At a bar or bat mitzvah, the young person is celebrated as he or she chants the Torah and Haftorah, and perhaps delivers a dvar Torah, or leads some portion of the service. But what happens when a child cannot handle the Hebrew? What happens when there’s a learning difficulty, a language issue, an attention issue or some other legitimate reason why the young person is unable to “perform” in the traditionally expected way?
In many congregations, and until recently even my own, we would have the child fake it. In other words, he or she would memorize it. Sometimes, when memorization wasn’t possible, a sheet of paper would be discretely slipped over the Torah scroll, so the student could read using Latin characters.
Then, the young person would be lauded for “learning” to read Torah. And although no one in the congregation would have any idea of what had really transpired, the young person would.
I recently began thinking about this scenario from the child’s perspective: how does it feel to be celebrated for doing something that you didn’t really do?
Becoming a bar/bat mitzvah means reaching the stage of Jewish adulthood. It means taking on the responsibilities for one’s own Jewish choices and assuming a place in the community.
I think that when we have our young students “fake it,” we are giving them the impression that they are not adequate – that their Jewish community wants them to be something they aren’t. This isn’t the message we should send to our young people.
Instead, the message ought to be: Use your strengths. If your strength is grappling with big ideas, share that with the community. If you feel a connection to Judaism through music, art, dance or drama, then share that with us. If you prefer to interpret the Torah and show us how the ideas in there apply to our lives today, then please come and be our teacher. Let us celebrate your strengths.
The definition of a Jewish adult is not “one who can memorize the Torah.” The definition of a Jewish adult is someone who takes an active role in his or her Judaism, one who lives Torah, teaches it to others, sees it in their daily lives and takes it seriously.
We ought to let our young people demonstrate their Jewish adulthood in their own ways – using their own natural abilities – so that one day, looking back, they can say with sincerity, “I belong in this community. I have something valuable to contribute and my community values me.” And then, maybe – just maybe – they will stay connected to the community and continue to value Jewish education and tradition.
In Exodus 25:1-2, we read, “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved’.”
God did not specify that each gift needed to be the same. God simply asked for gifts from those who felt moved to give. So why do we, as congregations, ask our young people to give the same things? Why must they chant Torah and Haftorah, if they are not able to? Why not ask the young people to bring their own gifts?
Perhaps a better approach would be to embrace them for who they are and what they have to offer us. We will all be richer for it.
Rabbi Erin Polansky is the rabbi at Neshamah: A New Model for Jewish Community in Vaughan, Ont.