URJ Overhauling The Bar/Bat Mitzvah

In bid for relevance and to retain youth, Reform educators are seeking to ‘revolutionize’ the ritual.

Tue, 06/19/2012
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

Simon Kuh didn’t chant a Haftorah for his bar mitzvah several Shabbat mornings ago at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Instead, the 13-year-old reported on his recent ride alone on a city bus, the 720 Wilshire, across Los Angeles on a Friday at rush hour “to see my city from a different perspective.”

He told congregants and guests that most days he rides to the Reform temple’s day school in a carpool with his parents. But “this trip was a way to understand how other people live in Los Angeles,” and he noted that “the people on the bus are the people who don’t count as much to the city of L.A.” — 90 percent of the city’s bus riders are from minority populations. “People don’t see them or don’t care that their lives can be difficult.”

Simon went on to explain that he had spent the last six months “doing things I never thought to do before — walking from L.A. to the Valley through the Hollywood mountains, feeding dinner to children with cancer at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, walking in support of Darfur and eating at Langer’s Deli in McArthur Park and writing a review of its food and posting it online. There were 13 badges in all that I had to accomplish. They were mostly to teach me more about understanding the larger world I live in.”

Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, Laura Geller, who has led the 800-household congregation for 17 years, acknowledges that Simon’s bar mitzvah service was highly unusual. She explained in an interview that Simon’s mother, a literary agent who grew up in a secular home and found little meaning in traditional bar mitzvah ceremonies, felt that a ritual marking a transition out of childhood should reflect the skills required to become a Jewish adult in the community. So after a series of conversations, the rabbi and Simon’s parents came up with a list of tasks, which the rabbi compared to Boy Scouts merit badges, that they felt would be appropriate to signify an appropriate coming of age and communal responsibility for Simon.

“It was a reframing of the bar mitzvah ceremony,” Rabbi Geller said the other day, noting that Simon’s talk to the congregation showed his heightened awareness of class differences in society, noted that Moses, raised as a prince, stepped up to lead the downtrodden Jewish slaves in Egypt, and reflected on the implications for his own engagement in today’s world.

Rabbi Geller said that unfortunately, for “far too many” liberal Jews, bar or bat mitzvah “is the goal of Jewish education,” marking the end of the process rather than the onset of a path to a life of Jewish inquiry and learning.

“It’s pediatric Judaism, and when young people get to college and are exposed to thoughtful adult systems,” the Judaism they know “just doesn’t hold up.

“The bar or bat mitzvah can’t continue to be a terminal degree, which it is now,” she asserted.

A Systemic Change

Rabbis like Laura Geller and a number of leading Reform educators say that a radical change is required, a rethinking of the relationship between Jewish education and the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.

As a result of several years of serious discussion and research within the movement, an ambitious new project to revolutionize the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony is about to be launched through the joint efforts of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion (HUC-JIR).

The program, called the Bnai Mitzvah Revolution, dovetails with the priorities of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the newly installed president of the URJ, and his efforts to reverse the trend of young people ending their Jewish education after their big day on the bima. While Reform remains the largest of the denominations in America, the movement is aging and shrinking. Engaging and retaining youth has become a top priority.

Isa Aron, a professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and co-director of the Bnai Mitzvah Revolution, says that the synagogue movements have themselves to blame for this sorry situation. In an effort to bolster Hebrew school attendance in the 1930s and ‘40s, she says, congregations from the various movements agreed to require three years of attendance by students leading to a bar or bat mitzvah, as well as an ability to read the prayers in Hebrew and follow the adult service.

Enrollment in Hebrew schools increased from 30 percent to 53 percent by the 1960s, but the unintended consequence was that in linking bar or bat mitzvah to formal Jewish education, students dropped out of Jewish education immediately after the milestone event, and many families ended their synagogue affiliation.

The goal of the new project is to create more engaging ways to mark a bar or bat mitzvah for the youngster and his or her family, teach Hebrew as a living language and add a spiritual component to learning prayers.

The first phase of the two-year pilot program will bring together a select group of up to 15 congregations from around the country.  Representatives from each will meet with professionals, and together they will document the kinds of b’nai mitzvah ceremonies taking place today and discuss how to not just improve the model but revamp radically the existing culture. That means everything involved in the ritual is up for discussion, with no sacred cows.

“We are looking for systemic change,” says Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, who became director of youth engagement for URJ in January and is co-directing the project with Aron. “We want to make the rite more meaningful and more community-oriented,” he says, without diminishing the child’s personal sense of accomplishment.

The URJ’s new project is hardly the first effort to make the bar/bat mitzvah more meaningful and less of a graduation ceremony. Secular Jewish congregations and Workmen’s Circle programs have for many years had their bar/bat mitzvah students embark on a personal Jewish learning project as an alternative to mastering trope.

In the past decade, more than 50 congregations have worked with UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Education Project to make their congregational schools, and in turn the bar/bat mitzvah preparation, more innovative and engaging. Two years ago the theater troupe, Storahtelling, launched Raising the Bar, a program in which students develop a creative theatrical interpretation of their Torah portion. Meanwhile several programs, such as Yerusha in Princeton, N.J., and the Jewish Journey Project, which launches in Manhattan this fall, have participants earn badges based on their individual Jewish interests.

Change The Perception

Aron and Solmsen know this “systematic change” will not be easy to bring about. Congregations are reluctant to change the status quo, which in recent years has evolved to include the youngster reading Torah and Haftorah, offering a dvar Torah talk and performing some type of mitzvah project.

The main point is to change the perception that bar and bat mitzvah celebrations are graduation ceremonies.

Rabbi Tom Weiner, spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami, a congregation of about 800 households in White Plains, says he is ready to sign up for the pilot program.

“I think we do a good job,” he said of the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, “but we suffer from our own success.” He described the tension between making the big day special for the youngster and incorporating a sense of appropriate modesty, driving home the message that “you don’t get the gold watch on the first day of work.”

Rabbi Weiner said about 40 percent of the congregation’s b’nai mitzvah youngsters continue their Jewish education through high school, which is markedly better than average. But he acknowledged that families leaving the congregation after their child’s ceremony is a major issue and “we have to work with that.”

He hopes the Bnai Mitzvah Project will recommend changing the Jewish education focus from sixth grade, which he called “mid-game and too late,” to third or fourth grade, and to make post-bar and bat mitzvah education “exciting and meaningful.”

Rabbi Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills says Simon Kuh’s “merit badge” experiment was not the only attempt to change up the ceremony in her congregation by tailoring it to the individual youngster’s special interest. “Sometimes it works well,” she said, mentioning that a deaf bat mitzvah girl’s video of interviews with four successful deaf women was particularly moving. “And sometimes it doesn’t.”

Simon Kuh’s father, Patrick, a Los Angeles restaurant critic and convert to Judaism, is actively engaged in the congregation. He credits Rabbi Geller for being open to change, and listening to his wife’s concerns and requests in making Simon’s ceremony meaningful.

“It was about a young person applying himself to something he may not want to do, which is good training for adulthood,” he said, “and putting your heart into it. There was a real sense of accomplishment. And for us as parents it was saying, ‘we’re proud of the person you’re becoming, this is your tradition, we hope you’ll value it, and continue to learn, and that it will speak to you.’”

That’s the kind of takeaway the Bnai Mitzvah Revolution is seeking: one that resonates for the young man or young woman in a deep and lasting way, whether it involves Torah proficiency or commitment in another form.

The new way of thinking raises challenges to the status quo in terms of synagogue participation, and traditional forms of education. But with the movement’s top officials describing the dropout rate and lack of retention among bnai mitzvah as “staggering,” they have declared it’s time for a change before it’s too late.

Gary@jewishweek.org

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Well I agree with you Keren. I also think that giving kids a proper Jewish education is essential. There are other things that are important to strenghten Jewish identity, such as letting them visit Israel on a program such as Volunteer in Israel or other Israel Programs. Just my two cents.

I like your idea of having kids do meaningful tasks to see how the other half lives, but I'm not clear why Jewish prayer and ritual should completely circumcized from the service. Why not teach them BOTH? Jewish prayer will become meaningful to students if they can match their studies with meaningful experiences. Study a prayer, perform a mitzvah, and then reinforce each mitzvah with a field trip. But to completely take the Torah and Hebrew out of the bar/bat mitzvah service is misguided,to say the least

Finally made time to read much of the article and a number of the comments on a subject that is dear to me as a Jew, a parent, and a grandparent. My thoughts repeat many of those who already commented that something is wrong with turning the B'nai Mitzvah into a social justice scene or some other idea, rather than draw lessons from our heritage to be used in the world today as we have done for millenia. In my own congregation, and others, the Rabbis and educators are managing to do a good to great job of teaching text and tikkun olam together as witnessed by the large numbers of youngsters who continue through confirmation and senior school. Moving forward does not require shedding the past or we would no longer be a people with Torah as a guide.

I agree that the B'nai Mitzvah experience needs revolutionizing, but as many have said above, depriving it of Jewish learning doesn't help much to keep our young people committed to Judaism. I think chanting the Torah is good, giving a D'var Torah is good, and reading the Torah portion and Haftorah portion in English is good. I don't agree that chanting the Haftorah in Hebrew is worth while. What might be getting overlooked is other forms of Jewish education - perhaps studying the commentaries of the Torah portion, reading some good D'var Torahs by others, learning something about the history of the Jewish people beyond the Biblical period, and learning something about modern-day Israel and the politics of U.S. support for Israel. In other words, if the young man or woman is now going to be an adult, learn something about what adults in Judaism do and care about.

Last week a girl from the Reform Movement had her bat mitzva at Robinson's arch in Jerusalem. I asked her which parsha was her bat mitzva parsha, and she had no clue. How about this idea for the Reform Movement------How about teaching Torah?

Apparently my last comment was too long. I will try to follow the length rule however it appears the denigration rule is being ignored.

I agree there is a problem, people see Bar and Bat Mitzvah as performance and not a spiritual public statement of intent. Teaching students how to make the word sounds of Hebrew without so much effort on the deeper meaning. But if we eliminate the pesky text piece in favor of meaningfulness then we just replace one half-loaf with another.

Text can be accessible, meaningful and relevant and there are plenty of ways to do this, Jewish Godly Play, G-d Cast, and a new book Text Messages all offer fun and interesting ways to explore traditional texts with an eye on the young people reading it and living in the 21st century. A good teacher can use all or some of these to make any Torah portion meaningful.

The Boy Scout merit badge approach is a good analogy but every Eagle Scout may play to his strength he still will know how to pitch a tent, build a fire and stop a bleeding wound. These are fundamental. Let us find a way to build that in the early years, make that part of the requirement and then individualize the ceremony to add some things beyond the traditional 10 prayers, two aliyot and the haftarah. In fact many places are doing it.

I find the "Revolution" "unJewish" and Jewishly sterile. How can one call this travesty a "Bar Mitzvah?" This is a do-gooder statement which is a fine Tikkum Olam project to compliment a Mitzvah project, but certainly not a Bar Mitzvah. Our Reform people have no concept of of how to practice Judaism since we no longer know how to read Hebrew, chant Torah, and so many other millenias-old Jewish practices which have kept us Jews. We don't even teach our children about God, just an amorphic spirit. No wonder we are losing our kids to intermarriage - they already have no concept of what Judaism is.

We are losing our Judaism, but are gaining a religion of Social Work.

My 13 year old grandson, whose Bar Mitzvah was in December, is appalled. He says that he studied all those years so that he could read Hebrew, chant Torah and understand what being Jewish is. He feels that the service described was a waste of a Shabbat.

I don't see why the introduction and mastery of Bible and liturgy and the beginning of an independent "real life", complete with the responsibilities of awareness and tzedakah, should be mutually exclusive. I find Cantor Marx's, R. Litwak's, and R. Heller's comments each make important points. For ourselves and for our children, we want lives that are devoted to the constant task of repairing the world (on any large or small scale) and to strengthening ourselves with the spiritual, intellectual and communal joys of our Jewish communities.

While I agree we need to find ways to keep our youth engaged in Judaism post their becoming a Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah, turning a religious event into a social justice session will be, in the long run, counterproductive. Youths who don't go throught the process of learning the rituals and prayers, and the importance of the religious aspect of the B'Nai Mitzvah process, will grow up to become adults who lack an understanding of, and interest in, Judaism. It is these young people who will not question intermarriage or the need to raise one's children as Jews. Not only will we lose these people, we will lose the generations to follow them. Instead of moving our practice away from the religious aspect, we should be looking for ways to make the religious aspect more appealing to our youth. Our "old" ways of teaching religion, through traditional Sunday and weekday after school classes, is clearly not keeping our children engaged. We need innovative teachers and leaders to develop programs that will attract our youth. Our clergy and our educators need to understand that the youth of today are not going to stay with us unless they, our clergy and educators, capture them, and the only way to do that is to develop programs that will interest the youth. Short, interactive programs, involving tools other than books and lectures are what is needed. Our youth have been raised on TV, video, and games, and we need to develop programs that use these same tools to teach. Children spend enough time today in classrooms listening to teachers lecture; they need something else to capture their attention, or we will continue to see the number of people in our post-B'Nai Mithvah programs decline.

It is certainly a value to add relevance to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience. It is important that a child learns Jewish values. This is all true but the question remains after the child has achieved this milestone is what makes this child Jewish. The world stands on 36 Tzadikim they do not have to be Jewish. The goal should be is to make Judaism relevant. What links this child, that accomplishes his own personal goals, have in common with his fellow Jews throughout the world. The basic skills of being Jewish link all Jews to their heritage ignoring those skills makes each Jew and community an independent venture with no link to the greater Klal Yisrael. Making it relevant should not be another way of lowering our expectations and making it easy. Our children are very smart and can see through those that want to lower expectations making Judaism less relevant. Certainly, we should reach out to each child as an individual to make Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience rewarding. At the same time they can still learn the Jewish skills that bind him/her to their people.

Perhaps fine to include him in such a manner -- ONLY IF the youngster had a severe learning disorder that would have made frustratingly traumatic any acquaintance with the holy language of our people.

Otherwise, may he find his path to a genuine Jewish synagogue -- far from the "temple" of his parents.

Near the end of the article it says: "It was about a young person applying himself to something he may not want to do, which is good training for adulthood.” How ironic. The author, and apparently URJ's solution to a young person (or their parent) not wanting to attend religious school or learn something about our religion in preparing for their bar/bat mitzvah, is to find ways to help the young person escape from their responsibilities. It seems that the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts might be a better alternative to train our young people for their bar/bat mitzvah. They already have well defined programs for earning merit badges, and then our children can learn to get along even better in society at large too. I think we call that assimilation. Way to go URJ. :-(

This revolution is already happening for years in many places, such as Beth Shalom, Cary NC. We look for the best in both and all worlds: a Bar/Bat Mitzvah event for which the kids learn a lot, read Torah and haftaraa, lead the whole service, give their own sermon commenting on the Torah portion, and spend one Sunday morning each month (through 7th grade religious school) doing Mitzvah Projects all around town. They learn of a Mitzvah - by doing it, within our community and in the society we live in: feeding the hungry, supporting the needy, spending their own time and effort in understanding others' situation and needs, and being responsible to do something about it. In other words, they become a Mensch, who knows what is done at a synagogue, and can participate and lead there as well. Most of them stay engaged in our school, youth activities, and synagogue.
Visit our website for the Bnei Mitzvah section to see more.

The issue is not an either/or - having to choose between a social justice education/project and a ritually rich and creative Bat/r Mitzvah ritual. The question is 'what is Jewish about social justice/engagement/activism'. Many of us feel that we need to take a position and give to our communities because it is inherent and integral with our holisitic worldview as Jews. While we could have come to the same value system from other upbringings, it was our Jewish home and community that molded our social intentions. Bnei Mitzvah adolescents are developing their value systems. This is the time when they become aware of Why they make the choices they make and where they see themselves between posts of narcissism and altruism. Kudos to the congregations, schools and family that prioritize time to be socially engaged: it is an active educational model that will help form the people we know who care, build communities and families. I'm sure that when these youth then stand holding the Torah, the proverbial Tree of Life, they will be able to articulate how their Avoda - holy and practical work - branches from our tradition and is rooted in Jewish ethics.
Alex Cicelsky, Kibbutz Lotan Center for Creative Ecology, Israel www.kibbutzlotan.com

On the ship taking the Mir Yeshiva from Japan to Shanghai China in 1941, a yeshiva man asked the Rosh Yeshiva where they were. "kiddushin tes, amud beis" he replied.

They used to say that asking the question was half of the answer. At least Rabbi Geller and her colleagues have asked the correct question. What I do not understand is why they see a new committee and "creative" pilot programs as the answer. For millennia, Bar and Bat Mitzvah were perceive as a transition point to greater Jewish involvement and responsibility. This rite of passage is just that: A passage to increased Torah sturdy and to a more instensive and adult fulfillment of Mitzvot. In my humble opinion, the reaason Rabbi Geller and the rest of URJ don't see this is because they lack the very institutions necessary to actualize the next step in one's Jewish life. Where are the intensively Jewish middle and high schools? Where is the instruction leading to filling one's life with dedication to God through Mitzvot first and then to the "Tikkun Olam"? The institutions that provide the kind of Jewish continuity in individual Jewish lives seem to be absent in the Reform movement. Sadly to say, one-time Bar or Bat Mitzvah theater or sociodrama just doesn't solve the problem. Our Talmudic sages say that a wise person's eyes are in his head. Rabbi Geller, open your eyes and you too will be wise!

I support Rabbi Geller and others in the Reform movement who are working to make b'nai mitzvah more engaging and relevant for young people and their families. This approach sends the message that Jews are members of the larger community in which they live and should play an important role in it. At the same time, we are still members of the larger Jewish community, which goes well beyond the Reform movement, and b'nai mitzvah should understand and feel included in this community as well. Therefore, I would argue that it is still important to require b'nai mitzvah to learn and demonstrate their knowledge of Jewish texts and rituals. I would hope there is room for both messages in our religious schools and in services in which b'nai mitzvah take place.

I admire my colleague, Laura Geller's work to reframe the experience of being Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Among the many ways that my congregation seeks to accomplish this is by not calling it a "ceremony." If we think about Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a ceremony, it becomes little more than an event to be enjoyed and then shelved with other memories. I remind the families of Temple Sinai of North Dade (North Miami Beach, Florida) that "Bar/Bat Mitzvah" is a title. It is incorrect to say, "I am having a Bar/Bat Mitzvah." Rather, one should say, "I am becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah." This defines the experience as a process. In that process, our challenge is to help young adults become engaged in the community that is welcoming them; through prayer, study, observance of mitzvot, and social responsibility.

No. No. No. No. Taking the beauty and tradition of prophetic chant is going way too far. Haftarah needs to stay. Change for the sake of change has to stop. We may not agree with everything the prophets may have to say, but they are yesterday's Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Wendy Wasserstein, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Leonard Cohen, and so forth.

Haftarah provides us with a comparative forum for text study that can be tailored to any age group. Some par'shiyot have dealt us a tougher comparison challenge than others, but since when did this scare us off? Let's not put a tarp over the mystical treasure trove of history; of philosophy; of music. Instead let's find a more universally accessible way to embrace it, to study it, and to teach the trop to any who want to learn. Let's not leave it behind to shrivel up in truncated memory.

Why have a Bar Mitzvah? Just have a party and a travelogue.This is a travesty

Kol hakovd to the boy and his family for taking on mitzvot meaningful to them. But how is his expression of tikkun olam unique to Judaism? He could do the same social justice stuff in a church, mosque, Quaker meeting, etc. So what about religious mitzvot? Tefillin? Daily davening? Not inter-marrying? Perhaps his family doesn't "believe" in the importance of things unique to Judaism. Then why be Jewish if all value systems are the same?

Well-said.

How sad, but not unexpected, that Reform Judaism is again substituting social justice for Judaism, this time regarding Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The goal of Bar/Baty Mitzvah training should be to make traditional Judaism meaningful to the Bar/Bat mitzvah including a love og G-d, his mitzvos as well as a love of our fellow man. What is being done here is just another step in Reform's long march toward spiritual extinction.

In the otherwise wonderful article , there is one mistake. Simon did in fact chant his Torah and haftara portion (beautifully) and led the Torah service as all other B;nai mitzvah do at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. What was different about his bar mitzvah is that his project – the 13 badges- was framed in terms of the question: what are the life skills necessary to become a Jewish adult. Clearly there are ritual skills necessary to become a competent Jewish adult; Simon learned those at our day school and through his bar mitzvah training. But he and his family wanted him to master life skills as well, like the ability to navigate his way alone on public transportation. As Simon rode through the different neighborhoods of his city and noticed the change in the quality of life, the size of homes,the kinds of businesses, the language of the signs, he made a connection with his Torah portion (Naso) which raises the questions “who counts?” and “who is counting?” This badge, and others, turned out to be not just about Simon acquiring the skills necessary to become an adult, but also about his reflecting on these experiences in a way that led to compassion and understanding as well as a connection to a larger community and to the ongoing Jewish conversation so well represented by Torah study.
Though chanting his Torah and haftara portion, leading the service and delivering his d’var Torah weren’t counted among the 13 badges, they were central to the experience. In my mind one of the skills necessary to become an adult is the ability to stand in front of a community and teach something that matters to you…and to trust that as a thoughtful adult you have something important to say. Through this process, Simon found what mattered to him , and because of that he had something important to teach. .

It would be a very good add-on to a bar mitzvah, but not a substitute. Leaving our kids Jewishly illiterate does no one any favors.

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