Not just blah-blah-blah and pizza
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Not just blah-blah-blah and pizza

Mahwah shul develops programming for pre- and post-b'nai mitzvah kids

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Above, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher. Inset left, Rebecca McVeigh.

Somewhere on their way to the 21st century, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations took a wrong turn.

In its origins, and in its fundamental religious significance, the bar mitzvah ceremony marks a rite of passage. The 12- or 13-year-old is now a Jewish adult, specifically when it comes to synagogue services and other ritual obligations.

Yesterday, you were a child; today if you are not fully a man or a woman, at any rate you are someone who can be called upon to make a minyan.

But in congregations where most families don’t heed a daily or weekly call to public prayer, it doesn’t really work that way.

After years of Hebrew school leading up to the ceremony, the newly minted Jewish adult drops out from Jewish life for the remainder of his or her teenage years.

How to change that?

How, in the word of Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, “can we move from the idea that a bar mitzvah is a graduation and into the idea that it’s a driver’s license,” which grants permission to play a driving role in Jewish ritual?

The question is not new, and it is not small.

It was the topic of a meeting of the Synagogue Leadership Institute of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey last month, and it is the target of a major initiative of the Union for Reform Judaism called “Bar Mitzvah Revolution.”

Rabbi Mosbacher’s congregation, Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, has been taking part in a synagogue training program under the Bar Mitzvah Revolution umbrella. He and the congregation’s education director Rebecca McVeigh were the main speakers at the recent SLI program.

Their congregation has about 50 bar or bat mitzvahs a year; that’s one or two almost every week between September and June.

The bottom line: The congregation has managed to increase the number of teens who stay on after bar or bat mitzvah. But, Rabbi Mosbacher said, there is no one secret; no magic program he or the Reform movement has discovered. “We were sitting in our little staff ivory tower trying to guess what the perfect program would be. That wasn’t working,” he said.

Instead, “What we learned came largely from periods of intensive listening to a broad range of congregants, and a willingness to do hard self-evaluation.

“It’s been less about a b’nai mitzvah revolution and more about an engagement revolution. If we engage families and connect them with each other, they stay connected. If we wait until the bar mitzvah year, it’s way too late,” he said.

A few years ago, the congregation began connecting with bar and bat mitzvah families the year before their celebration with a day-long Shabbat event. It begins with a service, at which the rabbi, the cantor, and Ms. McVeigh explain what’s going on and who’s doing what. After lunch, there’s a ceremony where families are called up to the Ark and given a booklet describing the Torah portion the child will chant the following year. Then, the families begin looking at the portion and even draw up posters collecting their thoughts. Next, all the posters are taped together to form a scroll, which will be opened to that portion at the child’s bar or bat mitzvah.

Ms. McVeigh said the congregation is considering more such programs, to begin even earlier before the bar mitzvah date. Perhaps one in fourth grade focusing on the service and the prayers, and another devoted to community service, she said. Then, perhaps another event after the year’s bar and bat mitzvah cycle has concluded, something that will bring everyone back again.

Already, a new program for families of the bar mitzvah age cohort has begun gathering for monthly potluck Shabbat dinners at each others’ homes. Rabbi Daniel Kirzane, the congregation’s assistant rabbi, helps guide participants through the rituals. After an hour, he departs for Friday night services. A few families come with him, but most remain behind and continue socializing.

“It’s a way to build community and celebrate Shabbat at the same time,” said Rabbi Kirzane, whose desire for a local Shabbat dinner – he lives in New York City – sparked the program. “This is feeding that human need for companionship and relationships – and of course, food. As they build relationships to each other, they’re more committed to our community in general.”

For the bar or bat service itself, Rabbi Mosbacher said, there is a tension “between the need of the individual family to have an individual experience, and the needs of the community to have a Shabbat service.” One way the congregation addressed the tension was by setting aside honors for the congregation. Another was to have members of the congregation come up during the service to congratulate the b’nai mitzvah on behalf of the community.

And then there was the matter of having the parents give a blessing to their child. Such a blessing is fine – until it resembles an Oscar speech.

“Do you think parents are born knowing how to write a blessing?” one of Rabbi Mosbacher’s colleagues asked when the topic came up.

So now there’s a how-to-write-a-blessing class. “The parents are really appreciative,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.

“I used to meet with b’nai mitzvah kids and their families twice,” he added. “Now we meet seven times in the course of a year. The last one is right before the bar mitzvah. Now I’m thinking the last one should be after the bar mitzvah. It’s a lot of time on my part, but it’s time well spent in developing a relationship with the kids and with the families.”

While these efforts are designed to connect children and their families to the congregation before the bar or bat mitzvah, the synagogue also has changed its post-b’nai mitzvah connections to the children.

It hired a half-time youth professional. It targeted its new endowment campaign on youth engagement. It moved the seventh grade into the Hebrew high school program, putting the seventh graders together with the older teens. Instead of being the oldest, and ready to graduate, they are now the youngest, with a clear path of involvement ahead. And on the Monday night after their bar or bat mitzvah, “We make a big deal that Joey or Suzie became bar mitzvah. It’s a thing. The kids look forward to it,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.

The Bar Mitzvah Revolution program encouraged the congregation to listen to the congregants. What Beth Haverim found in listening to high school students, Rabbi Mosbacher said, is that the students were too busy to go to a synagogue program that was primarily social.

“They say they don’t have time come to a program that is just blah-blah-blah and pizza,” he said. Accordingly, “We developed more of a curriculum and serious content for our post b’nai mitzvah program.

“We’ve been more intentional” about bringing post bar mitzvah youth into the Monday night religious school program. “Last year, we had some of the 11th and 12th graders call the linchpin kids” – those who would set the pace for their peers – to recruit them for the program.

The synagogue also has been looking for other ways of engaging teenagers beyond the Monday night program, including expanding the congregation’s four-day trip to Washington, D.C., which focus on social action, and opening it to kids who aren’t in the religious school program.

“I think we’ve seen an increase in retention,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “The classes feel more like a class. It’s a slow cultural shift, but it seems like we can see that we’re turning the tide.”

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