May 10, 2007
How to reduce restlessness among tweens and teens at services
Also: Bar Mitzvah 101 for the non-Jew
Before any bar or bat mitzvah student walks onto the bimah to read from the Torah, Wilshire Boulevard Temple goes into high alert.
Three weeks before the service, the child's parents must submit the names of three adult guests who will sit close to the younger guests to make sure they don't disrupt the service.
Additionally, two ushers are placed on back-up duty to combat loud talkers, gregarious gigglers and super-fidgety seventh- and eighth-graders. Besides the usual reminder for guests to turn off cell phones, the rabbi also requests that youngsters refrain from text messaging during their pal's Jewish rite of passage.
"Since we have implemented [these] ... measures, the [children's] behavior has improved," said Rabbi Steve Leder, whose synagogue has used these tactics for the last three years.
The rules were adopted following a dramatic increase in the number of kids attending the ceremonies. The youngsters tended "to group together, at which point it is virtually impossible for them to remain attentive," Leder said.
As Generation Y Jews filter though their bar/bat mitzvah years, the young guests now seated in the sanctuary have grown up speaking their minds and questioning their parents. With this kind of confidence, it is small wonder that preteens are pushing boundaries more than ever.
And this tendency carries over into shul.
"The days where you could gather a bunch of kids in a room and expect them to behave well seem to be gone," said Gail Anthony Greenberg, author of "MitzvahChic: How to Host a Meaningful, Fun, Drop-Dead Gorgeous Bar or Bat Mitzvah" (Simon & Schuster, 2006).
Greenberg, who lives in Elkins Park, Pa., attributes the change to a societal trend empowering kids to make their own decisions. "These days, we give children more latitude," she added.
As a result, many rabbis, administrators, parents and even bar mitzvah party vendors take preventative measures to quell chatty, restless or precocious preteen guests from being disruptive at bar mitzvah ceremonies and receptions.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino expects and understands the need for preteen bar/bat mitzvah guests to chat during the often-lengthy service.
"There are certain rabbis in the community who demand silence [during bar mitzvah services]," he said. "That's not going to work."
Feinstein insists that socializing during services is age-appropriate behavior for seventh- and eighth-graders.
He suggests that religious leaders make adjustments to accommodate the children's needs during the long bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
"Let's be a little more realistic, giving and forgiving, and find ways to include [children] in the service so they can feel that [the synagogue] is their place," Feinstein said.
At Valley Beth Shalom, Feinstein encourages bored youngsters to take breaks and explore the shul's garden before returning to the service. Another tactic is for kids to skip the beginning of the service to keep things shorter and more manageable.
For many preteens, a bar or bat mitzvah is the first formal event they will attend without their parents, and expecting them to behave appropriately may be a tall order.
"It's a quantum leap from a party at Chuck E. Cheese," said Greenberg, who also runs the Web site www.mitzvahchic.com. The author suggests that parents prepare their children for the event, letting them know ahead of time that the service will be long and that they'll need to dress up.
"Tell your child the basics: behave decently, don't use foul language, thank the host and behave the way I'd want you to behave if I was there watching you," Greenberg suggested.
One group that tends to be on their best behavior is non-Jewish children. "They're afraid that they're going to inadvertently do something wrong," Greenberg said.