traditions: Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Oregon Jewish Life asked four rabbis: With the extensive time commitment to prepare for a bar or bat mitzvah, how can congregations make this an exciting time for students that will inspire them to make Judaism an ongoing part of their lives?

Rabbi Debra Kolodny

P’nai Or’s Simcha Sunday School and I prioritize instilling a sense of joy, wonder and blessing in Jewish learning, prayer and practice for students from the earliest ages on. By the time they approach their b’nai mitzvah preparation, most are quite excited to be diving into their new adventure as teachers of Torah. They work with diligence and commitment to cultivate their prayer and leyning skills, despite the time required. Principal Rivkah Coburn and I work closely with students during their preparations, exploring with the students their relationship with G-d, observance, and the challenges of fitting the work into their schedule, so they know that their community cares as deeply about their soul as about their skills. Preparation includes a mitzvah project, which each student chooses for him or herself, to nourish the student’s passion for social justice, gemilut hasidim and tikkun olam. The choice ensures interest, excitement and commitment both for the project and for leading a life of civic engagement.

I also meet with the entire family of each student to explore what elevation or enrichment of their home-based observance will be most meaningful, so they can learn and grow together in Jewish commitment, leading to enduring home-based support and enjoyment of ritual and celebration. Finally, our Post B’nai Jews (PBJs) – the teens who remain committed to P’nai Or after their big event, and who continue to learn, play and care for one another – provide a fun and supportive “next step” for communal Jewish engagement.

Rabbi Kenneth Brodkin
Congregation Kesser Israel

The famed tzaddik Rabbi Aryeh Levin left his impoverished home at an early age, some two years prior to his bar mitzvah due to pressing economic circumstances. One day, the uncle under whose care he fell realized that the boy was past the age of 13. He informed his nephew that he was now a bar mitzvah, and the boy immediately wrapped himself in tefillin. Then, he took several months off from school so that he could work and purchase his own set of tefillin. No dance party. No band or caterer. Just tefillin. And in spite of this deprived bar mitzvah experience, Aryeh Levin grew up to be one of the greatest disseminators of Judaism in recent memory.

We would not want our children to live in such circumstances – but there is an important lesson here. The essence of the bar or bat mitzvah is the second word of the phrase – mitzvah! The implication of this story is that having absorbed the example of devotion to mitzvot, the young Rabbi Aryeh intuitively appreciated what it means to be Jewish. Both our history and sacred tradition teach that impassioned observance of mitzvot is the single key to Jewish identity in all times and places. That was the lesson of this bar mitzvah.

Our children are busy, but they are also deeply impressionable. They absorb our values and attitudes towards Judaism. We need to inspire our youth with an example of adults – parents, teachers and rabbis – who are passionate about the mitzvot. Further, we need to work with each boy and girl during the bar/bat mitzvah preparation to learn deeply about one particular mitzvah which resonates within them, and help them to commit to long-term observance of that mitzvah, as they continue to grow as young Jewish adults.

Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana
Congregation Beth Israel

Without fail after every bar or bat mitzvah, one or more guests says to me some variation of “Thank you. This is my first time in a synagogue. I wish my church had something as wonderful as this ceremony for our young people.”

Bar/bat mitzvah represents a significant achievement for a maturing child. Like any great achievement – sports match, musical recital, theatrical production – there is a great deal of preparation before the public event. The fact of that preparation – the hard work, overcoming difficulties, learning time management – is what makes the achievement so remarkable. Bar/bat mitzvah is a ceremony that acknowledges a young person has made a commitment to his or her Jewish heritage, has mastered the basics of Jewish language and prayer, can read from our sacred scriptures and can explain what it means in a personal way. It is a link to family, community and Jewish history. For perhaps the first time, the young Jew is asked to be part of something greater than his or her own self. It is a timeless and priceless moment, for which parents, friends, family and community are justifiably proud.

Synagogues create the environment of learning with peers and forging their own community. By sharing with other young people, students celebrate and honor each other’s accomplishments. One of my favorite parts of the bar/bat mitzvah service is watching classmates cheer the bar or bat mitzvah on. They are proud and share in each other’s joy.

But it is just the beginning.

Continuing their Jewish connection throughout high school, as most of our students do, creates an even deeper bond with each other and with their Judaism. The inspiration comes from teacher, rabbis, cantors and especially from each other.

Synagogues are where our young people learn what it means to be a Jew.

Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman
Congregation Shaarie Torah

Our students can’t wait to give up their free time to learn their haftarah. They wouldn’t think of skipping their lesson to go to a soccer game or dance rehearsal or just to hang out with friends. Not!

This is the alternate universe that lives in my mind. Dealing with reality, however, bar/bat mitzvah lessons have tough competition from other activities. At Congregation Shaarie Torah we understand this and offer a class on Wednesday nights for our teens in sixth to 12th grade. Our weekly “hot topics” deal with issues such as gossip, peer pressure, bullying, sexuality, modesty, alcohol and drugs. Torah lessons examine issues of jealousy and gratitude (among others). Once a month, the teens engage in a mitzvah project outside the synagogue to help the community. Our focus is not only for the kids to learn their haftarah, but to learn how to daven in a synagogue so they will feel comfortable wherever they go. They learn how to discuss sensitive, contemporary issues with a Jewish perspective. Each needs to learn to become a mensch.

One of the things I do with each student and his or her family is to remove the tzitzit the student’s tallit came with, and show the family how to replace them with new tzitzit that include one blue thread. The tzitzit are the important part of the tallit, with each knot and strand and color in it having symbolic meaning. I teach the students and their parents what each symbol means. In the future, the students will remember their parents and grandparents who worked on this tallit with them, and they will remember this lesson and all of the mitzvot associated with it – mitzvot that they hopefully will perform for the rest of their lives, and teach unto their own children one day.

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