Skip Navigation
October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776
Home  /  Worship, Music and Spirituality  /  iWorship Wisdom Archives  /  B'nei Mitzvah Ceremony: Community Involvement  / 
B'nei Mitzvah Ceremony: Community Involvement


See also Shabbat Morning Observance 

  1. March 2007 Digest 033

                …At our congregation, we have more than forty weekends with at least one Bar or Bat


                The unfortunate reality that we have experienced is that the overwhelming majority of our members view a B'nei Mitzvah service as a private affair, akin to a wedding. I am even aware of one or two long-time members who left the sanctuary when they realized that there was a B'nei Mitzvah that morning. Before last year, it was rare to have three congregants attend a B'nei Mitzvah Shabbat morning service.

                So we too followed the new path and established Shabbat Shelanu (Our Shabbat) services. Our Shelanu services are lay-led, with the song-leading often supplied by our teens…Attendance at Shelanu services varies from 15 to 35, depending on the week. Those who do attend find it deeply meaningful and enjoy coming together as a smaller community to share in worship and in Talmud Torah. I might add, there is nothing more enjoyable than watching a senior smiling as s/he learns a new melody from a 17-year old songleader, or a youth group member smiling as she leads the congregation in worship.

                At first, we did not schedule Shelanu services when there is a B'nei Mitzvah, but (after consultation with our rabbi) we elected to start offering them once a month. As a result, there sometimes is a conflict between the two services. (They are held the same time, so there is no danger of people leaving as the B'nei Mitzvah family arrives.) It has been (and is) our judgment that it is better to provide a service that as many as 35 or more congregants will attend than to insist (to no avail) that they attend what 99% of them view as a private affair.

                I still think that is the right decision for us. We simply decided to keep fighting on one front (against the Reform bias towards Friday evening) while surrendering on the other (the view that a B'nei Mitzvah is a private affair). I hope that is the right decision for us, even as I concede it may not be right for others.


    580 Family Units
  2. March 2007 Digest 033

                …We didn't leave the community; we created one where none existed.

                A weekly bar mitzvah with revolving attendance is not a community. We have a regular congregation for Shabbat morning (Torah study at 8:30, service at 9:00). Most of these people are there almost every week, though we get a steady flow of newcomers (whom we welcome). Most weeks we also have the "bar-mitzvah show" at 10:30. Our senior rabbi, who leads the early service, leaves before it's over on those weeks, and lay leaders take over (including Torah reading).

                We occasionally have b'nei mitzvah on Friday night, as part of the regular congregational service. Even though this is a community service, it is largely about that family on those nights; many in the congregation feel that we're more of a venue than a community for those families. We do impose restrictions that don't apply Saturday morning (fewer aliyot, pressure to keep the "parental greeting" short), and on very rare occasions we get the lucky combination of a Friday-night bar mitzvah and a family that wants to celebrate with, not in front of, the community. But it's not the way to bet.

                On Saturday morning, all bets are off. There's a chicken-and-egg situation: the families assert ownership over the service, which alienates the congregation, so the congregation doesn't come, which gives the families even more reason to believe they should own it (hey, no one else comes anyway). Until we can fix this on Friday night, which is already a community service, I don't see any reason to try to change Saturday morning.

                Meanwhile, we have a regular group of people who want to worship together, as a community, every Shabbat morning. Isn't that great? Why should we mess that up? This *is* the regular service; most people at the bar-mitzvah service won't be there next week or next month. We should support the regular community. If a child from the regular community wants to celebrate his bar mitzvah with that community instead of at the 10:30 show, I think the community would embrace that--this is someone who has been part of the community all along and of course we'd want to celebrate together.

                One difference I've seen between Reform and Orthodox congregations is in the bar mitzvah. The tighter the community (week to week, day to day), it seems, the less hoopla you have to make in order to have a celebration. I was at an Orthodox bat mitzvah (yes, really!) recently; the girl had her aliya and leining (including haftarah), and everyone there sang and threw candy and even danced a little, and you could tell the congregation was happy for the family--but it was part of a regular service. The parents didn't talk for ten minutes extolling the virtues of their daughter. (They wouldn't need to; they're all there every week and know everyone.) The parents had an aliya but the rest of the aliyot went to members of the community. Other people led most of the service and read Torah. Someone else gave a d'var Torah.

                In a Reform congregation, on the other hand, it appears that families feel cheated if they don't get all or most of the aliyot, a long parental speech, the child giving the only words of Torah, and the child leading most of the service. That's not integration with a community, so only the people with a personal connection to the family have a reason to come. I didn't know the bat mitzvah at that Orthodox service, but I was happy to be there. I don't go to most of our b'nei mitzvah shows even when I know the families.

                It is unfair to lay the blame for this separation at the feet of the regular community, the people who are willing to be there at 8:30 every week to worship. When a family wants what we offer, they join us, and we'd adjust to accommodate a community celebration. When they don't want what we do, there's no benefit to anyone in abandoning our service to attend the show. All that would do is lower the overall level of worship and community in the congregation.


    ~860 households
  3. March 2007 Digest 033

                Re the B'nei Mitzvah service--would you consider the 4th aliyah go to a congregant, at clergy discretion; would you consider a congregational reader for the first part of the Torah portion; would you consider establishing a cadre of adults who work with the candidate on his or her d'var Torah; would you consider congregants volunteering to give the books to the candidate; perhaps some of this might help connect your congregants with the B'nei Mitzvah service. It would require strong clergy, but it might help.

  4. March 2007 Digest 033

                …What I think needs to be stressed is that the Ritual Committee and clergy have to have printed in bimah notes, Bulletins and weekly e-mails, as well as have a sign prominently displayed, the following message:

                "You are cordially invited to attend the Shacharit Service at which our B'nei Mitzvah are called to the Torah, and rejoice with the families as they enjoy Kiddush."

                It needs to be repeated week after week after week, over and over and over again, year after year. And, perhaps you could even convince one or two Board members each week to attend the varying B'nei Mitzvah services, with badges prominently worn to let people know they are members of the Temple. They do not have to give books, just be there.

  5. March 2007 Digest 033

                …I actually have the pleasure of attending several b'nei mitzvah services a year either as a congregant or as the board representative. The question before us as synagogue leaders is which is better: to continue with fewer than a handful of congregants attending a Saturday morning service who are not relatives of the family, friends with the family and/or invited to the reception or to create opportunities that will draw other congregants to share in the simcha (and

    mitzvah) of Shabbat morning worship? I do not presume to know the right answer, especially not for any other congregation. Perhaps [others’ congregations have] found a way to draw the "regulars" to a b'nei mitzvah service. If so, I sincerely hope you will share your experience with us…


    580 Family Units
  6. March 2007 Digest 033

                …when [another listserv participant] said B’nei Mitzvah "show"'--in particular, stress the word "show." While I am not familiar with his particular congregation, I'm familiar with the concept. My reading of this is that the twenty people who come to morning services don't want to be spectators at a show. In such a situation, clerical leadership will only go so far; if you want a change, it needs to begin with your Ritual Committee. They are the ones who make decisions about what is permissible in the sanctuary, no? A message from the committee stating that Shabbat morning services belong to the congregation, and the *congregation* happens to be celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah would be the way (IMO) that this can happen. A rabbi as a lone voice for such a change will soon find him or herself looking for a new pulpit. In the end, this needs to be what the congregation wants…

  7. March 2007 Digest 033

                …[Our B'nei Mitzvah service differs from our regular Shabbat Service as follows:]


    1) There is no Torah Study by congregants in attendance;


    2)  The B'nei Mitzvah candidate leads a good part of the service, with the assistance of clergy;


    3)  There are more people at the service.


                When we do not have a B'nei Mitzvah, our service is similar to Friday night, except that we have a Torah study with those in attendance participating.

                Why, then, is there reference to the "B'nei Mitzvah show?" I rather enjoy being part of a service where the generations of relatives participate, where the candidate is so involved, where there is participatory music, where the Torah is taken out and walked around the sanctuary, where we have a congregational chanter, where the fourth aliyah belongs to the congregation, where the candidate delivers a d'var Torah which he or she has worked on with the assistance of a d'var Torah volunteer and the rabbi, and where members of the congregation give the books.

                Is our service so different?

  8. March 2007 Digest 033

                [At our congregation] Every week has:

                9:00 am Torah Study

                10:00 am "Informal" Service. This is the regular service, Torah is chanted or at least read. Whoever has something to celebrate that week goes up and joins in for one aliyah. Haftarah is infrequent. There is a brief d'var Torah. Whole thing lasts about an hour. There is overlap between those who come to Torah Study and those who attend this service, but there are some who only come to one or the other. This is held in our Chapel (capacity about 125 people) and is not a standing room only event by any means....

                If there is a Bar/Bat/B'nei Mitzvah that morning, then, also:

                10:30 am Bar Mitzvah Service. The service itself is identical to the 10:00 am service except as follows:

                1.         There is a ceremony at the start of the service where the Bar/Bat/B'nei Mitzvah receives his/her tallit.

                2.         Depending on the ability of the Bar/Bat/B'nei Mitzvah child, there is a little, to some, to a lot, of prayer leadership by the child.

                3.         The Bar/Bat/B'nei Mitzvah child chants some varying amount of the Torah and haftarah.

                4.         Instead of one aliyah, there are many. This amount doubles if there are two families instead of one. There are also many other honors given out, depending on the family, during the service.

                5.         During the Torah service, there is a multigenerational "handing down" of the Torah involving grandparents handing to parents handing to children.

                6.         The child speaks.

                7.         The parents speak.

                8.         The rabbi says something.

                9.         "On behalf of the congregation we present you this Kiddush cup"


                All told, the minimum length is going to be ninety minutes (one family, not a large number of honors) but with two families you are talking 120 minutes easily.

                There is a perception that the "informal" service is "more religious" than the bar mitzvah service, which I understand to mean from those who say it that there is more Hebrew and less singing, and thus some people feel that we need to do a service more like the "bar mitzvah service" even on weeks where we don't have a Bar/Bat/B'nei Mitzvah. There is always ongoing discussion about why is it that we only have a big Shabbat Morning service when there is a bar mitzvah and at all other times we just have the informal one. Cynically, the answers may be "soccer" and "baseball" but who knows.


    around 1100 families
  9. March 2007 Digest 033

                …typically our B'nei Mitzvah services have an "audience" that isn't familiar with the prayers or the music, sometimes the family members who do the aliyot aren't terribly familiar with the prayers, and the family "owns" the service. You'd need a lot of "regulars" to change it, and I don't know how hard it would be to start taking it back, but it's at the point where the Saturday morning regulars prefer our own informal service, which partly overlaps...


    ~ 860 family units
  10. March 2007 Digest 033

                We are a small community (<90), generally have around three b'nei mitzvah each year, and maybe an additional three or four Saturday services. It would be tempting, then, to say that that's the reason that we get a good turnout of "regular" congregants for our b'nei mitzvah services. However, when I got here about eighteen months ago, it was very clear that our members understood b'nei mitzvah services as private, open only to those who had been invited.

                With the help of the Ritual Committee, that has changed. The b'nei mitzvah family is expected to provide a simple Kiddush for the community immediately following the service, aside from whatever they are doing privately later. Maybe it's just the "if you feed them, they will come" thing, but advertising the simcha as a celebration for the whole community, via bulletin and email, seems to be changing the perception of the service as a private affair.

                Aside from its being good for the congregation, I think it's hugely important for our kids to understand that their becoming part of the community is more than lip service.

  11. March 2007 Digest 034

                The contrast, even conflict, between the "Family B'nei Mitzvah" and the "regular Shabbat Shacharit minyan" illustrates a deeper problem in current Reform Judaism. How do we meld religious services, qua services, with religious services as worship experiences. We cannot shut off the B'nei Mitzvah experience, which may be for some of us the rarest of presence in a Temple and participation in a worship service, because it builds a Jewish memory. It also salutes the Jewish family. Cynically speaking, it also enhances the Temple membership rolls, for a while, anyway…From comments on this list and my own travels and participation in Synagogue 2000 I have concluded that we are slowly evolving and should not be discouraged by the pace at which we are proceeding. The smaller congregations, which cannot afford the duality of experience enjoyed (endured?) by the larger ones, will, I hope, begin to find that they are integrating life-cycle events into a more worshipful experience as time goes by. One last comment: it ill becomes us to disdain anyone else's religious experience, even if it happens for only a bare fraction of a moment in a most uncomfortable setting, such as may take place for someone in a typical B'nei Mitzvah ceremony.


    1000+/- family units
  12. March 2007 Digest 035


                [Re:] the benefits of a b’nei mitzvah student preparing the entire Sat morning service.


    1. Here is an opportunity for the child to learn what each prayer means, why we say it, where it belongs in the service, etc. As my son said of the Amidah--"so first we remind Gd that he should like us because of who we are related to, then we butter him up with praise, then we thank him for what he has done, and finally ask for peace." This came about in the years leading up to his bar mitzvah because he wanted (and was taught through Hebrew school and at home) to know what he was going to say.
    2. A second reason to prepare the entire service is to be able, if called upon, to lead one. There have been occasions at college or at a minyan at someone's house where no one knew what to do and I had to lead a service.
    3. This is a public affirmation of the child accepting the laws and customs of Judaism…


                …Let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. Leading services is not what's bad about the bar mitzvah celebration. If there is exclusion, inappropriate use of speeches, prayers that don't belong, self serving bar mitzvah talks instead of a d’var Torah--these need to be fixed.


    323 families
  13. March 2007 Digest 035

                … It is not for lack of attention we are where we are and obviously there is no quick fix. While I agree we cannot shut off the B'nei Mitzvah experience, I think it imperative to begin educating people with children (as well as everyone else) who join our congregations about what the "B'nei Mitzvah experience" is really all about. Our modern day observance does salute the Jewish family, but in truth should really represent a much smaller part of the ceremony. We spend so much time honoring members of the family with readings, prayer readings, and aliyot that we forget why we are in the sanctuary in the first place (SHABBAT!). Indeed, are we honoring people with aliyot or are the people honored by receiving the aliyah. There is not a so subtle difference in the wording between the two.

                Yes, attending a B'nei Mitzvah is a memorable experience, but in the long-term, if this is the limit to one's Jewish experience, its impact on the long-term survival of the Jewish people will likelyto be minimal…


  14. April 2007 Digest 068

                Our congregation doesn't deny anyone the nachas; anyone may attend the bar-mitzvah service. What we have found, though, is that people don't. We (broad "we"; this problem is common) have allowed people to think of the bar mitzvah as a family event rather than one step on the path to increasing community involvement. Until that expectation changes in our congregations and especially in the home, it doesn't matter what we do (or don't do) to the bar-mitzvah service. Meanwhile, the small core in each congregation that really wants to get together weekly (or daily) for worship will do so, on their own if they have to. Shouldn't we support them?


    ~860 households

URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved