As a rabbinical student, I know that one day I will have to tutor your kid for a bar or bat mitzvah. But guess what: I don’t want to.
Don’t get me wrong, because I love kids. Especially during holidays. There’s nothing more fun than watching kids beat each other at dreidel, or get their hands all gross from honey on Rosh Hashanah and chase after one another. That’s good stuff. The bnei mitzvah? Not really worth anyone’s time or money: and there are four big reasons why.
1) They Don’t Accomplish Much
Remove the hyperbole and look at the studies. What helps kids connect Jewishly, and remain passionate about Judaism, is not the bar mitzvah. It’s Jewish camping and Israel trips (the Foundation For Jewish Camp and Birthright Israel have cool statistics on this). To be honest, I did not realize the degree of disengagement that the bnei mitzvah process causes until I saw a presentation by Jewish education consultant Robyn Faintich from JewishGPS, who flat out told us that the ceremony, as far as she was concerned, needed to be done away with (including confirmation classes). I’m not there yet, but I’m close.
2) They Aren’t Part of Jewish Continuity, but Jewish Evolution
The modern bar mitzvah as we know it is really a product of American Judaism, and the bat mitzvah is a gift from the late Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, only 90 years ago. This idea of continuity of tradition (cue the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack) is really more pop culture than halacha (Jewish law), and has continued to evolve over time. Heck, the Reform movement got rid of the bar mitzvah, then brought it back!
3) Your Money Is A Synagogue Welfare Check
Sadly, the bnei mitzvah is feeding an unsustainable beast. Synagogues continue to rely on bnei mitzvah induced synagogue memberships from families, education fees, and facilities fees in order to fund all other aspects of synagogue operations. To put it bluntly, the American synagogue is on crack, and your child’s bar mitzvah is the dealer.
4) It Makes Adults Look Like Hypocrites
It also begs the question: why are we holding pre-teens to an educational standard we do not hold adults to? Very few people can chant a Torah portion. Many (if not most) Jews don’t know the fundamentals of Jewish prayer, other than what they were forced to hear as kids and managed to block out of their minds. And yet, we make a child who cares more about One Direction than the Yigdal uphold some level of Judaism that we as adults could care less about. It’s hypocritical of us as adults to do that.
Having said all this, I don’t think we should ban the bnei mitzvah (sorry to keep your hopes us).
My solution for a progressive, Jewish rite of passage that does not lie to itself is the Family Bnei Mitzvah: a new type of bnei mitzvah system where the entire family learns the curricula for the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, and passes it on to the child through in-home learning, as opposed to outside religious school.
I imagine it something like this (although I am completely open on how it would work): Rabbis and Jewish educators would educate the parents in derekh Torah (the path of Torah) classes on every aspect of adult Jewish life and the bar/bat mitzvah ritual. Parents would also be taught the basics of education: how to teach and make curricula more inspiring. With resources in hand, and a passion for Judaism, the parents will be able to direct a child’s Jewish education in a way that is meaningful to the entire family. And in the end (as is the custom of many or most synagogues) the entire family would receive aliyot, or chant the portion with the child.
Hold on, you’re thinking. I don’t have time to do this. Well, make time! If your child has time, then you can make time. Think of the Jewish experiences that were most meaningful to you, that inspired you the most Jewishly, and give you the “warm fuzzies” about Judaism. For most people, it’s experiences like watching grandmother cook, hearing the haggadah being read, or lighting the Shabbat candles. Judaism is a religion of the home, the family, and the community, not of the school and the educator. Children learn Judaism and Jewish identity at home: and whether you like it or not, you as parent are responsible.
What is the potential downside to this? Obviously, parents won’t want to spend all their time learning about Judaism, teaching their kids Hebrew, and having to play rabbi. But then again, do we as the synagogue system want people who don’t care about Judaism and Jewish learning being members? Do we want to promote the idea that Judaism is something you do in a classroom for a few hours, then leave behind like a macaroni picture of a menorah? And if we do, what does it say about us, and our values as the wanna-be epicenter of Jewish communal life?
What do you think about Patrick’s proposal of a Family Bnei Mitzvah? Would you participate?