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A bar/bat mitzvah revolution

Rabbi Noam Katz

I recently attended one of the most memorable bar or bat mitzvahs I have ever been to. It wasn’t the purity of the trope chanted nor the list of “thank yous” that made it stand out. Rather, it was how well the sacred ceremony aligned with what came after.

Amid the bagel spread and the DJ hired to spin Top 40 hits lay a pile of unopened boxes from Ikea on the floor of the shul lobby. They contained unassembled bookshelves, which the bar mitzvah boy and his friends put together over the next two hours. Once completed, they lined the lobby walls, and temple congregants were asked to fill them with books. Eventually, these fully stocked shelves were donated to a nearby school in a low-income neighbourhood.

This confluence of action and empathy crystallized the meaning behind the life-cycle event we were celebrating that day. The bar mitzvah boy had proclaimed to the world his Jewish and universal priorities, and modelled for his classmates meaningful ways they might turn their own simchahs into acts of social justice.

Compare this to the lavish opulence that characterizes so many bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. For decades, these parties have dwarfed the true meaning of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah – that is, a young person taking on increased obligations so as to strengthen, and become strengthened, by his or her community. What was once a spiritual and educational milestone has materialized into something… well, material.  More alarming is that a growing percentage of students treat this rite of passage as a chance to “cash out their chips” in Jewish education and opt out of synagogue life altogether. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has said, “The dropout rates post-b’nai mitzvah in the vast majority of congregations are staggering… We cannot afford – on any level – to allow our teens to leave our Jewish institutions just as they are entering critical identity-making years.”

Therein lies the rub. As our students become more sophisticated in thought and are afforded experiences that will shape their adult lives, they’re leaving institutions of Jewish learning in droves. Some teens I’ve spoken with consider post-bar and bat mitzvah Jewish education to be uninspiring, irrelevant, a waste of time. 

How to respond? Jewish institutions must re-position themselves as compelling centres where young adults can gather, socialize, learn and develop skills. Camps, day schools, and peer trips to Israel are proven leaders in this field, offering an immersive environment for teens to mark Jewish time with their peers in settings that blend formal and informal learning.

Some synagogues have bar and bat mitzvah students develop “spiritual portfolios” or demonstrate Jewish growth through the arts. Others sponsor wilderness hikes that call students to Torah in the great outdoors. Whichever paths we try, we must be bold and creative, and we must bring teens into this laboratory of creativity. Their continued engagement in Jewish life will be on their terms, not those of their parents or Jewish professionals. Like heavily visited websites, the most successful programs will feature “user-generated content.”

So it was at that memorable bar mitzvah event, in which sacred scrolls accompanied just-as-sacred hammers and nails. It transformed my understanding of what bar and bat mitzvahs can be, and allowed me to witness a young person become a “son of the mitzvah,” in precisely the way he had envisioned. How revolutionary.

Rabbi Noam Katz is dean of Jewish Living at Toronto’s Leo Baeck Day School and URJ Camp George.