It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was! On Friday, March 24th, actually 26 years ago, the rain came down in sheets, and the thunder shook the little synagogue on Winter Street in Hyannis. The room was full to overflowing, with the moveable walls opened up like the high holidays, congregants cheek-to-jowl with friends and family from all over. And on the bimah, trying not to tremble with every thunderclap, stood nearly thirteen year-old me. With my birthday five days away, I led services and read Torah in my new blue blazer and polo tie, my grandfather’s kippah on my head and my great-uncle’s tallit on my shoulders. And after chanting from parashat tzav (though not half as well as you will, Brooke) and reading the haftarah, I spoke about responsibility—my responsibility as a person and a Jew, and our responsibility as a member of the community. I talked about the sacrifices listed at the beginning of Leviticus 6—the burnt offering, the meal offering—and the specificity of each ritual, and how that demanded us in our day to pay attention to the details of what we do and how we do it. At least as well as a thirteen year old can speak on the subject.
You may be wondering why I led and read on a Friday. At the Cape Cod Synagogue, as in many Reform congregations, Torah was read on Friday. Saturday morning services were not a regular thing, but were an option for bar and bat mitzvah, and it was offered to me as it was offered to my classmates. But somehow that didn’t sit right with me. It felt wrong to have some kind of special, private service. I remember at the time leading up to my bar mitzvah that I asked to lead a ‘normal’ service, a regular service, a congregational service. I didn’t want special treatment (very New England of me) but there was something about the idea of leading what the congregation expected, of being a part of that experience, that resonated with me. And I was proud for having led a regular congregational service for my bar mitzvah. It was only as an adult that I found out that Friday night had been used as a lesser-than experience for women.
I bring this up at a time when the bar mitzvah is evolving, at breakneck pace. Increasingly families are choosing to create bespoke experiences, often outside the synagogue, sometimes for educational purposes, and sometimes because they want what they want, and they can find a rabbi or a cantor or a ‘spiritual leader’ who is happy to create the experience that child and that family wants. At the same time, synagogues are looking at their bar mitzvah programs and services and are asking the question—is this creating the right experience, the right education, the right kind of Jewish person we want to create? The Reform Movement a few years ago started what they call the Bar Mitzvah Revolution as a way of encouraging congregations to re-imagine how they do teen engagement. If that weren’t enough, the bar mitzvah is coming under fire not just from without but within, as folks like Rabbi Patrick Aleph of Atlanta wrote a couple of years ago that we should ban the bar mitzvah, describing it as an impediment to educational and liturgical engagement and merely a revenue stream for synagogues, an addiction that must be broken.
For a long time—even as a teen—I’ve felt we invest too much capital into one experience, one day, in a Jewish adolescent’s life. I remember giving advice as a high schooler classmates of my sister telling them that it was just one day and not to get too worked up over it, and I hear the same advice given by many well-meaning adults to kids today. Sometimes I chafe when I hear my own teenage words used today but really, we do invest so much energy, time, and emotional bandwidth into this one life cycle event. And suffice to say there’s room for improvement in the whole experience, from educational process to logistics to the day itself, no matter how wonderfully we as a congregation may handle it. And if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest my experience 26 years ago may give us a model for what it should be like.
First, there was the communal element. I wanted to lead a regular service with the congregation present. No gimmicks. No themes. No bells or whistles. Everyone invited to the oneg, everyone participating in their normal service. Perhaps the idea of having a 13-year old on the bimah gives some of you pause, but what does it say when we allow the bar mitzvah to be a private, family event instead of welcoming the child into the minyan as a community? As I led services—with my voice breaking and my kippah falling off my head at one point—I still understood that this was the congregation’s service, and that I was entrusted with leading it adequately. I think I did okay, but there’s tremendous power in that, and in being welcomed into communal Jewish life that way. You can’t have that experience in a ballroom somewhere.
The next was choice. I wasn’t given an option of whether to do one, but how, and when. I chose what to talk about for my bar mitzvah. I chose whether to have it on a Friday night. That level of choice required that I be involved from the beginning—at a 13-year old’s level—in the liturgical process. Not just learning the prayers but understanding the service structure and making some decisions about my involvement. For people on the cusp of adulthood, being given that choice is a powerful thing. What teen doesn’t want choice, after all? Choice takes into consideration the individual and their needs. Choice means trust. Choice is empowerment.
But with that choice comes responsibility. Of course, that’s what I preached on that night, but there is a responsibility to standing on the bimah. There are expectations and requirements to fulfill—not just my own or my family’s but the congregation’s as well. I had an obligation that night, as the rain came down, and really, every bar and bat mitzvah has that same obligation---to be there for the rest of the community, in prayer, in study, in support and in times of need. That is the point of it all.
I’ve carried that experience—that sense of what it means to be part of a community, what it means to be entrusted by that community, and what it means to be obligated to the community—for 26 years. It has defined my Judaism in so many ways, and would have regardless of my calling. The thunder didn’t hurt, either. And as we prepare for another child to celebrate bat mitzvah for this portion, the day before I turn 39, I would ask you this: does your Judaism have space for community? Does it have room for choices—for yourself and others? Does your Judaism give you a sense of Obligation—to your community, to your people, to God? Because it’s not just about one day—it’s about every day. Every day we’re called to make choices. Every day we’re called to be part of a community. Every day we are reminded of our obligations. May we fulfill them meaningfully, to the betterment of all. Amen.