When it came time for Naomi Leaf to plan her grandson’s bar mitzvah, she followed the same route she did with her son, 40 years earlier.
Although she belongs to a Conservative synagogue, she decided to call an unaffiliated rabbi to teach her grandson and to hold the bar mitzvah service in a private banquet hall.
“I’m not that religious. I figured, why do it in a synagogue? It’s 10 times the price,” she says.
Going outside the synagogue also allowed her to customize the bar mitzvah service by adding more English and doing it on a day when the Torah is not traditionally read.
“I’ve been to bar mitzvahs where I feel it’s more for the parents showing off their kids,” she says. “To me, that’s not right.”
Even though synagogue membership is declining, families still want to celebrate their children’s coming of age in a Jewish fashion. In some communities, they are increasingly turning to independent clergy and tutors to mark the milestone outside of Jewish institutions. Facebook groups for b’nai mitzvah families show an endless number of services being held in country clubs and party venues.
Not surprisingly, it is a trend that rabbis find troubling. The bar and bat mitzvah signal a young person’s readiness to join the Jewish community, they argue. “Rent-a-rabbis,” as some derisively refer to them, diminish the collective experience.
“I don’t think they’re doing anybody a service, even though they are providing a service,” says Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom in Vancouver. “Bar mitzvah takes place in the context of a community. It’s not an individual moment, it’s a communal moment.”
Rabbi David Cooper, a Toronto-area rabbi who’s been overseeing private bar and bat mitzvahs for more than 40 years, disagrees. The essence of community, he argues, is a child’s parents and immediate family.
Synagogues, he says, have put up high barriers for some families, requiring years of membership and inflexible standards.
He tutors about 30 children a year and arranges the services to best suit their needs. Some families may want a service as short as 45 minutes, or they may have a child with learning difficulties. A year of instruction and a personalized service cost $2,200, but Rabbi Cooper says he won’t turn a child away for financial reasons.
“I think every child should be given the best possible service,” he says. “It makes being Jewish something personal.”
A number of the families he tutors are from the former Soviet Union and have a limited Jewish background.
“My Russian-Jewish community has been very alienated. Bring me 20 or 30 people and I’ll bring the Torah,” he says. “They’re hanging on to Judaism as best they can.”
Many families who don’t find that synagogue life resonates with them still want to be a part of the greater Jewish community, says a b’nai mitzvah leader who did not want to be identified because she has been publicly challenged in the past for leading services outside the synagogue.
She is sensitive to the charge that private services diminish the sense of community. “I understand it, having been raised in a synagogue,” she says. “For me, it was a wonderful part of my childhood.”
“When I lead a service with 80 Jewish people, we have created a sense of Jewish community right there,” she continues. “These families don’t feel like the synagogue is necessarily their Jewish community.”
Karen Moness opted for a private service a few years ago for her daughter. Her children attended a Reform Jewish day school, but she describes the family as secular.
“We didn’t want the full-blown, in the shul, Saturday morning service,” she says, and instead held a Havdalah service for her daughter.
“It didn’t feel like it was less Jewish because it wasn’t in a synagogue,” says Moness.
She was planning to do something similar for her son, but in the end, the family went to Israel, where they had a service on Masada with 14 family members that was led by an Israeli rabbi.
“It was the most beautiful thing we ever did,” she says.
Ari Glaizel, who recently celebrated his son’s bar mitzvah, says the criticism about private services turning their backs on the community are “valid.”
“But for us, because we were never members of a synagogue, we never felt like we lost that community, because we never had that community,” says Glaizel.
The family looked at synagogues, but were uncomfortable with membership regulations and rules about hiring strictly kosher caterers.
“I respect that – your house, your rules. We just won’t do it in your house,” was the conclusion Glaizel’s family arrived at.
His family designed a “fairly traditional” 90-minute Saturday morning service that was much shorter than the usual two-to-three-hour ritual.
“It was a very accessible service. My community, my group of friends, goes well beyond just Jewish people. To be able to create an environment where it was so inclusive and to really give a glimpse of what we’re all about, I thought was wonderful,” he says.
Reform Judaism is less enthused by this do-it-yourself trend of taking bar and bat mitzvahs outside the synagogue. About six years ago, the liberal movement created what it called the “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution” to try to stop families from leaving Jewish life once their children have come of age, and “to shift the mindset of how congregations help families prepare for this significant Jewish milestone,” said Lisa Langer, the Union for Reform Judaism’s associate director for congregational innovations.
Some of the changes can be seen at Temple Sholom, which, according to Rabbi Moskovitz, has been trying to “lower the barriers for entry.”
Students can pick the day, time and location of their Hebrew school sessions, which are held in small groups in congregants’ homes. “The families are now connected to each other, they have a Shabbat dinner and do other things together,” he says. Not having to choose between Hebrew school and soccer or piano lessons has boosted attendance over the past five years from 60 to 70 per cent, to over 90 per cent.
The curriculum was also revamped to put more emphasis on oral skills, prayer skills and teaching Hebrew using innovative methods, with less emphasis on strictly decoding the language, especially in the younger grades.
“As we learned from these rent-a-rabbis, it really takes somewhere between a year and six months to give the child the synagogue skills they need, even if they start from zero. So why make the Hebrew school experience so unpleasant for so many years,” says Rabbi Moskovitz.
The synagogue also takes a more holistic approach to bar and bat mitzvah preparations. “I say to my students: ‘I’m not preparing you for a service, I’m preparing you for a Jewish life.’ There has been too much emphasis on the performance aspect, of getting the trope and the haftarah down, so students can perform essentially a parlour trick,” he says.
The results of the changes are evident, with the temple’s religious school growing from 60 to 150 students in five years. The synagogue itself has gained about 100 members, many of whom are young families.
Interfaith families, who may not feel at home in a synagogue to begin with, are often attracted to the idea of marking the milestone outside of Jewish institutions. At Temple Sholom, where interfaith families make up about one-third of the 750-family membership, the non-Jewish parent is “allowed to participate almost fully,” says Rabbi Moskovitz.
He has also tried to accommodate children with special needs. In one case, he asked the guests to leave, while a student who suffered from severe anxiety read her Torah portion in front of just him and the cantor.
But ultimately, families need to know that while he sees himself as a “door-opener,” synagogues also have community standards. In Vancouver, however, the city’s synagogues have worked to encourage families who might not otherwise affiliate and independent bar and bat mitzvahs are rare.
At the other end of the religious spectrum, Rabbi Benny Kamchaji also sees unaffiliated families whose children are not in the Jewish day school system. As the assistant rabbi at Beth Chabad Israeli, a Chabad house in Toronto’s northern suburbs that caters to Israeli expats, he runs a bar mitzvah course – a year-long program that exposes boys to Jewish traditions and responsibilities. The boys also study individually with tutors and each has his own bar mitzvah, in Israel, or in a synagogue, but not necessarily Rabbi Kamchaji’s. Synagogue membership is not required to join the program and, in fact, most of the families are not members.
“We recognize there’s a need in the community that’s outside of the synagogue model and we want to help children,” he says. “Almost every week, someone’s getting bar mitzvahed, some at our (synagogue), some at different synagogues, and we’re happy about that. That’s a great thing, that Jewish children are continuing their Jewish education and their families are involved in the Jewish community.”
(Girls participate in a bat mitzvah program that culminates in a group ceremony at the end of the year).
The Chabad Israeli program has also found its sweet spot in the community, with participation growing from six boys when it started four years ago, to about 35 now, Rabbi Kamchaji said.
Not every family that holds a bar or bat mitzvah outside a synagogue is looking for an easier way to celebrate the milestone.
Stephen Reich belongs to a Reform synagogue in Toronto, but chose to hold the service in a performance space, outside the synagogue, to mark the occasion in a way that felt meaningful to his family.
A musician, Reich recruited musical friends and family members to form a choir and band, and arranged music for them to perform throughout the Saturday afternoon Mincha service.
He and his wife tutored their son and held the service when their son turned 14, which they felt was a natural time to mark their only child’s coming of age.
They ordered a replica Torah scroll from Israel, built and painted an ark for it and even designed their own bar mitzvah certificate for their son, which reminds him that he is a link in a Jewish chain.
Many of the things he had planned for the service would not have been possible in a Reform synagogue, he says. And the service was “well received” by family and friends.
“Not only was it meaningful because everything was explained, but we had our son lead the entire service,” Reich says. “We’ve never found community at a synagogue, partially because we’re not believers. We have a community of friends and family and we realized that was our community.”