I recently read in the Forward about a father (Neal) whose son has decided not to celebrate his bar mitzvah.
There is no question that for many of us and our children the moment on the bima is full of meaning. Reading Torah, teaching a D’var Torah, leading the service. Our children learn important skills, they take on the role of leader and teacher, they have the chance to interpret our traditions and connect them to their daily lives. As parents we are so proud seeing our children step up in these ways. But we can do much more to prepare our children to be part of the community to add more personal meaning and relevance and to ensure that our children understand this as a beginning.
It’s up to us as parents. We can break the cycle. Too many of us are asking our children to repeat our patterns, our missed opportunities, our mistakes. We have the ability to return more meaning to these moments.
Each of us as parents needs to reclaim this moment and fill it with relevance and meaning connecting it with the rest of our lives. We all need a framework to take on responsibility and ensure that others have responsibility for us. What might this look like? Some parents take this opportunity to learn alongside their children. Parents are hungry for learning, connection and meaning too. Children benefit from seeing their parents as learners, that learning is a lifelong endeavor. As a child begins to prepare for his or her bar/bat mitzvah, parents can take the time to articulate why this is an important beginning and share this with their children. Each parent could develop a shared project with their son or daughter that they could work on together over the course of the bar / bat mitzvah year. An opportunity to explore, invest, learn and grow together.
We know of some congregations – educators, clergy and parents – who are pursuing this process. They are crafting unique experiences that are based on the interests and passions of children. These include prayer and Torah but also include poetry, dance, volunteering, baseball, movies, and so much more. The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a project of the URJ and HUC-JIR, has developed a guide to innovations being undertaken in congregations across North America. One category of innovation focuses on mentoring. We believe that it does “take a village” to raise a child and want to continue to think about how a wide range of adults can help bring meaning and relevance to the bar / bat mizvah process and celebration. Beyond specific programmatic innovations is the Reform Movement’s long time commitment to inclusion, to welcoming and most recently to Audacious Hospitality.
A successful experience of bar or bat mitzvah has to involve the whole family, it has to be meaningful and relevant, it involves commitments - first from the parents and then from their children. The young person has to have the chance to practice being part of the larger community - from the perspective of giving and receiving. Through Jewish ritual and well beyond Jewish ritual. We want our children to be challenged to lead the service on Shabbat morning, we want them to teach the community, we want them to connect to Torah, we want them to experience the bridges between their passions and Jewish life, we want them to have an experience of serving the larger community in a real way, we want them to step off the bima afterwards and say, “what’s next? I want more.”
We have created this situation and I believe we can fix it. Let’s switch off the “auto-pilot,” let’s provide our children with a tremendous gift that will support them their whole lives and help them support others.
Yours in partnership,
Rabbi Bradley Solmsen
Abba of Ela, 11, Gila, 9, and Nomi, 6
Director of Youth Engagement
Union for Reform Judaism