There is a new trend in the Jewish community of celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs privately. When a family decides to hold a private bar or bat mitzvah, they rent a hall, hire a rabbi, a cantor or a lay leader who has access to a Torah, and convene a short service, which includes only family and invited guests. There is no connection to a community, or even a synagogue.
Not only is this a shame, it’s an oxymoron. Allow me to explain.
Unlike a wedding, or even a brit milah or a naming ceremony for a newborn girl, bar and bat mitzvahs require community. Celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah by reading Torah on a bimah inside a synagogue is meant to demonstrate to the community that the young person is taking his or her place as an adult in the Jewish community – that he or she is ready to take on the responsibilities that come along with their age and new status. The community, in turn, celebrates this milestone and welcomes the bar or bat mitzvah to their new roles. It is the community – the congregation – that says, “We accept you. We welcome you.”
How can this be achieved without community? Sure, family members will always be proud and welcoming of their young relatives. But it’s the strangers in the crowd – the unfamiliar faces – that make the young person truly feel welcomed to the larger Jewish community.
I became bat mitzvah at Temple Sinai in Toronto. When I finished chanting my portion and delivering my dvar Torah, I looked out at the congregation and saw all of the people I loved. My parents were teary. My aunts, uncles and cousins who had come in from Montreal for the occasion were beaming. My many friends and classmates in the congregation that day were smiling and giving me thumbs up.
But my most vivid and notable memory of that day occurred as I was leaving the sanctuary at the end of the service. A man came up to me and said, “yasher koach” (meaning “good job” or “may you be strengthened”), and proceeded to tell me that he particularly liked what I taught in my dvar Torah. He elaborated on why he was impressed and that because of the thought and care I took in my interpretation of the Torah portion, he felt optimistic for the future of the Jewish People.
I did not know this man. My parents did not know him, either. And while I later learned that he was a past president of the temple, and a leader in the World Union for Progressive Judaism, his credentials did not matter to me at the time. That I had been welcomed and embraced by a complete stranger, that my words meant something to someone who had no stake in my future – this is what made me feel like a true bat mitzvah. His encouragement has remained with me to this day.
To my mind, there is no such thing as a “private” bar or bat mitzvah. That’s just a performance. A true bar or bat mitzvah involves community – it involves the young person taking his or her place among the larger Jewish community and the community, in turn, welcoming that person with open arms. When families celebrate their children privately, they deprive their children of the experience of knowing to whom they belong. And they deprive the community of welcoming the next generation of leaders and members into their midst. The result is a bunch of private citizens, doing things privately – alone. That is a shame.
The Jewish community cannot survive if we are just a bunch of individuals. We need to be connected to one another, to work together, to strengthen each other, to strengthen our charitable organizations, our congregations, our camps and our institutions of learning. And it all starts when we take our place as bnei mitzvah.