Sweaty palms, fresh new shoes and a streak of Bubbie-red lipstick was smeared across my cheek. My bar mitzvah had arrived, the ultimate coming of age.
Walking into the synagogue on Shabbat morning I recall a grab-bag of emotions, mostly felt in my stomach. The pews were the Who’s-Who of my life; family, close friends and the lady that always passes out the tuna salad during Shabbat morning kiddush; I could never remember her name, but she regularly shares that she was at my bris. Our beloved Rabbi gave me a meaningful blessing before we ended Shabbat and headed off for the mega event, the infamous bar mitzvah party. For a full play-by-play of this party from over two and a half decades ago, please speak to my mother — she is still happy to brag about the custom “music-themed” centerpieces.
The soundtrack of a bar mitzvah today is less of a pop song and more a mournful dirge.. Stay at Home orders have cancelled our parties and our rehearsed prayers. Seemingly, the bar mitzvah we’ve come to expect is already a historical relic.
Yet as a Rabbi, I don’t think this situation merits a dirge. If we play our cards right, we are standing witness to the beginning of a new, much more inspired iteration of a bar or bat mitzvah.
From socially distant front lawn celebrations, to “car-mitzvah” drive-bys, creativity is shining, but many of us are struggling with the unavoidable fact that it’s just not the same. You don’t feel that flood of emotions in your stomach over a Zoom call as you deliver your prepared Torah portion and obligatory speech (“Today I become a man…). . I don’t feel that same knot of emotions in my stomach throwing a gift out the car window while blasting “Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov” on my stereo at a “car mitzvah.” It’s not working for me.
Learn a bisel Yiddish with Rukhl Schaechter’s “Word of the Day” video series on YouTube.
But therein sits the problem. Who is this experience for anyway? My growing pity for these kids was focused on me, the guest. But coming of age in a Jewish context is all about personal growth. One becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, one doesn’t have a bar mitzvah. In fact, I am not sorry for these kids at all — I am jealous.
To be sure, the American bnei mitzvah has had a good run. Yet from summer camp closures to locked shul doors, this pandemic is calling the entirety of meaningful Jewish experiences into question. As the Regional Director of West Coast NCSY, a youth movement serving over 4000 students annually, I can tell you that this pandemic has brought about major conversations of current relevance, mission and sustainability.
Pre-corona, much has been written about systemic bar mitzvah issues, focusing only on memorization and a celebration with the Joneses. There have been valiant attempts, but no one has cracked the nut of how to deepen the modern bnei mitzvah tradition. Where do we even start?
Becoming a bar/bat mitzvah corresponds to an age where a child begins a new level of Jewish obligation. An adult, in Jewish legal terms, is a person whose word can be trusted. Responsibility and trust are serious character traits that take time to develop and must be nurtured through experience. An essential piece of that life experience is the development of grit, strengthening our budding leaders to take on the world. The big elephant at the usual bar mitzvah is that neither of the above-mentioned attributes are secured via memory games coupled with a DJ-ed bash.
Individuals that are becoming a bar/bat mitzvah during this pandemic are gaining something far greater than the typical route could ever deliver; they are actually challenged with an adult situation and adult choices. Crushed expectations, coupled with the willingness to pivot and persevere, births grit. A young girl that spent months learning and developing a community service project which has been halted is earning grit. She is now tasked to choose between pushing forward or giving up. Such a choice is a real-world challenge. Through this practice run, she will grow stronger.
I love the creative virtual options, and not just because car rhymes with bar but because they represent the conscious choice to switch directions and continue forward. To persevere in the face of hardship. Grit is what we want our children to have as they mature. Grit is how our children will stand strong in the face of anti-Semitism. Grit is how people choose joy over sadness or hope over defeat. Grit breeds responsibility and grit breeds trust.
Long after the quarantine is lifted, we mustn’t forget what was born out of the virtual bat mitzvah. To everyone that will have the superior experience of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah during this pandemic, mazal tov — and please send me the link! As an added bonus, you can’t smell the tuna lady through a zoom call.
Rabbi Derek Gormin is the Regional Director of West Coast NCSY and teacher of Talmud and Jewish philosophy at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, CA. Derek and his wife Sarah Leah live in North Hollywood, CA with their 5 ridiculously cute children.