Four Inspiring Approaches to Bar/Bat Mitzvah B Mitzvah! The Bar and Bat Mitzvah (R)evolution continues

Option #1: Congregational

Today, a classic B-mitzvah ritual is one at which the student symbolically reveals Jewish life skills by chanting from the Torah scroll and then offering an inspiring interpretation of the weekly Torah portion during a religious service. Congregations often have additional expectations of the B-mitzvah student, such as chanting from the prophets, wearing of a kippah (scull cap), tallit (prayer shawl) and, on weekdays, tefillin (meditation boxes with straps), as well as lighting Shabbat candles, leading parts of a Shabbat, Monday or Thursday service, regular service attendance, and organizing a social action initiative to help others materially or physically. Some communities reserve some of these elements for males only. Many congregations welcome innovation and creativity by the student in formulating the ritual. Be sure not to assume local norms; bring your questions to the presiding rabbi or cantor.

Option # 2: Independent

In the twenty-first century, almost half of all b’nei mitzvah are being undertaken independently, rather than in conjunction with an existing Jewish institution or organization. These rites tend to be held in back yards, retreat centers, community centers, botanical gardens, hotels, in Israel, etc. Social action initiatives are often involved as well. Educators are engaged for private study, and ritual styles vary from the classical form of a Shabbat morning service to cultural gatherings. Among new B-mitzvah preparation phenomena are small, independent Jewish study groups formed by a group of individuals or families who hire a talented educator to work with bar/bat mitzvah students and their families in the home.

Option #3: Cultural or Values-Based

You don’t have to be religious to be Jewish. Judaism is much more than a religion; it is a civilization comprising values, languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic), regional cuisines, music, literature, art and artists, dance forms, politics, and more. Communities that prefer a cultural or value-based B-mitzvah model also gather to experience the B-mitzvah student offering a presentation that demonstrates his or her depth of Jewish learning and maturation. This presentation might be based upon a Torah portion, or on some other major Jewish literary, historical, ethical or social justice action material, but it generally does not include the prayer components of a religious service.

Another effective model among non-religious Jewish groups is for the student to select a topic of interest to study in depth and then to lead a morning or afternoon intensive session on the topic that is attended by members of the community. The session would include breaks for Jewish cultural sharing and appreciative toasts/comments by family and teachers. These kinds of b’nei mitzvah (plural) are fairly common among non-religious Israelis and are also available through Jewish schools and groups such as Folkshul, Shalom Aleichem Clubs, Secular Jewish Humanists, and, in Great Britain, a group called the Red Herring Club. There are many such groups.

The usual bar/bat mitzvah sequence is:

1. Learning and living a baseline of Jewish values, cultural and religious traditions, sacred texts and basic history of the Jewish people

2. Planning, which involves gathering your B-mitzvah organizing team together to plan a season grounded in Jewish values that will lead to an emotionally satisfying, intellectually expanding, and spirited experience for the initiate and those in attendance.

3. Personal Preparation by the student for his or her rite of passage that involves:

1) Designing a meaningful teaching focused on the Torah portion that corresponds to the date of the rite, or on an aspect of Jewish life and learning about which the student is passionate.

2) Selecting and preparing something religious or cultural in which to lead a community of reference or preference (congregation, organization, school, or gathering of family and friends.)

3) Formulating and undertaking, this year or next year, as a commitment to one’s Jewish future, a significant social action project, because being Jewish means caring about others less fortunate as well as care of the planet.

4. Celebration, which fulfills the mitzvah of caring for one’s guests by ensuring a communal meal and seeing to their needs while they honor the bar/bat mitzvah student’s accomplishment and partake of Jewish cultural and secular forms of expressing joy, such as dance, song, and skits.

5. Expressions of appreciation by the initiate by means of:

1) A public statement of gratitude to parents, mentors, clergy and those preparing and serving food and entertainment on the day of the rite. This is preferably done at the reception and not as customary, during a religious service. Better to keep the focus of the service on worship and not on self.

2) Thank you notes sent in appreciation for gifts and special acts of loving kindness received during this process.

Copyright 2000 P'nai Yachadut-Reclaiming Judaism and Rabbi Goldie Milgram