It’s easy to bemoan the state of bar/bat mitzvah these days. As Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf of Chicago, of blessed memory, used to say, “There’s too much bar and not enough mitzvah.” Too much focus on extravagant parties which promote the wrong messages and not enough meaning about the Jewish rite of passage.
However, now that I am involved in so many of these occasions, I believe more than ever that we have to see the bright side of the bar/bat mitzvah machine. If we can make these three truths our mantra, the experience will be elevated spiritually and last a lifetime.
Community. Community is not a commodity that one can point to and when you walk in the doors you just join and done. Community is something that happens organically over time when people share a sense of responsibility for one another. Whether a family is a member of a congregation or having a bar/bat mitzvah thanks to the family creating the experience with the help of teachers and clergy in their own way, there is no such thing as a “private” bar/bat mitzvah.
These new teens should be reminded that their ceremony occurs within the backdrop of a civilization that is worldwide and they are part of this diverse people. Their Jewish community is made up of their family and friends and the people who support them and celebrate with them. Judaism is done with other people and these people will take care of them in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Cultivating community is one of the main values to uphold when marking bar/bat mitzvah.
Marking time with meaning. Life is a series of days unless we pause occasionally and mark our days with meaning. As human beings we do this to create order. We count up the days to reach Shabbat each week. We still work to reenact holidays throughout the whole calendar year to retell stories of our history that ground us with identity, remind us of our values and connect us with one another in our sacred myth. Turning 13 is an important time to celebrate.
The rabbis were onto something 2,000 years ago when they understood that becoming a teenager was a turning point. You become bar/bat mitzvah just by turning 13. The ceremony marks that coming-of-age. We do this within the Jewish framework which gives us the prayers and traditions of meaning. Going forward, Judaism can be a source of order, sacred purpose, joy, connections, and more, through marking our days with meaning.
Memorizing our words. Sometimes religious school teachers and tutors will tell a child not to memorize the prayers. They want them to be able to read the Hebrew. And sometimes it’s frustrating when people are reading Hebrew and they don’t know what they are reading. But just like we have memorized the words to Happy Birthday by the time we are a toddler and we know that those words are what we traditionally sing to mark that happy occasion, we have Jewish words that we traditionally say at night or in the morning or on a holiday and those are our words. They should be in our hearts and souls and roll off our tongue just like Happy Birthday. It’s okay to memorize these words even if we don’t know what they mean. The meaning transcends what they literally mean in translation.
Saying the Kaddish is a way of saying that we miss a loved one who has died. Saying, “Mazel Tov” is a way of acknowledging a joyful occasion. When we say Shema Yisrael, we are connected to our Jewish family around the world. Learning the core prayers in preparation to mark bar or bat mitzvah is profound. It is a gift that we can access in all different circles and all different situations of our life and it will feel good. Of course, learning more about Hebrew, brings the prayer experience to a different level, but just having these words available, is important in itself.