Putting the Mitzvah Back into B’nai Mitzvah

Inside Leadership

Putting the Mitzvah Back into B’nai Mitzvah

Bar mitzvah boy and rabbi holding a bag full of lunches

About two years ago, my friend and teacher Rabbi Peter Levi described plans for his daughter’s bat mitzvah service. Instead of doing the early part of the morning blessings, they would sing a couple of introductory songs, leave the sanctuary, and enter the social hall for a social action project packing boxes of grains and canned goods for the homeless. I admit that when I heard the idea, I was nonplussed. Seeing the look on my face, Rabbi Levi put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s called a bat mitzvah, not a bat t’filah.”

My mind was opened.

He made me realize the whole issue I have with our b’nai mitzvah rubric as it has been for years: We want to create engaged Jewish adults, but we are creating cookie-cutter kids who will be able to tell their kids, “You’ll do it because I suffered through it, too,” just like we are telling ours.

After hearing Rabbi Levi’s simple sentence, I began to plan.

At Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, CA, we hold a semi-annual “B’nai Mitzvah Boot Camp,” at which I meet individually with parents and the students who will become b’nai mitzvah within the upcoming nine to 16 months. We discuss the four things a child must accomplish before earning the title of Jewish adult:

  1. Lead services
  2. Teach through a d’var Torah
  3. Commit to a mitzvah
  4. Give tzedakah (using money to do the work of world-repair or, literally, justice)

Lead, teach, mitzvah, tzedakah. As much as this talk may inspire them, which I hope it does, it still leads to the same thing. The children lead a service, have a party, give tzedakah, and maybe remember to keep doing their mitzvah.

Some kids have an easy time with this, they enjoy it, they love performing, and they thrive on the bimah. Others struggle.

In thinking about Rabbi Levi’s words, I wanted to encourage our emerging Jewish adults to make their b’nai mitzvah experience more personally meaningful. But first, I needed a guinea pig.

I had known Jonas Holdaway for nearly four years when he and his parents sat in my office to discuss his upcoming bar mitzvah experience. I knew he was already a passionate giver of his time and resources, and I asked him a question: Knowing that the requirements of becoming a bar mitzvah are leading, teaching, mitzvah, and tzedakah, was there one he would like to highlight over the others? Jonas chose mitzvah. He wanted to make sandwiches for the hungry, and he already had an idea for a way his guests could participate with him. I asked him if he would like to cut some of the prayers from the morning service, so he and his guests could make sandwiches as a part of his Saturday morning celebration.

After a few months of planning and organizing, Jonas became a bar mitzvah on September 9, 2017. He did a spectacular job of reading Torah and leading some of the prayers, but the best part of the morning was when he started to teach after just two introductory songs. The look on the faces of regular worshippers was priceless, intrigued as they were about why he was speaking at this point in the service. He spoke eloquently about how feeding the hungry is important to him and his family. He spoke about volunteering at soup kitchens and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and then he told his guests that they would be making sandwiches and sack lunches for the hungry that very morning.

We ushered his guests into the social hall where Jonas had set up stations for packing bag lunches. One table made sandwiches, another decorated bags, a third put apples and cookies into bags before placing the finished lunches in collection boxes. Participants went from station to station, making two or more lunches, which Jonas delivered the next day to Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa. After boxing 346 lunches, Jonas read beautifully from the Torah and led the congregation in the rest of the worship service.

Through his leadership, Jonas allowed us all to feel uplifted that Shabbat morning, showing us what it really means to be a bar mitzvah, a Jewish man committed to the commandments. The service Jonas led and the experience he had was a revolution, and he has inspired future nigh-13-year-olds to make the same choice.

Going forward, each student at CBT will be taught that the four things they need to do are lead, teach, mitzvah, and tzedakah, but they can choose which one to put at the forefront. They will have the freedom to break from services to organize a social action project for the community, create a longer lesson plan to dive deeply into the weekly Torah portion, or coordinate a fundraiser that will bring tzedakah to a cause about which they are passionate. Any of these things – or others – can be the focus of their b’nai mitzvah service. Of course, if leading services is their passion, they will lead a great service. They will do what we did, but they won’t be dragged to it. They will take on the helm of b’nai mitzvah with passion, and God willing, they will, by their own choice, stay connected to the Jewish community because they will know that they are part of a revolution.

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Rabbi David N. Young serves Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, CA. He has served congregations in North Miami Beach, New York City, Alaska, Ohio, North Carolina, and has taught middle school, high school, and adults. In addition, Rabbi Young spent two summers at the Reform movement’s URJ Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, MA, and four summers at URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA.

Rabbi David N. Young
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