Revolution! Engaging Our Teens

Jewish education often builds up to a crescendo, culminating in that big day called Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  A beautiful rite of passage that is supposed to mark the beginning of a young person’s adult responsibilities as a Jew can be a meaningful bridge to adulthood, or it can be a performance, an excuse for a party and the endpoint of one’s Jewish education.
Some will say that there is too much “bar” and not enough “mitzvah,” others will lament the watering down of the learning process and still others will claim that it is necessary to meet people where they are – soccer practice, dance lessons and all – to keep the kids in the fold.  Educators are struggling to figure out the right mix of Torah knowledge, Hebrew skills and hands-on tzedakah projects that will keep kids coming back for more after the big day.
While the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) has an initiative called the “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution” to address the challenge of engaging our teens, the issue transcends the walls of one synagogue or the boundaries of a given stream of Judaism.  In Orange County it may well take a village to educate and retain a Jewish teen.

Bring It to the Bureau
“Classic institutionalists say ‘this is the way it’s got to be,’ and the consumer is saying ‘we don’t want that, so we’re working with the synagogues and Jewish Federation & Family Services to build a true, seamless community program that kids will enjoy and want to come back,” explained David Lewis, CEO of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) of Orange County.  “We’re trying to create community passion and a community partnership for a place and a Jewish experience.”
The BJE used to have an Adat Noar program for ninth graders.  Currently, the BJE’s TALIT program incorporates all high school students.
As Eric Nicastro, BJE’s director of youth and experiential education, said, “We’re creating an affordable new Adat Noar program for eighth graders.  Kids leave Jewish education after Bar or Bat Mitzvah and have nothing between then and the ninth grade.”
The program, which will include a mandatory retreat, an optional retreat, a social action event with families, two social events and an opening and closing event, will bring synagogue educators to the retreats to meet with their own students.  According to Nicastro, the program will strengthen what the individual synagogues do by making the students feel like a larger whole, building a sense of community and giving the students social opportunities they might not have at their own congregations.
He added, “The common bond is that the kids are Jewish and doing things together.  When they recognize that and enjoy it, it deepens their connection to their own Judaism.”
“It’s a true, seamless community program with real integration and real buy-in,” Lewis said.
“It’s good to have the desire from the synagogues to recreate this covenant to work together,” Nicastro said.  “By working together, we’ll ensure that our community survives and thrives.”
The program will begin in November.  For details, contact the Bureau of Jewish Education at (949) 435-3450.

Commentary from the Congregations
Meanwhile, the rabbis and educators in the community have some ideas of their own about changing demographics, changing needs and changing curricula for B’nai Mitzvah and teens.  Here are some of their thoughts.
“Living in the 21st century, we have endless options to choose from, and, as a result, what is meaningful becomes defined by what options feel most comfortable,” said Rabbi K’vod Wieder of Temple Beth El of Aliso Viejo.  “What is most comfortable is usually what is most familiar and most appropriate to how we define ourselves.  In the iPod Generation, we don’t have to buy the album anymore, but can create our own personalized playlist.  As a result, we may not be challenged to appreciate music we are not familiar with or some of the richer album cuts from an artist that didn’t make the Top 40 pop format.”
Rabbi Wieder believes that “creating musical playlists that mirror ourselves and our preferences is a benign way that we might be indulgent,” adding, “We grow as human beings when we experience life in a way that expands beyond how we define ourselves.  If we only made choices based on what was comfortable, familiar and fit our own self-definition, then we wouldn’t have the opportunity to grow, in our Judaism or as human beings.”
Becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah “is the culmination of a multi-layered Jewish educational process involving family, teachers, clergy and community and the beginning of a conscious commitment to make mitzvah and community part of one’s life,” he said.  “Living a Jewish life means that the way we define ourselves is in relationship to our tradition and our community.  When our choices are always made in relationship with other people or with the wisdom of our tradition, then we experience input that challenges us to grow.  As Jewish adults, it is natural that we become drawn to some mitzvot and not others. For me, the relevant question is: have we allowed ourselves to engage deeply enough with our tradition and community, so that our choices are truly an expression of an expansive sense of self in relationship?”
In regard to the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony, Rabbi Wieder believes that it is the responsibility of the community (family, teachers and clergy) to insist that the child experience mitzvah in the context of community practice.  In this way, being Jewish keeps alive that tension of individual and community as the adult self emerges as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
“I am excited that URJ’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution is addressing the reality that many Jewish children in this country are not connected to their B’nai Mitzvah process,” Rabbi Wieder said. “However for me, the answer is not found in changing community practice to reflect the limited understanding of the individual child.  Instead, it’s a call to our families and our religious schools to connect with our children as unique human beings and help them locate how ritual mitzvot can authentically speak to them, so that their expression in community becomes a powerful expression to who they are becoming.”
“Temple Beth Sholom (TBS) (in Santa Ana) has been doing a lot of thinking, research and envisioning about what a B’nai Mitzvah experience should be and what we can expect our alumni to look like as they continue on into Jewish adulthood,” said Rabbi Heidi Cohen.
April Akiva, R.J.E., director of congregational learning at TBS, has had the opportunity to reap the benefits of the most current research and projects in the world of Jewish education.  The religious school staff and lay committee have studied a number of the articles presented in the “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution” to expand upon the congregation’s approach to Hebrew and Tefilah Education.
During the past year TBS introduced an extra half hour of Hebrew enrichment to its school day to review important prayers and concepts and bring Hebrew to students in meaningful ways.  The congregation moved its all-school service to a “visual Tefilah” model, where the liturgy is projected onto a screen with meaningful, thematic visuals in the background.  The service is co-led by clergy and educators.  Students are often called up to the bimah as guest musical artists, enhancing prayer through drums or guitar.
According to Akiva, “It is our obligation to teach our children how to be engaged as active service leaders and Torah readers. Each class leads a Torah service where students learn trope, help to scroll the Torah, read from Torah and perform Hagbah.  By training students early, we bring a comfort that can extend beyond the B’nai Mitzvah experience.  We hope to instill habits of participation and competency at a young age so that B’nai Mitzvah serves more of a marker of time, and less of a culmination or graduation.”
Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin is “delighted with the quality of our young people’s participation as they join the ongoing Shabbat services as leaders. They consistently read multiple Torah readings and in many cases learn the skills of trope, the cantillation, so as to read Torah again.  In addition, they chant the Haftorah, lead prayers and give a Dvar Torah.”
At B’nai Israel the B’nai Mitzvah perform a ten-hour mitzvah project, such as adopting a grandparent at Bubbie and Zayde’s Place, serving meals for the needy or walking dogs in a shelter.  They are taught that to become B’nai Mitzvah entails learning the skills to lead services and to make a difference in the larger community.  On any Shabbat, post B’nai Mitzvah participate, including reading Torah.
Rabbi Spitz added, “To keep teens involved we have four attractive offerings: participation in our USY, with leading services in synagogue the first Friday of the month and then having Shabbat dinner, singing and a speaker; a Wednesday night Hebrew High program; a program of madrichim, teacher aides, in our religious school; and a summer camp (Camp B’nai Ruach) where many of our post-B’nai Mitzvah get paid as counselors.”
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue in Irvine said, “Our Bar/Bat Mitzvah program focuses on increasing one’s Hebrew/Jewish skills, spiritually and intellectually understanding one’s Torah portion both verbally and in writing and community service through a Tikkun Olam project.  We want our newest adults to deepen their love, knowledge and experience of Judaism through Hebrew school, family Bar/Bat Mitzvah workshops and Shabbat service attendance, and we want them to enjoy the pleasure of doing mitzvot for others.”
According to Rabbi Rachlis, University Synagogue has a high retention rate for its confirmation and high school programs.  He and the cantor, educational director and other teachers teach in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and high school programs.  He concluded, “I welcome innovative ideas by any movement in Judaism, but I would prefer to add value and education, rather than lessening it.”
“Though there are different understandings and views of Judaism, all denominations share the same goal of keeping the early teens involved beyond their Bar/Bat Mitzvah,” said Rabbi Yisroel Ciner of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.  “Through the training that is done for them to speak and lead the services at Beth Jacob, many gain the skills and confidence to continue to do so afterwards.”
A personal connection is also built between the B’nai Mitzvah and the rabbi, “which helps to encourage continued synagogue involvement,” he added.  “Youth groups are the best way to keep the youth eagerly engaged.  These past years we have revitalized the NCSY (National Council of Synagogue Youth) Irvine Chapter and have had 10 to 20 teens joining a weekly Lattes & Learning at a local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and have sent large groups to different Shabbatonim.  This year we have hired Rabbi David Becker as our youth director with plans to further engage our youth of all ages.”
Rabbi Dov Fischer of Young Israel of Orange County believes that “B’nai Mitzvah programs in America have failed, because they necessarily address only the superficial.  A child dutifully spends a year learning to recite a page of Hebrew, and parents and guests emerge wrongly persuaded that the child has mastered text and Hebrew reading.”
He added, “Parents hesitate to give their children a substantive Jewish Day School education where children learn Chumash and Rashi in the text, then Mishnah and Talmud in the text and core Jewish laws and practices.  Meanwhile, synagogues are content to be revolving Bar Mitzvah Factories, where a new class enters and the prior year’s class disappears.  Our children can have it all, but we need to trust them with the opportunity of a substantive Jewish education that includes Chumash and Rashi, Mishnah and Talmud through high school.”
Rabbi Dennis Linson of Temple Judea in Laguna Woods said that his congregation values meeting young people “where they are” in their development into Jewish young adults.  The rabbi gives the students several things to think about as they prepare for this milestone.
“We explain that the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are a ‘rite of passage,’ marking a crossover from young adulthood to adulthood; a milestone in a Jewish life,” he said.  “At that point the young person, who is no longer a child in the eyes of Jewish law, becomes responsible for his or her own deeds, spiritually, ethically and morally.  We have expectations of mastery of decoding Hebrew texts, chanting Torah and Haftarah, preparing a Torah teaching and learning to lead Erev Shabbat and Shabbat prayers.  Yet we find each young person as an individual, and we work with special needs as well.”
For many young people, preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony is a highlight of their growing awareness of Judaism and is a moment when they are the center of attention, according to Rabbi Linson.  He concluded, “To participate in the service gives a sense of belonging.  To be the focus of all the fussing provides a sense of importance.  If the study and preparation are done right, the experience will be positive and will build a warm, happy, lasting bond with Jewish life.”

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