In his March 3 piece in Tablet, Mark Oppenheimer critiqued the “standard” form of preparing for and celebrating b'nei mitzvah, offering "Three Rules for a Better Bar or Bat Mitzvah." We were excited to read this article because Oppenheimer’s three rules overlap with much of our own work at the Union for Reform Judaism’s B’nei Mitzvah Revolution (BMR).
Founded in 2012, the BMR’s overall goals are to generate new ideas and images of meaningful celebrations of b'nei mitzvah, and to make b'nei mitzvah preparation more engaging for everyone involved. Examples of 38 innovations can be seen on our B’nei Mitzvah Innovations Gallery. Following Oppenheimer’s three rules, here are just a few of these innovations.
1. Varying Ceremonies and Styles
Oppenheimer’s posits the need for “more and different kinds of ceremonies,” as “no one form is commanded or required.” The b'nei mitzvah ceremony has evolved over the ages, so why should families and synagogues stick with the same ceremony year after year and child after child?
Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, CA, created a ritual called Taking the Torah Home. On the Friday night before each student’s bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, the rabbi gives the child the Torah to take home and care for until the next morning, when he or she returns for their service. In her essay in eJewishPhilanthropy, Cheryl Katz Mandel recounts when the rabbi handed the Torah to her daughter, explaining that it represents the Jewish people. He tasked her with the priority of protecting the Torah, just as the Torah protected the Jews when we moved from land to land and home to home. Not only is the ritual a creative way to bond the individual b'nei mitzvah with the Jewish tradition, but, as Ms. Mandel writes, “having the Torah in my daughter’s bedroom denoted a sense of peace, a rare feeling of tranquility the day before a life-changing event.”
Another example of an evolving approach to personalize the experience is My Personal Prayer Journey at B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL. Students add their own interpretations to traditional prayers through art, music, and digital media.
2. Involving the Synagogue Community
Oppenheimer suggests involving the synagogue community “because the Jewish family is diverse and multifarious, and we belong to all of them, and they to us.”
At Congregation B’nai Israel in Fayetteville, GA, Meet the B’nei Mitzvah is designed to boost the communal aspects of the b'nei mitzvah experience and develop in 13-year-olds a greater sense of belonging to the congregation. The program meets on Saturday nights and includes celebrating Havdalah together, along with organized games and other fun activities.
J-Jolt, a program created by the URJ and currently running in multiple congregations across the country, is another example of incorporating community members into b'nei mitzvah preparation. Four to six adults, chosen by the family, mentor the student over the course of their b'nei mitzvah preparation, building extended relationships and marking the growth of the child in a unique ways.
3. Going Beyond B’nei Mitzvah
Oppenheimer’s third rule for improving the bar/bat mitzvah is to make sure “it is not a yearlong final exam leading up to the day you graduate from Judaism, but rather a commitment that you will undertake as a newly minted adult.” We agree that this is a time for young adolescents to show their moral responsibility and give the gift of their own time and talent to the community. Our innovations gallery highlights many congregations’ efforts to do just this.
As part of the Ma’asim Tovim (Good Deeds) program at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, sixth-grade students choose a single site at which to volunteer for four to six hours per month during the course of 18 months; the sites include a food pantry and homeless shelter, a Head Start program, and the Special Olympics. Having forged close ties with kids at these organizations, many students continue to volunteer well past b'nei mitzvah.
The B’nei Mitzvah Madrichim program at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, creates a different sort of avenue for responsibility after the b'nei mitzvah ceremony: a peer-to-peer tutoring program in which eighth- to twelfth-grade teens tutor pre-b’nei mitzvah students. Post-b’nei mitzvah teens experience tangible ways to make an impact on the lives of others, serve as role models, and experience the responsibility of a “real job.”
To Oppenheimer and many others, it may feel as though synagogues remain stuck in the paradigms of previous generations, but, as these examples (and others on our B’nei Mitzvah Innovations Gallery) show, a growing number of synagogues are meeting the challenges of this generation in new ways that serve to put meaning back into older formats.
Learn more about the B’nei Mitzvah Revolution and the Reform Movement’s continued work on the topic of b'nei mitzvah. Related efforts in the URJ’s Strengthening Congregations division include Reimagining Congregational Education, Creating Connected Communities for Families with Young Children, and 11 additional Communities of Practice.
Dr. Isa Aron is emeritus professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the founder of the Union for Reform Judaism’s B’nei Mitzvah Revolution. Jerilyn Perman is the coordinator for the B’nei Mitzvah Revolution.