If you have a kid who is becoming a bar or bat mitzvah in the next year, take a few seconds and make a list: What do you need to do to get ready? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
OK, pencils down.
I was making this list myself the other day. I was stunned by how many items were on it—the invitations, the caterer, the addresses, the clothes. It all seemed overwhelming. Suddenly, I stopped and re-read… and then I was incredibly embarrassed by what wasn’t on the list. And I was determined to rectify it as soon as possible.
Nowhere on my list? “Go to synagogue for Shabbat.”
In my community where I live, people mostly go to synagogue on Shabbat if they are invitees of the person becoming bar or bat mitzvah. Maybe they’ll go for a baby naming, or an aufruf, or to say kaddish on a yartzheit—maybe. But in the community where I belong to synagogue and where my oldest son is becoming a bar mitzvah (I belong to a few synagogues, but that’s a discussion for another time), people go for Shabbat services every week, simply as congregants and as Jews. And that is how I was raised.
Looking at this list, it was in high definition: I’d lost focus. In planning out all the details of the day—whether it was what my 3-year-old would wear to the service, or how many pairs of tights the 1-year-old would use—I had lost track of the substance.
Yes, of course, in part the substance is the simcha, a milestone in life to be celebrated by friends and family. But the simcha itself commemorates the child stepping up to become a full-fledged member of a Jewish community, and that comes with certain responsibilities. It’s only after the age of bar or bat mitzvah, for example, that someone can be counted as a member of a minyan—10 people whose presence is required to have a prayer service. After becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, you count differently. You have obligations.
When you become a bar or bat mitzvah, you count as a full member of your community. To me, that means getting to know and be a part of that community. That is how my parents taught me. When I was around 11, I started going more regularly to synagogue on Shabbat, and little by little, it became a place where I felt comfortable. It was a place where older people asked how I was doing in school, a place where I developed some of my first crushes (oh those USY guys! You studs!) and where I got my first regular job (Torah reader for the junior congregation in the house). As a side benefit, I became comfortable with the melodies and prayers, taking a lot of pressure off my “big day.”
I’m an extreme case, but I’m making the argument that there is something to be said for anyone making an effort to attend services with your child before the service in which he or she becomes a bar or bat mitzvah—and not just for other people’s simchas. By going into synagogue more frequently, you feel more comfortable going into the space—both the literal physical room and the metaphorical space of contemplation afforded by the prayers.
I do not strictly observe Shabbat by any stretch, but there are no phones in synagogue on Shabbat. That, in my opinion, is how it should be: It’s an environment in which there is no texting, no last-minute-carpool-rejiggling that couldn’t wait a few hours.
I can’t believe how delicious that time is, and how liberating. It’s the time in which I can be completely present, next to my sons in these moments before the chaos. And that alone is bliss.