Rosenblatt summarizes: “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.” He also quotes Rabbi Laura Geller who laments that for too many the bar mitzvah has become a “terminal degree.”
For too long dissatisfaction and frustration have been hallmarks of the b’nei mitzvah experience for many families. In spite of our best efforts too many kids report that the experience is performative, superficial, and meaningless. Many Jewish professionals lament the distorted priorities reflected in ostentatious celebrations, the tangible reminder of which is typically b’nai mitzvah party favor clutter.
Fortunately, URJ leadership is committed to leading change in partnership with congregations, and ultimately with families and children.
My goal here is to suggest a few ways that Jewish day schools can serve as natural allies for those interested in reinvigorating and “revolutionizing” the b’nei mitzvah experience.
1. Not a terminal degree. All Jewish middle and high schools continue to provide rigorous Jewish education well beyond the bar/bat mitzvah. The simple fact that Jewish day schools surround b’nei mitzvah with years of study, both before, during, and after is significant. While Jewish day schools have our own “terminal degree” challenges, we don’t suffer from “degree” confusion– a diploma is meant to be a terminal degree, a JNF certificate isn’t. I’ve written elsewhere on the goals of Jewish day school education.
2.More engaging ways to mark the experience. Jewish day schools can and should be at the forefront of supporting and supplementing congregational efforts to make b’nei mitzvah more engaging. There’s ample room within our curriculum and ample resources within our school communities to make this happen. In Atlanta, I had an opportunity to sit down with a rabbinic colleague from a local synagogue to learn about their dynamic b’nei mitzvah program. The Davis Academy is currently helping our students who are members of that synagogue fulfill a host of creative tasks and projects. Beyond these obvious partnership opportunities, we also have multiple venues– from tefilah, to athletics, to theater, to tzedakah/ social justice programs. These can be sites for b’nei mitzvah engagement. Lastly, we have specialized faculty that can be part of the process- Jewish studies teachers, guidance counselors, rabbis, and others.
3. Hebrew as a living language. As this is one of the goals that Rosenblatt mentions, it’s simply worth mentioning that this is an area where day schools can and should excel. As part of enhancing the b’nei mitzvah experience might involve strengthening ties with Klal Yisrael, our commitment to teaching not only biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, but modern Hebrew as well, may prove to be of great value.
4. Spiritual component to learning prayers. Most Jewish day schools are committed to the study and practice of tefilah. Most Jewish day schools provide their students with siddurim at a very young age and strive to familiarize their students with both the keva (fixed components) and kavanah (personal/emotive components) of Jewish prayer. Speaking from experience, I know that Jewish day school students have ample opportunity to explore tefilah through creative writing, visual art, movement/dance, as well as opportunities to lead tefilah on a regular basis. The hope here would be that day school students could ascend the bimah (as well as sit in the congregation) with greater awareness, intention, spirit, pride, and connection. So long as the traditional service remains an integral part of the b’nei mitzvah experience, it’s worth considering how we can help our kids connect with the spiritual potential of Jewish prayer.
I hope that this article will contribute to the important conversation of how Jewish day schools can be at the forefront of helping to reinvigorate the b’nei mitzvah process. It’s a goal that I know is shared by most, if not all, of my day school colleagues across the country. As institutions dedicated explicitly and exclusively to Jewish education in the broadest sense, this is a natural area for us to serve as a resource. Where and how can this conversation take place? Ki va moed— the time has come.