Over here at Kveller we know a thing or two about outrageous bar and bat mitzvahs. (Just last month we posted a video of bar mitzvah boy Sam Horowitz shaking his groove thing alongside paid dancers shaking their [well formed] groove things all in celebration of little Sam becoming a man.)
Now, the Reform movement is recognizing that there’s a problem with the American b’nai mitzvah. But it’s not the elaborate parties they’re taking aim at–those have been going on for quite some time (I recall swan ice sculptures at the Harvard Club and my own cousin who imported Olympic athletes to his fete).
No, the problem they are addressing is a bigger one–that after children complete their bar and bat mitzvah training they usually leave the synagogue, taking their parents with them, and don’t return (if they do it all) until they have families themselves.
An article in last week’s New York Times dates the problem back to the 1930s and ’40s when “synagogues, to expand their membership, began to require three or four years of religious school attendance as a prerequisite to the bar mitzvah. Synagogues built classroom wings and charged tuition, which became a vital income stream for congregations.”
Now, to tackle this “religious school industrial complex” the Reform movement has created a new initiative known as the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.
The solution? Less prayer, more volunteering.
“They want the children to spend less time learning Hebrew and memorizing prayers, and more time working as a group on sustained ‘social action’ projects,” the article said.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I spent my youth trying to invent new ways to play hooky from Hebrew school. The classes didn’t speak to me. My key memories are confusing Abraham with Abraham Lincoln and the rabbi coming to visit before our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs to encourage us to buy Israel bonds.
I do hope a lot has changed since then.
Focusing on social action is important–it connects us to the present moment, it makes us aware of our society and community and others. And I want my daughters to feel compelled to help, to feel a moral imperative to make a difference.
I don’t, however, want those things at the expense of ritual. While community service connects us to the present, the ritual is what roots and connects us to the past.
If we replace prayer, Hebrew, and studying texts with volunteering at a soup kitchen, what is the point? If we create a form of Judaism that is so watered down and not rooted in text or study, where does that leave future generations?
Is it important to me that my daughters are connected to Judaism? You bet. Do I want the holidays to be a special time for them? For sure. But if those holidays are completely gutted of Hebrew and traditional texts, are they anything more than Thanksgiving or Christmas? And is a bar mitzvah more than a socially responsible Sweet Sixteen party?