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Private Bar Mitzvah Ceremonies (NY Times)

Private Bar Mitzvah Ceremonies (NY Times)

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Bar Mitzvahs Get New Look to Build Faith

The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — The American bar mitzvah, facing derision for Las Vegas-style excess, is about to get a full makeover, but for an entirely different reason.

Families have been treating this rite of passage not as an entry to Jewish life, but as a graduation ceremony: turn 13, read from the Torah, have a party and it’s over. Many leave synagogue until they have children of their own, and many never return at all — a cycle that Jewish leaders say has been undermining organized Judaism for generations.

As Jews celebrate the new year Wednesday night, leaders in the largest branch of Judaism, the Reform movement, are starting an initiative to stop the attrition by reinventing the entire bar and bat mitzvah process.

Thirteen Reform congregations across the nation have volunteered to pilot the change, and an additional 67 are on the runway. Everything is on the table: how or whether to teach Hebrew, whether to delay the ceremony until children are older, and even whether to require children to read from the Torah — now the centerpiece of most bar mitzvah ceremonies and the culmination of years of study. Parents will most likely be expected to play a larger role and emphasis will shift from prayer to social action.


Rabbi for Private Bat Mitzvah

Rabbi Jason Miller leads a private bat mitzvah service in Michigan


“I like Torah, I read Torah, I study Torah,” said Isa Aron, who is helping lead the Reform movement’s initiative and is a professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. “But what’s the point of getting your 200 or 300 closest friends and family members together and having your kid read a text they don’t understand in a language they don’t understand?

“Maybe it shouldn’t be such a performance,” Dr. Aron said. “It should be about becoming part of the community.”

Reform leaders say American Jewry unwittingly sowed the seeds of its own stagnation in the 1930s and ’40s when synagogues, to expand their membership, began to require three or four years of religious school attendance as a prerequisite to the bar mitzvah. Synagogues built classroom wings and charged tuition, which became a vital income stream for congregations.

“We’re living in the religious school industrial complex,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, a senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization for congregations.

“We didn’t realize it,” said Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, the director of youth engagement for the union and a director of the new initiative, “but we sent the message to families that if you want to be a bar or bat mitzvah, you have to join the synagogue. And what they heard was, ‘When you’re done, you can leave the synagogue.’ We’d like to go back to our roots and say, How can we make it a point of welcome and not the exit point that it’s become?”

The phenomenon is not exclusive to Judaism. Churches also struggle to keep young members engaged, and studies show that younger Americans are far less likely to be religiously affiliated than their parents and grandparents. What is different for synagogues is that often when the youth depart, so do the parents.

The problem Jewish leaders are trying to tackle is deeper than the perennial lament about ostentatious bar mitzvah parties, revived last month with a YouTube video from Dallas of a bar mitzvah boy hoofing it with Vegas-style showgirls.

Their concern is that they have built up the bar mitzvah worship service as the pinnacle, putting children through a lot of time and effort geared to preparing them for a daylong event. Rabbis said in interviews that the event has become more a private service for the bar mitzvah family and friends than a communal event for the congregation.

Children and their families go through what some rabbis call an “assembly line” that produces Jews schooled in little more than “pediatric Judaism,” an immature understanding of the faith, its values and spirituality. Most students deliver a short speech about the meaning of the Torah passage they were assigned to read, but they never really learn to understand or speak Hebrew, only to decode the text.

“I learned the tune and I had the phonetics in front of me, all in a laminated binder,” said Jeff Berman, recalling his bar mitzvah years ago on Staten Island, “but honestly I could not tell you what it meant. I just knew it was important to my parents and grandparents for me to do.”

Mr. Berman, 50, who works at a law firm in Los Angeles, exemplifies the cycle of exodus. He and his wife were both raised Jewish and have two sons, ages 12 and 14. They sometimes celebrate Jewish holidays, but they have not joined a synagogue and are not planning bar mitzvahs. Mr. Berman says he is an atheist.

A study by Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, showed that more than a third of religious school students dropped out after the seventh grade, and 85 percent by the 12th grade.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Congregation Beth Am, in Tampa, Fla., said, “We have to put so much energy and so much of our class time into training these kids to be prayer leaders, and there’s a lot more to Judaism than leading prayers, and a lot more to Judaism than praying.”

The new initiative by the Reform movement, a liberal branch that claims 1.5 million of the nation’s estimated 6 million Jews, is called B’nai Mitzvah Revolution (bar mitzvah refers to boys, bat mitzvah to girls, and b’nai mitzvah is the plural if a boy is included). In Los Angeles the campaign has expanded beyond the Reform movement, with Conservative, Reconstructionist and independent synagogues joining, and the Jewish Federation there providing money. (Orthodox Jews, who have day schools and do not have equivalent retention problems, are not part of the initiative.)

Each congregation is expected to design its own program and share the results. Yet many of them appear to be moving in a similar direction: involve the parents so that they do not also leave the synagogue when the bar mitzvah is over. They want the children to spend less time learning Hebrew and memorizing prayers, and more time working as a group on sustained “social action” projects. (Many congregations already expect “mitzvah projects,” but those usually involve individual volunteerism, and are not extensive).

Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colo., will ask children to identify a social problem they want to work on and come up with a longer-term “tikkun olam” project, Hebrew for “repair the world.”

Katherine Schwartz, director of lifelong learning at Har HaShem, said that among prayer, Jewish learning and social action, “we want to have kids see them as having equally significant weight, which is not what we do now.”

In Scotch Plains, N.J., each participating family at Temple Sholom is designing a tailor-made ceremony, with one girl planning to write new music and prayers, said Rabbi Joel N. Abraham.

Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles has already been experimenting. Jordan Sachs-Amrami and his seventh-grade class voted to spend their b’nai mitzvah year working on the issue of hunger. They stocked shelves at a food pantry, cooked meals at a homeless shelter and interviewed experts about why hunger persists in a nation of plenty. During his bar mitzvah ceremony in 2012, Jordan dimmed the lights in the sanctuary and showed a video he made about what his group learned. Eight of the 10 students in his group are still in the temple’s religious school program.

Some parents, rabbis and cantors are resistant to change, said Dr. Aron, the professor at Hebrew Union College. At some synagogues, she said, “the cantorial staff thinks nothing is broken” because the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies themselves can be quite beautiful and moving.

“B’nai mitzvah is the third rail,” she said. “We don’t touch this lightly, because the ritual is so deeply embedded in American religious culture.”


A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 4, 2013, on Page A1 of The New York Times

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