There is a poem by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a Reform Rabbi and self-proclaimed neo-mystic, which helps me think about how each human being I encounter is unique. It also reminds me to consider what my role in their life might be. He wrote: “Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces. For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble… But know this. No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle… Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes they know it. Sometimes they don’t. And when you present your piece which is worthless to you, to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a messenger from the Most High.”
Over the past month, parents have written so movingly on Kveller about welcoming their children into Jewish adulthood, honoring them on their own terms, and giving their families an opportunity to celebrate the joy their child brings to their lives. Their courage and determination have been so inspirational because they have not downplayed the challenges, frustrations, and disappointments they experience as they work with their son or daughter to assemble what can be an intensely challenging puzzle.
As a rabbi I have worked with many hundreds of bar and bat mitzvah students. No two children are the same and yet, I am sure that other Jewish professionals in congregational life would agree we tend to develop systems, expectations, and biases about the 12 and 13-year-olds that walk into our offices. How easy it is to forget the potential that these moments of meeting contain. But, if we incorporate Rabbi Kushner’s teaching into our worldview and approach every young person we encounter as a puzzle, there is a chance that we may indeed have just the piece that child is looking for. When I remember that each child comes with different talents, abilities, and interests, I am able to help guide them toward a more meaningful and successful journey toward becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.
There are several pieces that most b’nei mitzvah students are asked to prepare: the Torah and Haftarah reading, a d’var Torah, and in some synagogues, the bar or bat mitzvah child also leads most of the Saturday morning liturgy. But sometimes, I meet a student who has difficulty with creative writing and understanding Torah commentaries; creating inferences and connections and organizing thoughts can be challenging for children with processing disabilities and executive function disorder. While all of my students receive an outline to help them craft a d’var Torah, I have also developed a graphic organizer version of this outline to help those who are more visual learners break down their assignment more concretely. Often I will explicitly lay out expectations such as, “I would like you to write four sentences to summarize your Torah portion.” For children with learning disabilities this specific expectation helps to quell a student’s anxiety and help them to focus.
When it comes to preparing Torah and haftarah portions, students’ abilities vary greatly. Enlarged copies, phonetic spelling, and clear recordings are great tools to help struggling readers. Reading sections in English is also an option. I also make sure that we set appropriate expectations early on, based on a child’s abilities and interest. One child can memorize it all and feel great. Another might be able to learn the blessings and nothing more. Still another may be able to stand with a family member in the presence of Torah and say, “Amen” to their blessing. It is important to remind families and our congregations that it is the moment of being called up to Torah to share in an aliyah that makes one a bar or bat mitzvah. Whatever that looks like for a child, whether it’s the commonly accepted practice at a particular synagogue or something quite different, should be honored and celebrated to the fullest.
The Jewish community is getting better at honing our processes so that they are an appropriate reflection of a child’s abilities and interests. While, in a perfect world, every child would be able to master the Hebrew language, be comfortable with the siddur (prayer book), and share an insightful d’var Torah on the day of their bar or bat mitzvah, the reality is that many children have done this and then still walked away from Jewish life.
Better, I think, for a child and their family to develop a sense of connection to community, a feeling of pride in what they are capable of sharing with others, and an innate sense of confidence in their 13-year-old self–whoever that may be. We are able to help our students develop a sense of connection to the community in so many ways: A family mitzvah project, a community kiddush luncheon, or an intimate weekday service for immediate family and close friends (remember–we read Torah on Mondays and Thursdays, too) are all possibilities. We don’t necessarily have to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah at a Saturday morning service, or even at a service at all. At its core, becoming a son or daughter of the commandments is really about fostering a connection and commitment to living a Jewish life. If we are able to accomplish that task, it’s far more likely our b’nei mitzvah students and their families will stick around to see what’s next.
My father has always loved working on very large and very complicated jigsaw puzzles. He would say that the secret to success is good lighting, a sufficient amount of dedicated space, and lots and lots of patience. It seems like an apt metaphor for helping all of our kids succeed with their b’nei mitzvah. When we give ourselves the space to be flexible and creative, when we are confident enough to look at our systems in a different light, and when we give ourselves permission to step away from the conventional timeline and make sure we are moving at a pace and in a direction that feels right, we’ll help each child do the holy work of assembling the pieces of their personal puzzle. We might even become sacred messengers along the way.