January 14, 2009
Picking Right Tutor for Child Requires More Than Luck
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.
Start by telling the tutor about your child.
As the interview proceeds, think about whether your family and your child will feel comfortable with the tutor.
“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.
“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.
What is it that my child needs to learn?
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?
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?
How much work will be required on the student’s part?
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.
What is the family’s role?
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?
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?
What is your own perspective on Judaism and its practice?
What techniques do you use for children who learn differently?
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.
Hall’s program can work with synagogues or hold a ceremony of its own in the chapel at Vista Del Mar.
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 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.
“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.