Changing Up The Bar And Bat Mitzvah Experience
Tue, 04/17/2012
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

Did you chant a Haftorah at your bar or bat mitzvah?

Do you remember what it was about?

Have you chanted any others since then?

Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, believes that the heavy emphasis on teaching youngsters to chant a Haftorah on their special days is a sign of “wasted training and the wrong message” for bar and bat mitzvah youngsters.

“We’re not preparing them for Jewish life” with such rituals, she says. “On the contrary, we’ve sabotaged their Jewish life.”

Strong words, but Rabbi Levitt has given the subject a lot of thought, based on her observations of many years as a pulpit rabbi and officiating at hundreds of coming-of-age ceremonies.

And she is not alone in her critique of many bar and bat mitzvah services that emphasize mastery of a particular element of the service — frequently based on memorization — rather than a wider understanding of what it means to become an adult, Jewishly.

Sally Gottesman, chair of Moving Traditions, a national organization that encourages teens to engage more deeply in Judaism, says our community should be making bar and bat mitzvah “a rite of passage into something rather than from something.”

For too many youngsters, the big day marks the end of formal Jewish education rather than a transition into Jewish adulthood and an advanced stage of learning and identity.

“Kids don’t really focus on what it means to be a Jewish adult or to join the Jewish community,” says Gottesman, who suggests having bar and bat mitzvah youngsters engage in serious conversations about what it means to be part of the community with five adults they admire.

What prompted Gottesman’s observations was an exhibit that Moving Traditions created to mark the 90th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah ceremony. Now showing at the JCC in Manhattan (through April 27) before touring the country, the exhibit is entitled “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age” and chronicles a series of “firsts” among 150 pioneers of the now widely accepted ritual, from first Saturday morning bat mitzvah, to first to read Torah to first adult bat mitzvah. (See Gottesman’s Opinion piece on page 21.)

The research and preparation for the exhibit motivated Gottesman to think about how religious rites of passage evolve, and how they could be changing in creative ways to meet the times.

It’s long been a cliché and embarrassment that so many bar and bat mitzvahs in America are marked by excessive spending, with elaborate themed parties that have little or no religious content. Part of why the post-bar and bat mitzvah festivities tend to eclipse the religious ceremony itself may be because the synagogue service often has little meaning for the youngster in the spotlight. For most, the Hebrew prayers tend to be recited without full understanding of the words themselves or their significance, and the Haftorah reading is a segment from the Prophets seemingly unconnected to the narrative that comes before and after.

“The irony is that the words of the prophets, which were supposed to stir the people, now puts them to sleep,” says Rabbi Levitt.

Look around the synagogue during the youngster’s chanting of the Haftorah, she says. “It’s narcolepsy.”

Rabbi Levitt acknowledges that the accomplishments of the bar or bat mitzvah child in learning to lead part of the Shabbat service are significant psychologically and deserve praise.

“On that day the loving parents look on in amazement that their child can do something so difficult,” she said. “It’s like climbing a mountain and feeling good about yourself, and the parents are delighted.”

But she says the emphasis on having youngsters spend many months learning the trop, or cantillation, of the Haftorah, often through personalized training, is a waste of time and effort, teaching the youngsters “something they don’t need to know and won’t remember in a year.”

What’s more, she points out, the one-on-one Haftorah lessons may well be the only time in the child’s life that he or she will have such an intense Jewish educational experience. Why, then, devote it to such a narrow purpose?

Many synagogues now encourage chesed projects for bar and bat mitzvah youngsters to perform, but Rabbi Levitt would like to see the emphasis shift from the individual to the communal level.

It’s all well and good for the children to raise funds for poor people, often in distant countries, she says, but she thinks it is more appropriate in Jewish schools for seventh and eighth graders — the age of bar and bat mitzvah children — to engage in class projects that they can work on together rather than further promote the sense of individual accomplishment associated with our coming-of-age ritual.

Whether or not you’re on board with the specifics of these observations, I hope you agree that it’s important to step back and re-think what message we want to convey to the next generation in preparing them, at a tender age, to become members of our community.

Why should they continue their Jewish education if what we have taught them until now doesn’t seem relevant to their lives or inspire them to dig deeper into their Jewish identity?

We need to make the most of this precious time in our children’s lives, instilling them with the creativity, passion and majesty of Jewish life rather than settling for ceremonies devoid of meaning to them.

For starters, let’s make the bar and bat mitzvah experience less about memorization and more about participation.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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Listening to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah chant their portion still sends a thrill through me. I sing along with the Haftorah in my mind, I am always so proud of their accomplishment and how difficult it is today with all there other interests. I firmly believe we can and should do both, memorize the Haftorah and learn important Jewish values.

I've been involved in teaching Jewish education and Bar/ Bat Mitzvah training for 50 years. I totally agree with Rabbi Levitt. I believe the large amount of time spent on teaching the Haftorah can be so better served. Which has more relevance ? .... to teach a child how to chant and study a Haftorah which he/she will never ever need again or to spend the time teaching a child how and why we participate in Jewish life cycle events.

The most important thing about becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is what happens the day after the party, and the day after that, and the day after that. Although my own religious school experience was less than stellar, the day I celebrating becoming a Bat Mitzvah was incredibly impactful for me. I had memorized my parts and I felt like a fraud. I remember standing at the open ark while the rabbi blessed me and making a promise to myself that if I ever had the chance to do this again, I would do it the right way. I was 30 when I read Torah legitimately, having really learned it. I've been blessed to have had great rabbis and teachers who inspired me to keep learning. There is a way to fix the system, but it require investing Jewish education and Jewish life with a more relevant meaning and purpose.

The fundamental problem that Rabbi Joy Levitt misses is that we teach these kids in a bubble. There is total disconnect between their lives at home (and in society) and what we teach at the Synagogue. Never before in our long history, was Judaism taught this way. Every custom, form of worship or celebration, had an immediate following at home. When my students go home, in most cases they never see or experience anything Jewish. Many do not attend services. Others come from "mixed faith" families where other religions are practiced in parallel. What incentive may these children have to study prayers in a language they'll never see or hear later?
To have a meaningful Bar/Bat Mitzvah, it needs to be part of a larger circle. No community projects can fix that.

I'm in agreementwith your thoughts on addressing that bar/bat mitzvah
preparation and execution should be reviewed.

You did not touch on another aspect that fits in here:
Are kids at 12-13 ready to understand serious Jewish education?
I'm aware of both the trasditional and biblical precedents, but believe
the 'coming of age' ceremonies in our time would have greater impsct at 16 or 18.
Confirmation is somewhat later, but only a minority of youth are involved; still it offers a somewhat better opportunity. A new approach is highly needed.
OPPIE, San Diego

Our b'nei mitzvah students don't learn. Haftorah chanting. They learn Torah trope and chanting and are then scheduled in following years every few months to chant a few verses at "regular" Shabbat services to keep up their skills. They become part of a corps of Torah chanters and feel the honor and responsibility of what they have learned as a life-long skill. Additionally, the young people engage in a year-long tikkun olam (healing the world) project that we encourage them to continue after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah day. Many of them do. We are a small shul in which the "meaning" comes from high communal participation, close connection between rabbi and bat/bar mitzvah student (where we discuss in depth the meaning and ideas in the Torah portion, and much more). These young people are not performing. They are becoming leaders in our community.

I had my barmitzvah in London. I wish I had been taught to read the parasha in unpointed Hebrew rather than a haftorah which in hindsight is the easy option. I switched over to a Sephardi community some years ago and being able to read a parasha, albeit in a Sephardi chant, with minimal practice would be useful to know. People who can read from the Sefer can make themselves useful.

The problem is not with the little they learn- it's what they don't experience...
The problem is that over the past 50 years Conservative Rabbis who call themselves the "Spriritual leaders" of their communities had Hebrew schools operating in their buildings (synagogues) under their noses and they did not do follow up to encourage these Hebrew Schools to attend Jewish summer camps, visit Israel during high school or try to keep them connected Jewishly during their high school years. In other words the Conservative movement had these children in the palm of their hands for decades and did NO follow up. So these kids dropped out after Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Rabbi Joy, please don't kill the little they learn, rather make it your business to follow up with the Hebrew School kids in your synagogue after Bar/t Mitzvah to attend Jewish camps, visit Israel and youth group during the critical high school years!

Rabbi Levitt is definitely right on, in identifying that the Haftarah Emperor has no clothes on. Our son, now 28, was a terrible Haftarah student, though he did manage to perform satisfactorily for the big day. However, he became an excellent community organizer through his Bar Mitzvah project, captaining an AIDS walk team from our synagogue. He actually did that each year til he was a senior in high school, raising more $$$ each year, learning how to talk to adults and becoming a confident leader. I can assure you he never has, and never will, chant another haftarah. but he has subsequently lead many initiatives, as an adult, in his present Jewish community.

Rabbi Joy Levitt brings up an interesting point, that Bar Mitzvahs are not preparing kids for Jewish Life.

However, I think she is missing the big picture. Bar Mitzvah's are not supposed to be preparing kids for Jewish Life. A Bar Mitzvah is merely a milestone celebration. The preparation should begin way before age 12 or 13, and should continue well beyond the 13 year old's celebration.

A proper full time Jewish education will teach a child how to lead a Jewish Life - something that a couple of boring hours on a Sunday morning will not accomplish. This education must be couple with a Jewish life at home, lead by the child's parents.

No matter how meaningful a Bar Mitzvah a child has, it is no substitute for raising your children as Jews in a Jewish home with a solid Jewish education.

As a Sunday Hebrew school teacher of 6th and 7th graders, I agree with every word. Well said!

I found it funny that right next to your article was one about an app "poised to revolutionize bar/bat mitzvah preparation" by making it simpler to memorize one's Haftorah portion.

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