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Bar and Bat Mitzvah

A recent article in the Sunday New York Times discussed the phenomena of families having a bar or bat mitzvah outside the framework of a synagogue. There are children who are being prepared for this traditional rite of passage by “online tutoring” with an anonymous person who may only meet the student and family infrequently, if at all. They hire what is commonly referred to as a “rent a rabbi” to officiate at a setting other than a synagogue.


Needless to say, I find the trend disturbing.


Ours is an oral tradition, passed on from one generation to the next. The teacher who trains and prepares the child, as well as the rabbi, can have a tremendous impact and considerable influence on helping a young person, as well as the family, connect to their heritage. A mentor can play a critical role in developing a child or family’s Jewish identity.


The article got me thinking about the reasons and advantages of having a bar or bat mitzvah at a synagogue, and especially at B’nai Tzedek.


While the “individualized” services may be personal, it overlooks the centrality of community in Judaism, as well as its role as the transmitter of our heritage.


As I point out to the children and parents, the children begin the service sitting in the midst of the congregation. They are invited and called up to the bimah when we get to the prayers preceding the reading from the Torah. I do this to symbolize the fact that the children are being invited to take their place as members of the congregation. They are becoming part of the community and of the people of Israel.


Prior to the service, I meet with the children and their parents in the Holt Family Chapel, at which time I remind them of the importance of kavannah, which means intention and spirituality. To help set the proper mood, I invite the parents to give their child a personal blessing at this special time. It can be a very beautiful spiritual moment.


In preparation for their bar/bat mitzvah, our children learn a number of synagogue – related skills designed to give them the tools so they will be knowledgeable, feel comfortable and be able to participate in services at any shul. The children learn to chant both the Friday night and Saturday morning kiddush, as well as how to do an aliyah. They study the blessings before and after reading from the Torah and Haftarah, the cantilation notes to chant Torah and Haftarah and a number of other prayers.


In addition to becoming familiar with the liturgy, the children and families participate in a number of workshops which present the meaning of bar and bat mitzvah, study their Torah portion and prepare a D’var Torah about the Torah reading. They also have the benefit of working with our experienced and skilled staff led by Cantor Kapell and bar and bat mitzvah coordinator, Liane Aaron, as well as our tutors and instructors who help to teach the children their individual portions.


I firmly believe there is a great advantage in forging a relationship with a synagogue community and being a part of a congregation. It offers the opportunity to develop a relationship with their synagogue and their rabbi – all of which cannot and does not happen with one of the “boutique” services discussed in the New York Times article.


A child I met with not too long ago told me that she disapproved of a non-synagogue service she attended precisely because it was too focused on the child. She wisely recognized that this venue did not convey the significance of becoming a member of the larger Jewish community.


Hopefully bar or bat mitzvah will be the pathway to a meaningful Jewish life, one which will continue long after the memories of a beautiful day and experience will have receded.

Also published on Medium.


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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.