Mentoring a Child through B'nai Mitzvah: A New Approach

November 16, 2016Kathy Schwartz

Since my congregation became part of the pilot cohort of the Reform Movement’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution in 2012, our goal has been to make b’nai mitzvah more meaningful. As it turns out, though, this is no simple task.

Along with 12 other congregations, URJ staff, and HUC-JIR professionals, our congregation has learned, shared resources, experimented, and explored ways to revolutionize the b’nai mitzvah experience. We’ve rewritten curriculum, altered programs, changed expectations, deepened family involvement, and tinkered with the service.

Even with our progress, though, we find ourselves struggling with the question: “How do we make it more meaningful?”

In 2014, in an attempt to address this question, I interviewed 14-year-old post-b’nai mitzvah students and asked them about the most powerful part of becoming b’nai mitzvah. Something quite remarkable emerged that, until those conversations, our congregation had only given passing attention.

These teens spoke of the impact of their relationship with their tutor, which they said influenced how they felt about themselves and about Judaism. Through these conversations, we learned that tutors have the most influence in helping b’nai mitzvah students understand, develop confidence, and bring meaning to becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

At the same time, our congregation was in the process of doing away with our Hebrew school. Even in the best class and with the most competent learner, our students still required a significant amount of tutoring to be “ready” for b’nai mitzvah. There must be a better way, we thought, for our students to build a relationship with Hebrew. We rebuilt and lengthened our Sunday program, adding Hebrew through Movement and song sessions in which we taught Hebrew words and generally integrating Hebrew vocabulary into all aspects of the morning.

How would we now give the same kind of attention to the tutoring relationship, especially in light of what we learned from our students?

We began by changing expectations of our tutors. They went from being solo practitioners to a team who spent the next year learning about mentoring and adolescence. Together, they formulated objectives for their time with the student.

We created a rubric that included mastery of Hebrew skills as well as goals we had for students who were coming of age:

  • Identifying of one’s own unique gifts
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Developing and asking big questions
  • Owning opinions, comfort, discomfort with prayer
  • Considering one’s place in the Jewish community
  • Adding one’s voice to the Jewish story

We drafted a series of protocols by which tutors would help students move through this rubric – and we eliminated the term “tutor.”  Instead, we chose the Hebrew word m’amein, meaning support, coach, artist – coming from the same root as amen, an affirmation of what has been done or said. This seemed more appropriate a term for someone who guides a young person through such a transition.

All of this was an enormous risk. Said one b’nai mitzvah parent and member of our lay team,

“I was skeptical when our congregation decided to do away with our traditional Monday evening Hebrew school for a one-on-one M’amein program. I wondered if my daughter would have connections with her Jewish friends that my older daughter (who went through our traditional Hebrew program) had, and I wasn’t sure my youngest would like the one-on-one style – that there may be too much pressure. My concerns were all unfounded, as I was amazed week-by-week by the astounding connections, realizations, and enthusiasm my daughter experienced during her weekly tutoring sessions.”

Of her new role, one m’amein said,

“[The program has] allowed us to engage with students… getting to spend multiple years with them throughout this process truly facilitates this ability to become another kind of mentor – one that is not related to them, not giving them a grade… We help them become the people they can be…”

Our m’ameinim now begin with the student at the start of their formal Hebrew studies, the timing of which is determined with each family based on their individual learning goals. Their relationship formally concludes with a post-b’nai mitzvah meeting, asking the student to reflect on his or her experience and growth.

What’s next? We’re determining what formal role our m’ameinim should have in the b’nai mitzvah ceremony that would represent the type of guide and elder they have become for the child. We’re also continuing to explore how we can utilize our m’ameinim to make the journey through this rite of passage more meaningful. As one summarizes, “I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of the b’nai mitzvah process…continuing the journey together with students and families, experiencing and finding meaningful Torah in our lives, our community and our world.”

To learn more about this and other BMR Innovations, visit the URJ B’nai Mitzvah Revolution interactive Innovations Guide.

Kathy Schwartz, RJE is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado, a clinical faculty mentor in HUC-JIR’s Executive MA in Jewish Education program, and the Vice-President for Finance for the Association of Reform Jewish Educators. Kathy holds an MAJE from HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsh School of Education, an MAJCS from HUC-JIR’s Zelikow School of Nonprofit management and is currently a doctoral student in Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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