Monday, June 24, 2013

Is the Bar Mitzvah Model Broken?

A couple weeks ago, this video popped up on my Reader:


It's a chat between Jewish women on what is wrong with the Bar Mitzvah. This is actually something I think a lot about: because I'm in an interfaith marriage and because of my time spent in the Orthodox community.

For those that aren't Jewish (or didn't have many Jewish friends in middle school), the bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah for girls) is a Jewish coming of age ceremony celebrated at 13 for boys and 12-13 for girls. Following the Bar Mitzvah, you are a full Jewish adult and all adult commandments apply.
The (Conservative and Reform Jewish) "Bar Mizvah Model"follows, with my own commentary on some of the problems:
  • Kid spends 4-5 months taking Bar Mitzvah classes- learning the prayers and the specific Torah portion  they will perform in front of the congregation on the big day. Then you can promptly forget it all. The synagogue often has requirements for a number of services to attend the year prior. I think I was exempt from these because I went to a Jewish day school and actually led services there weekly, but I remember my brother having to attend services before his.
  • Kid usually does some kind of mitzvah project, which is talked about at length. The mitzvah project is any kind of community service project, some examples are given in the video. In recollecting my own mitzvah project, I realize his is really a burden on the parents, not the child- whatever you do, they have to facilitate, finance, and arrange. As a 12 year old, you don't really have the means or transportation to do much of anything on your own, even if (big IF) you come up with it on your own. I don't think it really sticks in any meaningful way.
  • Day of Bar Mitzvah, the kid leads some portion of the service, perform their Torah portion, maybe give a speech and then are pronounced an adult.
  • Then there's usually a party. When I grew up it was a big wedding-like affair. DJ, catering, dancing, etc. As a result of our economic times, this is already changing: often now there will be a catered lunch post services (at the synagogue, and no music/dancing) and maybe a fun party for just kids that doesn't resemble a wedding so much. 
 For something that is supposed to mark an important entrance into full religious responsibility as a Jewish adult, it is lately reduced to little more than a bunch of stuff you have to do, followed by a big party. And in that manner it is pretty broken. (Also, is a bit like weddings in that respect. We're just very broken these days.)

In my time at the Orthodox synagogue, I have seen a bit how they do Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and it's a bit different for girls and boys.
Four years ago I was invited to my first Orthodox Bat Mitzvah. It was an informal dinner party on a Sunday evening, for only women (although the Rabbi, the girl's father, did make an appearance). There was no services, but she did give a lovely speech about the importance of women in her history and the women there that day in shaping her life and community. Of course, her entree into Jewish adulthood was the result of 12 years as the rabbi's daughter- weekly shabbat dinners, weekly services- which would continue for the rest of her life.
Since, I have also attended some of an Orthodox Bar Mitzvah. For the boys, they lead the entire Saturday service start-to-finish, plus a Torah portion. There is some boys only event afterwards, so I'm not sure what that's about, but it's probably a similar simple dinner party. But again, as part of an orthodox lifestyle its not the end, it's just a step along the way.

Then I think of my own children, and what their Bar/Bat Mitzvah should be. By then they'll have spent 12 years being raised Jewish but with half of their relatives being Catholic. And they will be reaching their age of religious majority, taking responsibility for their own spiritual life. Will they leave Judaism because Christianity- or non-belief- are easier? How does the Bar Mitzvah model encourage them not to do that? In short, it doesn't.
The bar mitzvah is built up- months of learning, months of mandated synagogue attendance, a mitzvah project. And then it's over. And then... you go back to your life? Jewish adulthood should not be a sprint to this arbitrary day, and then nothing.
One thing my synagogue did right? Once you were Bar/Bat Mitzvah, you were on the roster for high holiday torah readings. Over the many Torah services on those 3 days there were about 20 Torah portions, 20 readers needed. It was optional, although encouraged, to volunteer for this honor... and I opted in. For the 4 years after my Bat Mitzvah until I left for college, I read the same portion (#4), for those keeping score at home) at Yom Kippur services every year. It was nerve-wracking, as Yom Kippur morning service draws the biggest crowd of the year, but I was also proud to serve my part as a Jewish adult in the community. And the Bar Mitzvah model needs more of this. More call-backs, year after year or week after week, reasons to keep you coming back. Perpetual mitzvah projects, ones which are integrated into the Jewish community rather than spending a day at the soup kitchen.

Instead of seeing the Bat Mitzvah as the end of a journey, as the end of a list of requirements to check off, as an excuse to throw a big completion party... it needs to be seen as a beginning. Put the mitzvah project after the Bar Mitzvah, not your last act as a child but your first act as an adult. Continue to expect synagogue attendance, services participation, and Jewish learning AFTER the big day. And maybe, the big day needs to be a little smaller.

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