Sunday, January 13, 2013

Whither The Bar Mitzvah, Part II

Today was one of those days that reminded me of why I love my job. There were many reasons, including a great meeting with a wedding couple, a terrific t'fillah with the religious school kids and a truly excellent Bar Mitzvah parents' meeting, but what really made it was my session with the Eighth Grade.

I get into the Eighth Grade program about once a month. In the process of trying to make it part of our general preconfirmation/confirmation program, we've made it a weekly experience, and while I'm not teaching it as frequently as I do ninth and 10th grade, it's a chance for me to build on the relationships I formed in the bar mitzvah experience.

So after blogging about Patrick Aleph's post on Kveller that we should completely reinvent the bar mitzvah, I thought, who better to think about this and respond than kids who just went through the experience, as recently as a few months ago? They're the experts on whether it resonated or not.

So after taking some time answering their questions about other stuff (I try to start my sessions with what they want) and talking Israeli politics and the lack of a Federal Death Star program, I shared the article (full disclosure, I didn't share my response or anyone else's response). We read it together and discussed it. While many of the kids didn't buy into his overall thesis (One kid's response was 'what a joke'), many aspects of his argument, especially with respects to family education, did resonate.

So I broke them into four groups of four and asked them to respond to four questions in redefining the Bar Mitzvah experience:
1. What about the bar mitzvah experience would they keep?
2. What would they change?
3. What is the purpose of the Bar mitzvah?
4. Who is it for? Who should it be for?

I got fantastic responses! Really thoughtful and engaging ideas on what makes the experience 'work'. So below you'll find their answers. And believe me, I'll be thinking about this:

Answers to Question 1:
-Learning Process and Education, the preparation
-Keep the service the same
-Kids lead the whole service (interestingly kids felt this way even when they didn't lead the whole thing)
-Party (lots of votes on that!)

Answers to Question 2:
-Have the Family come up and talk about family traditions having to do with Judaism/what it means to become a bar/bat mitzvah
-Nothing except remove the obligation that they say they will continue their Jewish education [note that isn't a universal thing; however, having learned this from Rabbi Elliot Strom, I do make my kids promise to continue their Jewish education in some way]
-Condense the service
-the teaching of Torah Portions

Answers to Question 3:
-[To give the kids] a sense of independence
-Show that you're maturing
-Make children feel more involved. Mature, Pride, Education.
-Kids are proud of their religion.

Answer to Question 4:
Everyone agreed it should be for the student
Who is it for? Parents, children, the synagogue, Egos

You can see it's quite a list, and there's a lot here that we as Jewish parents and educators should be proud of. These kids want to learn their tradition, want their Torah to be real, and what their parents involved. Their parents (on the whole) want to learn more and be a part of the process. They see how it works, and how it doesn't work (though I'm not sure I can make my 1 1/2 hour service any shorter!). And as much as they want to learn, they want to do it on their terms, and not be told by a parent (or a rabbi) that they have to do it through confirmation or the like.

Is this the basis for an educational system? I don't know, but it's feedback I take seriously. More than that, I love that these kids took the question seriously, took the process seriously, and that their experience did a lot more to strengthen their connection with their Judaism than we might otherwise think.

So, ask yourself those four questions: how do you answer them? Would love to hear your responses!


  1. I really love that you engaged the students in the dialogue. Good for them to know that we are thinking about how to keep this a meaningful moment in their lives.

  2. This is a really good group of kids, thoughtful and acculturated to their wonderful congregation. They grew with their congregation. More typically, Hebrew school is something to be endured. Many kids of all denominations often get processed through with the illusion of education, rising to the level of performance needed, only to plateau beyond their big day. Eventually they become Generation X-ers moving in and out of different Jewish settings. Their parents often regard a rather expensive synagogue affiliation as a consumer purchase that has been fulfilled when the youngest reaches Bar Mitzvah.

    On the receiving end later are less the congregation as different forms of Kiruv. At one pole there are the Aish HaTorah form that takes a take it or leave it approach. They have their trough into which hungry Jewish amateurs can immerse their faces, or not as they wish. And then there is the Chabad model where all Halachic Jews are welcome with no demands made upon them but also no opportunity to really be a part of Chabad in a way that has any influence on the sponsoring organization. And finally we have the congregations that vary a lot from welcoming to effectively closed clubs with inbred governance. The advantage of the congregations over Aish HaTorah and Chabad is that the membership molds the organization in some form.

    I'm of conservadox background. Bar Mitzvah was a chance to try out the education that I was given, though it didn't really get tested until college. I would have toned down the party, witheld invitations to relatives that I had never seen before or since, marginalized our fair weather friend of a rabbi from all but his official obligations, and spent more time learning Torah reading than shacharit.

    In many ways I think my parents got more out of my Bar Mitzvah than I did, at least through my teen years. In my adult years I clearly got more out of the education that created it, particularly its expandability over many decades.