It seemed like an endless struggle, but he made it. Three years of carpools, classes, practices, tapes, rehearsals and, finally, the big day – the Bar Mitzvah. With a knot in his stomach and with Mom and Dad kvelling, Joey chanted his Torah and Haftarah portions, gave his speech, breathed the requisite sigh of relief and headed for the social hall. It was a great party. And then…Joey was outta here!
The story is not new. Post-B’nai Mitzvah dropoff rates have been climbing for decades. It has been said that as few as 17 percent of boys and about one-third of girls who reach “the big day” go further with their Jewish education at that point.
Teens say they have too much else to occupy their after-school and weekend hours – sports, dance, service clubs, homework, college prep activities, not to mention the occasional social function. Parents say they have too much else to do, too – longer work hours, too much time spent getting their teens to all of the above activities and possibly additional time compensating for being the only parent in the house. Where does Jewish education fit into the picture?
The bigger concern is that many parents and teens think of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah as the endpoint of Jewish education, rather than as a major milestone in a lifelong Jewish journey. A great deal of preparation goes into the ceremony, which looks more like a performance than a rite of passage for some students. Even more preparation goes into a big, expensive party. The carrot is at the end of the stick, and the student is at the end of the road with his or her Jewish education. Before the presents are unwrapped or deposited in the bank, the teen has found other things to do. Has that young person walked out the door of the synagogue for good? Will that teen ever come back or embrace Judaism in any way, shape or form again?
The problem is so critical that many congregations are rethinking the whole process. As reported here in August, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) has launched the Campaign for Youth Engagement, a “focused, strategic effort to leverage the full strength and talent of every corner of the Reform Movement to engage and retain the majority of our youth by the year 2020.” A national conference on the subject is being held in Los Angeles February 15 to 19. URJ has joined forces with Hebrew Union College to create the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution to radically transform the entire B’nai Mitzvah experience.
Locally, the Bureau of Jewish Education is teaming up with congregations in the area to give teens a meaningful post-B’nai Mitzvah experience. A Shabbaton at the end of January will bring 8th graders together for a meaningful weekend of socializing and experiencing Judaism in a camp-like environment. The 8th grade Adat Noar program also includes a Social Action Sunday (with parents), Jr. Jewbilation Saturday night socials and a congregational learning connection. For 9th through 12th graders, the TALIT Nation program offers weekend camp retreats, leadership programs and travel opportunities to cultivate “Jewish pride, participation and leadership.”
The organizational structure is out there and trying to provide the flexibility to be meaningful to youth and families. What has to happen now is that teens and their parents will make their continuing Jewish connection a priority. It really is more important than football or dance or a few extra hours of studying for an exam. Come on; you know it is.