January 29, 2004
Put Mitzvah in Bar Mitzvah for non-Jews
On Jan. 14, you could hear the wake-up call sounding for Jews all across America.
Perhaps you noticed the article by reporter Elizabeth Bernstein in that morning's Wall Street Journal. Perhaps someone e-mailed it to you. Perhaps numerous someones emailed it to you.
It appeared in my "inbox" three times before noon. Titled "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Want a Bar Mitzvah," Bernstein's piece opened with the story of a 13-year-old Methodist girl in Dallas who told her parents that she wanted to be a bat mitzvah. Mom and Dad understood just what she was requesting. They planned an elaborate country-club party, replete with 125 of their daughter's closest "friends" and a professional dancer who had become a familiar face from other bat mitzvah celebrations. No Torah required.
"I wanted to be Jewish so I could have a bat mitzvah," the youngster said. "Having the party fulfilled that."
Apparently, increasing numbers of non-Jewish children now fulfill their wishes "to be Jewish" by hosting such affairs. Bernstein's article quotes a party planner in Woodland Hills who indicates that she organized more than a dozen bar mitzvah "look-alikes" for non-Jews in the past year. In the social consciousness of 21st-century America, it seems that a lavish party is what a bar mitzvah looks like.
Said Danielle Davis, a Catholic girl from Malibu, in making her bat mitzvah case to her parents, "I'm growing up and becoming a teenager. I should have a party to celebrate."
This is the definition of "bat mitzvah" that Danielle has internalized after celebrating with her many Jewish friends. No leading worship. No teaching from the Torah. No moments of profound spiritual uplift. No accepting responsibility for fulfilling the religious commandments of an adult, just a Hawaiian-themed beachfront blowout in honor of becoming an adolescent.
As a rabbi with a fascination in sociology, I am curious about so many facets of this phenomenon.
I am dismayed by the growing disconnect between the experience on the bimah and the experience of the bar or bat mitzvah party.
I am stunned by the total comfort of so many non-Jewish children in requesting a Jewish seudat mitzvah (festive meal of ritual celebration) without the ritual -- and by their parents' willingness to imitate even a facile and empty representation of a religious rite that is not their own.
I am distressed by the massive social pressure that such requests surely reflect (that is to say, both Jewish and non-Jewish kids clearly crave the social status that extravagant bar and bat mitzvah celebrations now afford).
However, most of all, I am intrigued by the capacity that Jews now possess to impact mainstream America. Generations ago, our parents and grandparents pored over every aspect of non-Jewish America in an effort to conform to their surrounding culture. Now, our non-Jewish neighbors are watching us, and they are just as willing to follow our lead.
This development represents an unprecedented opportunity for today's American Jews. The prophet Isaiah once spoke of our people becoming a "light unto the nations." For most of Jewish history, that was an impossibility, given our powerlessness in the places where we have lived. Then we wielded but a dim candle to light the way. Now we hold a beacon in our hands. Non-Jewish Americans have taken notice of one of Judaism's most glorious rituals. Why don't we seize the moment and give them something truly glorious to notice?
A small number of my bar and bat mitzvah students have done just that. They have passed on the five-figure party, choosing instead to invest in restoring the definition of "bar/bat mitzvah." Some have orchestrated giant "mitzvah projects" for their friends, such as building a new house for the needy or refurbishing a shelter for the homeless. Some have flown a small group of close friends or family to Israel. Some have given every dollar of their gift money away to philanthropies, recognizing that their parents are able to provide them with everything they need.
Can you imagine what might happen to the perception of Jews and Judaism in America if these images became the norm for celebrating a young Jewish adult's acceptance of religious responsibility? Can you imagine what we might succeed in modeling for the world if this were to appear in the Wall Street Journal?
If there is one thing that Bernstein's article confirms, it is that we Jews are a light unto the nations, whether we like it or not. Our neighbors -- both in this country and around the world -- are watching us, and they are reaching their conclusions about our religious tradition and us. Let's not miss the wake-up call.
Ken Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple.