OOOOOhhhhh… that wonderful time of life when our children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It’s a rite of passage, an affirmation of their Jewish identity, supposedly the time they become an adult (really???). Why does it have to be right in the middle of puberty? Our sons’ voices are cracking, our daughters are hormonal and cry easily. They all want to be the popular kid and are struggling to find their way. And right in the midst of this, we say, “It’s time for your Bar/Bat Mitzvah!”
How do we take all this turmoil and make it meaningful, creating lifelong lessons and memories? The answer is simple, but we often don’t see it. We need to focus more on the Mitzvah and less on raising the Bar: learning the lessons of our ancestors, embracing the traditions of generations before us, creating new rituals, immersing ourselves in community and bringing relevance and contemporary meaning to this ancient ritual.
The Mitzvah Project should play a central role in this process. It should focus on what the student is passionate about or on something that touches them in some way. It can even tie into the Parasha (Torah portion) that they read. The student should own it, the family should embrace it, participating, encouraging and sharing the Mitzvah. This way the family becomes part of the Mitzvah process. Similarly, the family should discuss the Parasha with the student before the student writes their D’var Torah (explanation of the portion). It will allow the family to understand what the Parasha is about, and it may lead to discussion about related topics and help the student with the D’var Torah. This shows familial interest in the text and models care for our traditions and for communal learning.
Those honored in the service should be central to the child’s life. They should be someone who is present in their life, who cares about the child and whom the child knows well. Close friends, family members, teachers, coaches or mentors will add to the meaning and joy in the service — whereas your brother’s friend’s cousin who flew in and whom your child has not seen since his Bris — will be meaningless to the child and detract from the significance of the day.
Now comes the party: how do we keep it meaningful? Focus on the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student. Choose a theme that ties into their interests, their lives or the Parasha. Let them have input on the party. It does not have to be bigger than their classmate’s, fancier than your neighbors or more elaborate than your attorney’s son’s party. It should reflect your child’s personality. A quiet, introverted child would be uncomfortable with a big, splashy party whereas an extroverted, social child would prefer it.
Let us remember that this is about the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child, not about us. The child is already dealing with puberty as well as insecurity about reading Hebrew in front of a congregation. Let’s embrace the entire Bar or Bat Mitzvah process — the mitzvah project, the service, family learning and the celebration. This will encourage a meaningful experience. ✿
Sue Penn is a mother of three, Education Director at University Synagogue, president of Jewish Reconstructionist Educators of North America and a member of the Jewish Educators Assembly.