Monday, January 7, 2013

Whither the Bar Mitzvah?

There's been a ruckus about this piece on Kveller, written by rabbinical student Patrick Aleph (as assume a pseudonym) suggesting that the b'nai mitzvah experience is broken and in need of radical reimagining. He's not the only one, the Reform Movement has been reexamining the b'nai mitzvah experience in the form of their B'nai Mitzvah Revolution, part of their Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Let me be clear that I don't agree with the answers provided; I think this is a particularly large metro-area/coastal look at a life cycle experience that has frequently been derided in popular media (think of the films "Keeping Up With the Steins", "A Serious Man", where the bar mitzvah kid reads Torah stoned, and "Deconstructing Harry", which features a Star Wars themed Bar Mitzvah) as well as a great deal of community and rabbinic angst: books like Putting God on the Guest List , programs like mitzvah projects (and in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet Refusnik "twinning") were written as a real response to a real issue; a sense that the bar mitzvah, with it's black tie affairs, va-va-voom cocktail dresses, and almost single-minded focus on the part of parents, had lost it's meaning. And, as Aleph points out, the reform movement did ban b'nai mitzvah (or rather, reimagine it in the form of the confirmation ceremony).

But in many communities, this simply isn't true. In smaller communities, like my dad's former congregation in Shreveport LA, where 8 b'nai mitzvah made it a good year, these were congregational celebrations of continuity and an opportunity for a young family to be embraced by the community. Rarely do I see b'nai mitzvah in my congregation be of the stereotype described above, though it can be a tad all-consuming education-wise, which is a shame. I have seen my share of kids who really 'get it' and use the bar or bat mitzvah as an opportunity to truly explore their heritage or connect with an aspect of their religiosity that, as a young child, they weren't prepared to explore. And, as my former senior rabbi once said to me, if you get rid of the bar mitzvah, then you might as well get rid of synagogues.

 However, as my teacher David Aaron reminded us on many occasions, sometimes you look past the answers and look carefully at the questions. This article raises important questions about Jewish education, the purpose of the bar/bat mitzvah experience (as well as the synagogue enterprise itself). And these questions have to be asked. B'nai mitzvah are not 'broken', certainly not in every congregation, but they need a spark, need reimagining for today's Jews. The idea of reading from the Torah and leading a service can be incredibly powerful, and the mitzvah project can create the seeds for independence and also help the growing adolescent form his or her sense of their place in the world. So, why aren't we leveraging those positives more? Simply, because we're meeting expectations. The kid knows how to 'read' Torah and the service is scheduled far enough in advance to arrange for the affair--what else do you need? We need to start realigning needs and wants, to shift the culture toward new paradigms when appropriate (again, remembering that plenty of congregations already have a healthy culture surrounding this life cycle event).

I have some questions and comments of my own viz. the re-imagining of the b'nai mitzvah:

1. Who's going to pay for it? I've seen a lot of stuff mostly come out of large congregations in large metro areas, who have the time, resources, and staff (and a diverse enough constituency) to a) experiment with the experience and radically rethink the process, at least for a cohort of the willing b) look for funding, either external or internal, and c) devote the kind of energy (that is, staff) to such a realignment. In smaller and medium-sized congregations, where there isn't that kind of opportunity, you're simply not going to see this kind of 'beta testing' unless the rabbi and lay leadership have a particular vision and are willing to put money where their mouth is.

2. One size does not fit all. Again, there are plenty of places where bar and bat mitzvah are meaningful experiences of engagement for the individual, the family and the congregation as a whole. Certainly there's much to be learned from those places. Likewise, we benefit from the experimentation with b'nai mitzvah that have been taking place for years (including camp and outdoor experiences, social justice experiences, etc.). But let's not fool ourselves to thinking that what works in Boston will sell in Buffalo (or Philadelphia and Wilmington, for that matter).

3. How can what exists be leveraged? What if your congregation already has good stuff? Should it be chucked out, the proverbial baby with the bathwater? Of course not. Perhaps your congregation has great pre-bar mitzvah family education, but doesn't have enough post-experience (e.g. Moving Tradition's Journey to Jewish Manhood). Perhaps the Hebrew program is truly excellent, but the student doesn't have enough opportunities to individualize the experience, or connect with clergy. This doesn't mean we merely patch the experience--there should still be a comprehensive look at b'nai mitzvah--but let's lift up strengths as much as we realistically confront challenges.

4. Balance between congregational needs and individual needs: so often families are focused on their children and what they want or need. And too often congregations 'standardize' the experience in order to better allocate resources. But there needs to be balanced. I've served in congregations where the kids all do the same thing--whether educationally or developmentally they can handle it or not. Wouldn't it be better to have some space to approach the child's needs appropriately? Likewise, it's not unusual for families to ask for one more honor, to want to modify this or that about the service, and rabbis find themselves in a bind, arguing that it's a 'congregational' service, but frequently (at least in Reform settings) unattended by actual members of the congregation, who either don't come to a service led by an adolescent, or who have an alternative minyan somewhere else in the building. How do we strike that balance between the congregation's liturgical needs and the family's personal needs? And how do we teach the family that, while the experience is about their child, it is about their child IN CONTEXT of community life. We talk about kids becoming part of the congregation/the minyan 'as full adults' and being 'leaders of the community'--what would happen if we meant it, and expected our b'nai mitzvah to continue not merely as passive consumers of Jewish experiences but active creators of meaning (as appropriate for the age, development, etc.)?

I don't know what the answers are: I'd like to think any rabbis/cantors worth their salt thinks about these issues in some way, shape or form when they think about their vision for their congregations, and hopefully Aleph's articles is raising some questions for laypeople and allowing leadership to challenge some tropes and assumptions about this life cycle event. Asking questions is important, it is exploring the answers where all this becomes tricky. Let's do so l'sheim shamayim, for the sake of heaven, and not just because we've seen one too many movies.


  1. Very thoughtful and engaging, as always!

  2. Patrick Aleph is a great thought-inducing writer and roustabout who runs a website called PunkTorah...worth a look.

  3. Ah, didn't realize he was the guy behind Punk Torah! My apologies on the name confusion!