13 is not the problem

13 is not the problem

My wife and I are the parents of five boys ages 3 to 17, so we have bar mitzvah on the brain.

Understandably, we read Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin’s “Another modest proposal” (August 30) with some interest. Rabbi Salkin laments that “[A]pproximately 50 percent of our postpubescent Jewish kids drop out after bar/bat mitzvah and so do their families. You can practically hear the synagogue doors slamming right after Ein Keloheinu at the last child’s ceremony.” To help remedy this problem, Rabbi Salkin suggests moving bar/bat mitzvah age to 17 so it coincides with “the real moment of passage” into intellectual maturity.

Respectfully, with his suggestion that the bar/bat mitzvah age be changed to 17, Rabbi Salkin confuses appreciation of mitzvot with a mythical “moment” of passage, and thus misconstrues the significance of a bar/bat mitzvah. The reason so many of the constituents to which Rabbi Salkin refers leave Judaism in the pews after bar/bat mitzvah is not because 13 (12 for girls) is too young, but rather because of what happened (or did not happen) in the preceding 12 or 13 years. Sam Horowitz did not have dancing girls at his bar mitzvah extravaganza because he was too young to appreciate Judaism. That was a result of priorities his parents set out for him from the beginning of his life. Parents’ decisions whether and how to prioritize Jewish education and observances are the strongest determinants of a child’s future commitment to Judaism.

Without a formal Jewish education, grounded in a real understanding of traditional Jewish texts, observances, and values, Jewish teens will drift away, whether their parents throw them a big party with a DJ at 13, 17, or 27. With such an education, coupled with age-appropriate emphasis on appreciating the positives of, for example, Shabbat, Torah learning, Israel and performing chesed (and maybe even pidyon haben), as children grow from toddlers to teens to adults the odds of keeping them committed to Judaism rise exponentially (although there is no guarantee). Even without statistical confirmation this is common sense. Who will be the better swimmer at 13: a child who takes lessons in the pool from the time they learn to walk or a child who only dips a toe in the water before he or she is asked to swim in the deep end?

And even though a bar/bat mitzvah might not be able to make it all the way across the “deep end” of Judaism at 12 or 13, that is not the expectation and does not mean that their entry into Jewish adulthood has been a failure at some momentary “passage.” Indeed, it has been our experience personally, and communally, that a properly prepared bar or bat mitzvah is ready – each to their own level – to better appreciate the significance of mitzvot and take more personal responsibility for incorporating them into their lives at age 13. But that “moment” is only the beginning of passage to Jewish adulthood; from that point on their formal Jewish education must continue if there is to be realistic hope that they stay committed to the Torah and mitzvot. Without that continuing traditional education and concomitant parental commitment, eventually there will be no one, of any age, left to even say Ein Keloheinu before everyone leaves the synagogue for good.