathy towards Israel.  It is evident in the celebration of bar/bat mitzvah as a personal family celebration instead of a communal one.

Now consider Jewish attitudes towards God.  The Jewish communal covenant with God has resulted in a covenant with each other.  While I acknowledge a strong contemplative tradition within Judaism, the most powerful expressions of our covenant with God have always been through our community.  Our most poignant prayer moments occur in the context of our community.  This is what gives power to chanting the Vidui together on Yom Kippur.  That is why services in which all are singing together speak to the soul.  Today, to the extent many Jews acknowledge God at all, it is the God that dwells within the self.  To the degree that modern Jews even acknowledge God, it is the personal God spawned of American culture, not the shared God of the covenant at Sinai.  Is it any surprise that we see this expressed in contemporary b’nai mitzvah?

Add to this an affluence that provides the means for the grossest expressions of celebration.  We have long lamented the emphasis on the “bar” as opposed to the “mitzvah.”  Now we see online clips of parties including dance productions with scantily dressed girls surrounding the 13 year old boy.  We are horrified not only by the gross display done in the name of a bar mitzvah celebration, but also the picture of Judaism this conveys to the American public.  Even the invitations to these events, instead of being a simple invitation to a religious ceremony, are now sophisticated productions as the students involved create ever more intricate video invitations.

Now we can articulate the pivot point referred to earlier.  Can American Judaism be seriously religious?  Can we avoid a devil’s choice between the religious fundamentalism of some parts of Orthodoxy and being a caricature of religion that affirms feel good self gratification but little else?  What value can contemporary Judaism add to the lives of American Jews?   In short, how can a modern Judaism be relevant?  Enter the b’nai mitzvah revolution which is really an attempt to respond to these questions via the moment that acknowledges Jewish adulthood, Jewish responsibility.  It is a search to make the moment relevant.  It is a search for a way to keep families connected to the synagogue institution.  Cynics say it is a search for a way to keep funds flowing into synagogues.  Idealists would say it is a response to the grossest secular displays b’nai mitzvah celebrations are now spawning.

The responses to the challenge of injecting relevance into the b’nai mitzvah process range from having parents and siblings all involved in the service, to a greater focus on social action projects in conjunction with the student’s peers, to paring back or eliminating Hebrew – attempting to make it more meaningful and less tedious for the child.  These experiments have dads rocking out with guitars during the service, b’nai mitzvah students spending more time developing and carrying out their social action projects, and in some cases even eliminating being called to or chanting from Torah.  I am thinking, however, that the search for relevance is a dead end.  It is a good answer to the wrong question.

I believe the real question, the real challenge to synagogues is about finding and building community.  From community will come relevance.  Here is a bat mitzvah that recently occurred in our congregation.

The young woman was 16 years old.  She was adopted by her dad (Jewish) when he married her mom (not Jewish) when she was 7 years old.  They started attending services at Temple Israel when she was 11.  At first, you could see the reticence in her expressions.  She and her mom are from overseas, and Jewish prayer seemed very strange to her.  But after the first year she began to love coming to services and learned to sing along, using transliterated Hebrew.  By age 14 she had good friends in the congregation and joined the youth group.  She also asked me about formally converting to Judaism.  Along with her parents, she took the adult Introduction to Judaism class and studied with me.  In May of 2012 she went in front of a beit din, immersed in a mikveh and became Jewish.  At 15 she attended Confirmation Class, took an adult Hebrew class, and began to study for her bat mitzvah.  She absolutely devoured trope, the system for chanting Torah, learning it so well and learning to read Hebrew so well that she taught herself one aliyah while I was on vacation.

On the Shabbat morning of her bat mitzvah ceremony (I did explain she was already technically bat mitzvah as a Jewish woman over 12 years old), she led all of the service joyfully, with a megawatt smile.  It was clear to all that she loved leading the service, encouraging congregants to clap along where appropriate.  She selected all of the music where choices were possible and chanted all of the Torah portion that morning, making sure to honor her Confirmation class mates with an aliyah.  Her d’var Torah, on Bereishit, related the process of creation to her path to becoming a Jew.  The service was attended not only by her friends and family, but by much of the congregation many of whom had seen her chant part of Bereishit a day earlier at Simchat Torah services.  Her experience was fraught with meaning, not only for her, but our congregation.  We celebrated together.

You might think that as a 16 year old Jew by choice her experience is the exception, but it is not.  All of our students lead the service, tailoring musical selections to their tastes.   Most of our students learn the trope system, not memorizing the Torah portion from a recording, but learn the system to a point where they can begin to sight chant from a vocalized text.  All of our High Holiday Torah reading is done by products of our religious school.  Each summer I get emails from students who want to know if it is their turn to chant at High Holidays.  Our synagogue culture is such that these students see it as an honor and their contribution to the community to provide the Torah chanting.  The most important part of all of this, however, is that each bar or bat mitzvah student gets great support at their Shabbat service by the Shabbat morning regulars along with the many in our congregation who love to celebrate these moments with the family.  It is never just a show.  It is a taking on of Jewish responsibility and a moment of pride for all present – most importantly the student.  The relevance of the bar/bat mitzvah comes through the presence of community.

How is this possible?  We are a mid sized congregation (365 families) in a mid sized city (175,000).  We have 10 to 20 b’nai mitzah each year.  So size is certainly a factor.  But I believe 2 elements are the most important.  First, we have wonderful community moments together.  Many center around Shabbat services.  Many center around holiday celebrations.  In addition, Sunday morning is not just a time to drop off the kids at school while parents go home.  There are always other activities happening, classes, brunches, games, and even a room dedicated to people just sitting and schmoozing.  Our weekly life encourages community, coming together.  So we learn about each other and care about each other.

Second, we take the time to really work with and teach our children.  They do not learn a Judaism of the lowest common denominator, but one that combines ethics with ritual – in the context of a liberal synagogue.  Our education director begins each student’s b’nai mitzvah tutoring process.  I teach each student Torah, both chanting as well as discussing interpretations for their divrei Torah.  All of this takes time.  All of this means building relationships with adults AND with children.  The students in our congregation know that they are loved and respected.  There are many times that b’nai mitzvah tutoring time is more about listening to what is happening in the child’s life than teaching a prayer.

I know that we are not the only congregation that has this experience.  In speaking to my colleagues I know that many of them serve in beautiful congregations where real community happens and where meaningful Judaism occurs.  There is no “revolution” needed.  There is no silver bullet.  There is only the hard work of building relationships, of sitting through hours of working with students, of loving the people you serve with, build community with.  The challenge facing large urban congregations is not to search for relevance, but to connect people to community.  Perhaps, in that regard, they can learn from the small to mid size congregations like ours.  Better, I think, that they learn from us than that we try to emulate their latest fad.  That would be the b’nei mitzvah counter revolution.



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