There is a growing debate over the nature of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations that recently spilled over onto our op-ed pages (“Another modest proposal,” August 29). The debate was sparked in part by a YouTube video featuring a Dallas, Texas, boy taking center stage, literally, in a performance that had all the earmarks of a Busby Berkeley musical extravaganza, including the hiply-dressed youth being lowered on a chandelier into the waiting arms of showgirls and a well-rehearsed dance routine. “These were not girls his age dancing, but women clad in gold fringe, micro mini-dresses shaking everything they have for twice what it’s worth,” said a report in the Christian Science Monitor.
In a column in the Washington Post, David Wolpe, a prominent Los Angeles rabbi, called the event “a narcissistic display” akin to “throwing Christians to lions – that is, toss belief into the arena of appetite.”
Wolpe eventually apologized to the 13-year-old and his parents, because he made assumptions that were wrong. He was not entirely wrong, however. He just aimed at the wrong target. It is the traditional bar/bat mitzvah commemoration itself that needs rethinking.
The Reform movement, at least, is engaging in just such an exercise – something it undertook long before the viral video first appeared on YouTube. As an article in the New York Times reported this week, the movement is piloting a program that seeks to make this rite of passage more Jewishly meaningful. To become a bar or bat mitzvah, after all, means becoming responsible for your own actions. It is supposed to set Jewish teenagers on a course that will lead to the best possible lives, morally, ethically, and ritually, as that is defined by the stream to which they and their families choose to affiliate.
A bar or bat mitzvah today – all too often someone who can barely read Hebrew and understands almost none of what he or she is reading – is trained to read a portion of the Torah and a portion of the Prophets, and to deliver a speech about the meaning of it all.
As one Reform scholar helping to steer the pilot program told the New York Times, however, “what’s the point of … having your kid read a text they don’t understand in a language they don’t understand? Maybe it shouldn’t be such a performance. It should be about becoming part of the community.”
“Everything is on the table” in the pilot program, the Times reported, including “how or whether to teach Hebrew, whether to delay the ceremony until children are older, and even whether to require children to read from the Torah.”
Even attendance at Hebrew school for the four years leading to this status-changing birthday event is under review.
“We sent the message to families that if you want to be a bar or bat mitzvah, you have to join the synagogue,” one rabbi is quoted as saying. “And what they heard was, ‘When you’re done, you can leave the synagogue.’ We’d like to go back to our roots and say, ‘How can we make it a point of welcome and not the exit point that it’s become?’ ”
The article also made this point: “Children and their families go through what some rabbis call an ‘assembly line’ that produces Jews schooled in little more than ‘pediatric Judaism,’ an immature understanding of the faith, its values and spirituality.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin raised similar concerns in his August 29 op-ed. “Approximately 50 percent of our postpubescent Jewish kids drop out after bar/bat mitzvah,” he wrote. “And so do their families. You can practically hear the synagogue doors slamming right after Ein Keloheinu at the last child’s ceremony. All of this leads to a heretical question: Is 13 still the ‘right’ age for Jewish maturity?”
The party is not the problem. The system is broke, and it is hobbled even further by the sad state of Jewish education – for our children and for their parents. Regardless of whether we agree with all of what the Reform movement is considering, we applaud it for initiative. We urge the other streams to seek solutions consistent with their ideologies; the problems may not be the same in each stream, but problems exist nonetheless.