Once you’ve been through a bar or bat mitzvah, you’re an old hand. But when parents face this life ceremony for the first time, the process often seems overwhelming. And this is true in triplicate, at least, for parents who are unaffiliated or who have a child with special needs. For these families, finding a skilled and sympathetic tutor is one of the first tasks in a long list.
To land a tutor who will connect with their child, teach effectively and motivate the consistent practice necessary for success, families need to learn as much as possible about a tutor in the initial conversation or meeting.
Here are a few suggestions for topics parents should bring up and questions that should be asked of a tutor:
Start by telling the tutor about your child.
Be frank about your child’s proclivities as well as strengths and weaknesses, especially in terms of learning style. Maybe he or she needs daily assignments written down. Or perhaps the child is a visual rather than an aural learner or has processing issues. Maybe the child can’t carry a tune. Or a precocious child may be struggling with issues around religion and God. The tutor will also want to know about the child’s interests and activities in order to make a more personal connection. And be sure to let the tutor know early on if the parents are separated or divorced.
As the interview proceeds, think about whether your family and your child will feel comfortable with the tutor.
Jeff Bernhardt, a bar/bat mitzvah tutor at Temple Israel of Hollywood as well as a private tutor, emphasizes that the relationship is what makes the experience meaningful for everyone involved.
“Whether you compare it to dating or finding the right school or any other kind of relationship, you want somebody who is a good match,” he said. “You want the child to do well, to learn the material, to succeed, but you want it to be a positive experience also and feel like there’s a relationship built and a connection and the child will enjoy the experience.”
Sheilah Miller, a mentor at Stephen S. Wise Temple who has also been teaching privately for about 12 years, feels the relationship is so important she will suggest withdrawing if it is not working.
“Sometimes it doesn’t click,” she said. “I always tell parents I have no vested interests; I am secure in who I am and if a child doesn’t feel comfortable with me, I would like them to tell me right away and find someone else. The child’s interests and feelings are more important than the mentor’s feelings.”
Ask about the tutor’s experience.
Bernhardt has been tutoring for over 20 years, but he thinks that in most cases a couple of years is sufficient background.
“Ideally you want to know the tutor has worked with a number of bar/bat mitzvah students, knows the material and is at least a year or two into it, if not more,” he said.
If your child has learning issues or challenges, you’ll want to ask whether the tutor has had experience with similar students. But remember that, over time, every tutor worth his mettle has developed an array of techniques to match different needs.
What is it that my child needs to learn?
For a child who is working through a synagogue but needs some extra support, the issue may be how the usual expectations can be modified to fit the child’s capabilities. In this case, the tutor and parents may expect to have regular conversations with the appropriate synagogue professionals as the child progresses.
For an unaffiliated child, the studies depend largely on the desires of the parents, who bring with them their own Jewish and personal baggage — the parent may be a divorcée who wants to provide her child a Jewish background; or the parents may be planning the bar mitzvah solely out of respect for their own parents, living or dead, or the parents may have come to see the bar mitzvah as a last chance for their children to connect to Judaism.
For unaffiliated students, Bernhardt usually spends a half-hour weekly on skills and a half-hour on other Judaic knowledge, which may include learning Hebrew or studying about the weekly Torah portion or an upcoming holiday.
“I try to weave in the students’ interests and needs and curiosities about Judaism within the context of the teaching,” he said.
The tutor should also be queried about whether the child will be taught to chant Torah and haftarah by rote or will be taught the trope system, which features special markings that indicate the musical phrasing to be applied to the texts.
How often will you meet with my child and over what period of time?
Depending on the student’s background and what the learning goals are, the period of study is usually somewhere between eight and 12 months.
Bernhardt usually works with students an hour a week, with more time, as necessary, as the bar or bat mitzvah date is closing in. If a child has never learned Hebrew, then the tutoring period will extend an extra two to three months, he said. If students have some background — say, they spent time in a Jewish school and then left — six months may be sufficient.
“I try to balance the family’s needs with the idea that this is a process and a journey and should be meaningful; it shouldn’t be rushed and should be given the attention and the time that any meaningful experience and meaningful rite of passage would entail,” Bernhardt said.
How much will it cost?
One tutor who spoke with The Journal said he charges $65 an hour, but thought that price might be on the low end. Although a high school student from the local day school may be less expensive, this tutor felt that having an educator is preferable, in particular for students facing any type of challenge.
How much work will be required on the student’s part?
“When I work with a student, whether at a synagogue or individually, I say that the ideal is 30 minutes a day,” said Bernhardt, who also recognizes that middle school students may also be adjusting to new schools and bigger workloads.
But learning to chant Torah and haftarah and to lead prayers requires the same diligence as learning any new skill, for example, playing the trombone.
“Daily reinforcement is more valuable from an educational standpoint and more helpful than trying to cram it in or squeeze it in,” he advised.
Although flexibility is always the name of the game, Bernhardt emphasized that family and child must commit themselves to the bar mitzvah effort.
“Parents should expect that this is a priority in the child’s life during this time,” he said.
The preparation can be challenging, so if a child is the lead in a play that will be in rehearsal for three months, has soccer practice daily, or has a lot of homework, the parents must ask themselves, in consultation with the tutor: Can the child and the family make time for this and have it be one of their priorities and a meaningful, as opposed to a stressful, experience?
What is the family’s role?
Parents should be in regular contact with the tutor for feedback on the student’s progress. If students are not practicing enough, for example, parents may need to step in and help the student structure his time. Parents can also provide feedback if a problem comes up; for example, if the tutor has mistakenly hurt the child’s feelings.
Bernhardt will also ask parents if they are interested in learning more about Judaism and, if the answer is yes, will invite them to sit in on lessons occasionally. Miller also likes to have parents be part of the lessons if the child is comfortable with it. “I always tell parents they are welcome to stay during the session, whenever they have the time,” she said. “Then the child sees, too, that they are part of it.”
Miller also emphasized that parents should be serving as Jewish role models, accompanying children to services and observing the holidays with them. “The parent has the responsibility of leading a Jewish life so the child sees the bar mitzvah in that context; if not, this is a one-time, isolated event,” she said.
For parents who are separated or divorced, the tutor needs to know whether one or both will be supervising the bar/bat mitzvah process and needs to make sure students have the materials they need at both homes.
What do you do to help the children structure their own study at home?
Usually a tutor will record a CD with everything the student needs to learn, and then the student will dump the material onto a computer or an iPod. “The iPod is a great device because they can be listening all the time,” Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt always talks to his students about the best way to study, and he suggests that they pick the same time every day so that it becomes part of their schedules. What students should avoid is trying to squeeze in their study at the end of the day.
If students are not progressing as expected, Bernhardt will try to pinpoint any problems by having a detailed discussion of what they studied over the previous week, how they studied and for how long.
Are you comfortable providing guidance for the entire process?
In a synagogue, a cantor often helps the student with the finishing touches. But for unaffiliated children, the tutor will be responsible for teaching them, toward the end of the process, how to project their voices, exhibit poise, stand and sit at the proper time and will have to supervise a dress rehearsal.
What is your own perspective on Judaism and its practice?
Some parents might be concerned that a tutor will introduce information that is not consistent with the family’s practice. It can be reassuring to them if the tutor has worked with students across different Jewish denominations.
What techniques do you use for children who learn differently?
Often the students and their parents already have an idea about what has helped them in their secular learning and need a tutor who is experienced and flexible enough to incorporate those strategies and apply them to this new set of skills, Bernhardt advised. Tutors also select from their own bag of techniques or develop new ones as necessary.
Parents should be aware that simply reading the Hebrew language can be more challenging than is immediately obvious — it has different characters, it reads from right to left, and to take in vowels and other markings necessary to pronounce a word requires a reader to look not only at the letters, but also above and below them.
Once a tutor has found the right strategies and tailored the process to the student’s strengths and abilities, however, Bernhardt said the results can exceed expectations.
“Often what they are able to accomplish is underestimated, and it becomes a pleasant surprise for everybody that the child is able to do so much more than was anticipated,” he said.
For children whose need for help is beyond the expertise of a tutor not experienced with special-needs issues, several synagogue programs — including Temple Beth Am’s Koleinu, Valley Beth Shalom’s Shearim and Temple Aliyah’s Otzar — exist to provide help, along with the nondenominational Nes Gadol, Hebrew for “a great miracle,” a bar and bat mitzvah program for children with autism and other developmental challenges at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services.
Elaine Hall, the program’s creative director, said that once these children have turned 11 or 12, their parents often have given up hope of this Jewish rite of passage.
“We work with each child’s individual differences, strengths and challenges, so they can participate and have bar/bat mitzvah celebrations that reflect who they really are,” Hall said.
She emphasized that what the Jewish tradition has to say about a bar or bat mitzvah has nothing to do with what a child will do in the service. It says, simply, that when a girl turns 12 and a boy 13, they are commanded for the mitzvot, that is, responsible themselves for performing Jewish religious obligations.
Parents of children with challenges, therefore, need to do two things, Hall said. First they must ask themselves: How can I make this meaningful for my child and my family? The second step is to find in the community people who are going to reflect their meaning, intention and purpose. “Parents need to let go of their expectations for what the bar mitzvah should look like and see what is right for their particular child,” Hall said.
Hall’s program can work with synagogues or hold a ceremony of its own in the chapel at Vista Del Mar.
At the bar mitzvah of her own nonverbal autistic son, he danced his blessings, pressed a button on his Say-It! Sam so that the talking machine would say the Torah blessings at the appropriate times, and typed a bar mitzvah speech with the help of speech therapists, which his stepfather read at the ceremony. Her son also said a single word, “Shema,” as he pointed with his yad.
Perhaps the most important question for unaffiliated families, and one that may need to be answered in part before selecting a tutor, is: How am I going to figure this whole thing out — spiritually, communally and logistically?
From a spiritual perspective, the question is how the event itself and the process will take on a Jewish form. Will a rabbi be necessary or will a layperson skilled in leading services work? What kind of synagogue service do we need — traditional or alternative? Because a bar or bat mitzvah usually takes place when the Torah is read, when is the best time — a Shabbat morning or an afternoon service? A Monday or Thursday morning? A service on Rosh Chodesh, the new month?
The logistics need not be answered immediately, but may include where the service will be, where to borrow a Torah scroll and a portable ark, and what kind of sound system is necessary.
The most important aspect of this question is really communal, since becoming a bar or bat mitzvah and accepting the obligation of the Jewish commandments also means becoming part of the Jewish community.
Cantor Don Gurney of Wilshire Boulevard Temple believes that a bar or bat mitzvah must occur within the context of a Jewish community — a synagogue. He urges families to consider joining a synagogue, a minimum of two to three years before the bar mitzvah, reminding them that no synagogue turns away members for financial reasons.
“Without the synagogue, there is no Judaism and no Jewish community,” he said. “This is where Jews are made, and there is nothing more important in the Jewish world than to be attached to the Jewish people and Judaism, whatever that means to you.”
For Gurney, the meaning of the bar or bat mitzvah is not the ceremony itself.
“It is not something that happens to you at a certain time and place,” he said. “It is about standing before the community, your community and saying, ‘I am now a member of the club and I am committed to it and have worked hard at it and will continue with it — I am a Jew for life.’” l
Michele Alperin is a freelance writer, a bar/bat mitzvah tutor and a former life-cycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.