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For students at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, bar and bat mitzvah is a milestone, not an endpoint.

So what exactly is a bar or bat mitzvah?

Is it the culmination of Jewish education? Is it a milestone? A liminal time? A passage?

Is it about the Torah reading? The party? The service? The dancers? The d’var Torah? The herring?

Wait. The what?

As participants in the sold-out crowd at the Jewish Futures conference hosted by UJA Federation of New York learned on February 27, the way in which children’s becoming bar and bat mitzvah is celebrated has changed greatly over the last half-century or so. The conference, sponsored by the Jewish Education Project and Jesna, along with many other organizations, focused on the role of bar and bat mitzvah today.

A number of Bergen County Jewish educators, including the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’ Lisa Harris Glass, who is the director of its Synagogue Leadership Initiative, spent the day in midtown Manhattan at the conference.

“The idea was to explore the role of bar and bat mitzvah in American today,” Glass said. She was particularly taken with the way Rachel Brodie, who spoke midday, framed the issue. Brodie holds the marvelously named position of chief Jewish officer at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and she talked, Glass said, about how the language we use affects the way we think about b’nai mitzvah, about how in fact a person does not “have” a bar/bat bitzvah but instead becomes one.

The bat or bar mitzvah is a liminal time, a time when the 12- or 13-year-old is floating between worlds; childhood behind, adolescence ahead, adulthood a distant light further down the tunnel. Brodie used the term “Jew-in-progress” to describe a new bar or bat mitzvah, Glass reports, and she is partial to the term “Jewishing” as a verb describing the same process. It is a threshold, an exciting place to stand (“but if you don’t get out of the way, someone will pierce your ear there,” she said, referring to Exodus 21:6 and the sad case of the slave who refuses his freedom).

The question is where to go from that moment – into a greater Jewish involvement, or away from it.

Another insight, Glass said, was that the party that follows the religious service might have taken on su ch importance because “it is the only role available for parents, because of the rigidity of the educating institution and the lack of parental involvement in that process.” If parents are frozen out of the ceremony, they might allow the party to heat up more. It might be helpful to make more room for them.

The problem of where the bar or bat mitzvah leads is not confined to the liberal Jewish world, she said; in fact, one of the panelists, Rabbi Elie Weinstock, associate rabbi at Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun, said that teenagers in his highly influential modern Orthodox Manhattan shul, home to the day school Ramaz, often do not come to services. In that, they are similar to their Conservative and Reform peers.

That’s why the bar or bat mitzvah ritual is so powerful. It places young people at a crossroads and gets beneath their defenses. The choice of where to move at least in part is theirs.

Participants were asked to list what they think of the biggest challenges surrounding b’nai mitzvah commemorations; as befits our high-tech times, the polling was done by smartphone. “Number 1 was seeing the bar mitzvah as the end, not the means; then making it a meaningful event, then involving the whole family, then the role of synagogue membership and of financial issues,” Glass reported.

She added that her own surveys have shown that the financial pressures were underplayed at the conference. It is expensive to have a child become bar or bat mitzvah, “and I don’t think we own that as well as we should,” she said. “Every synagogue makes accommodations, but you have to ask. It’s uncomfortable for many people.”

Rabbi Sharon Litwin, who is associate rabbi at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and director of the Hebrew school consortium headquartered there called the Northern New Jersey Jewish Academy, also went to the conference.

She learned, she reported, that although the marking of a child becoming a bar mitzvah as we know it seems to have the rootedness and inevitability of tradition, it began as a postwar phenomenon – and 60 years isn’t very long in a more than 3,000-year tradition.

After World War II, Jews, like everyone else, moved to the suburbs, and began building large synagogues. “It became a suburban synagogue criteria that if you want your child to become bar mitzvah, they have to come to Hebrew school for X many years,” she said. “Four year, five years. And the parties are a creation of the caterers.

“If my grandfather were still here and I could ask him about his bar mitzvah – obviously my grandmother did not become bat mitzvah – if I could ask him, he would say, ‘We had a little herring, a little schnapps, maybe a cookie, and we all went home.’

“But my father, who grew up in suburban Long Island and had his bar mitzvah in 1955 – it was a caterer’s creation. I’ve seen the pictures. He was wearing a tuxedo, and there was a printed menu. It was all about the speeches.

“My grandparents came from Brooklyn. They were new to Long Island. They were founding members of a synagogue. They did what they thought they were supposed to do. They thought it was tradition.

“Think about having a hora and a candle-lighting ceremony. That’s what we think of as being traditional, and when you don’t do it, people think you’re breaking with tradition, but it didn’t come from the shtetl or from Sinai.

“There is an opportunity for us to change things, to make a meaningful celebration for families for this rite of passage for their children in the 21st century,” Litwin said.

Litwin works with children before they become bar or bat mitzvah. Bess Adler, principal of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, has as students teenagers who have passed that milestone who chose to continue their Jewish educations.

Hebrew high school enrollment has been trending downward over the last decade, Adler said. There are many reasons, she added, but “one is that it’s hard for parents to commit to Hebrew high school. That’s partly because parents see bar or bat mitzvah as a pinnacle, the end point” of Jewish education.

“How do we combat that?” she asked.

Rabbi Carole Balin, a professor of American Jewish history at Hebrew Union College, gave a talk that gave Adler a great deal of hope. “I came away feeling positive,” Adler said. She, like Litwin, had been impressed by how quickly an innovation – in this case the fancy catered party – can become stone-bound tradition. “If in such a short time these traditions could be instituted and seen as normative, we as educators can change the trend in our community.

“The question is how can we turn it on its head.

“We can’t do only what we have been doing. We have to be more diverse – we have to hit different entrance areas. We have to still offer the programs that we offer, that meet the needs of many of our kids, and offer different programming, as well.

“It shouldn’t be that we offer this or that. It’s that we offer this AND that.

“I came away thinking that change can happen,” Adler concluded. “It can happen in a very short time. Maybe, when we talk about bar or bat mitzvahs, maybe our grandchildren will be like ‘What are you talking about?'”

In other words, maybe the candle-lighting will go the way of the herring.