Here’s a great article about how to have a meaningful bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremony even if you don’t belong to a synagogue.
Belonging to a synagogue and attending Hebrew school are not prerequisites for celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah. And we don’t just mean having a fun party. Here are some guidelines for planning a meaningful coming-of-age event with ritual and educational components for families without strong ties to the organized Jewish community.
Your child becomes a bar/bat mitzvah simply by turning 13 (or 12, in some communities). There are no particular ritual obligations, and though chanting Torah or Haftarah is customary, it may not be the best choice for your family. Bar/bat mitzvah youngsters can learn to lead a Havdalah service, for instance. They can complete a course of study and teach on a Jewish topic that is meaningful to them. They can present some other personalized capstone project—perhaps something artistically creative—related to Jewish learning or action. Or they may have another idea altogether.
In most North American cities, it is possible to hire a freelance rabbi or educator to prepare your child for a bar/bat mitzvah. Rabbi Jason Miler, The Mitzvah Rabbi, is available to train your son for his bar mitzvah and your daughter for her bat mitzvah. Some tutors offer crash courses in Hebrew reading and cantillation, which would be appropriate if your child seeks a leadership role at a prayer service. Some may help plan and officiate at a bar/bat mitzvah service, others teach more of an intro to Judaism course, while still others like to explore a particular area of Torah, often choosing a topic that matches the bar/bat mitzvah child’s interests. Many tutors will help your child prepare a speech or project to reflect their learning.
If you choose to organize a prayer service and you want your child to read from the Torah, consider services at various times during the week. Saturday morning liturgy—while customary for bar/bat mitzvahs—can be lengthy and dense. Morning services on Mondays or Thursdays are more compact and still include Torah reading. Similarly, the afternoon service (Mincha) on Shabbat is becoming increasingly popular for bar/bat mitzvahs. It is concise, includes Torah reading, and can segue nicely into a Saturday night party. Rosh Chodesh morning services also include Torah reading. Check the Jewish calendar to find out when Rosh Chodesh falls each month.
A meaningful family trip is another way families choose to mark a bar/bat mitzvah, either in lieu of a synagogue service or in addition to one. Israel is a traditional destination, and there is a host of resources available for families planning a bar/bat mitzvah trip to Israel. Families of children who were adopted internationally sometimes choose to travel to their child’s country of birth around the time of his or her bar/bat mitzvah.
The Trickle-Down Effect
While most of these bar/bat mitzvah innovations are taking place outside of establishment Jewish communities, even within some synagogues families and clergy are experimenting with new ways to celebrate, based on a growing sense that the traditional bar/bat mitzvah can feel rote and impersonal.