Jewish Journal


September 27, 2007

The rise of the independent b’nai mitzvah—bane or boon?

'Bar Mitzvah in a Box'


Gabriel Shacket, with educator Owen Meldy, reading Torah at his bar mitzvah on August 13, 2005

Gabriel Shacket, with educator Owen Meldy, reading Torah at his bar mitzvah on August 13, 2005

Gabriel Shacket stood on the bimah, before the Holy Ark, and led the morning service for a group of 75 family members and friends. He recited the prayers and blessings, chanted from the Torah and delivered a speech. In short, the 13-year-old became a bar mitzvah.

"It was a beautiful ceremony," said his father, Harvey. "A lot of people said it was the most spiritual bar mitzvah they had ever been to."

Gabriel's bar mitzvah, held on Aug. 13, 2005, did not take place in a synagogue but rather at the Odyssey Restaurant in Northridge. And the bimah, complete with a reading table, cantor's lectern, Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) containing a handwritten Torah, and sophisticated sound system, was a rental. So was the cantorial soloist. The whole package, including 24 one-hour lessons for Gabriel, came to $3,000.

The Shacket family's decision to do Gabriel's bar mitzvah independently is part of a growing trend that takes bar and bat mitzvahs out of the synagogue community and privatizes them, holding them in hotels, restaurants and rented sanctuaries.

The Jewish establishment frowns upon this practice, seeing it as contradictory to the intrinsic meaning of bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah and detrimental to the greater community. But families selecting this option -- most of them unaffiliated and many interfaith -- view it as a positive way of connecting their children to their Jewish heritage and an excellent alternative to synagogues, they see as unaffordable or unresponsive to their family's needs.

For the Shacket family, the decision was primarily financial. And while Harvey Shacket and his wife, Susan, who is not Jewish, have attended services at Valley Outreach and Makom Ohr Shalom, they have never joined a synagogue. Shacket said that membership is a stretch on a social worker's salary, and paying for High Holy Day tickets is "demeaning."

Still, the Shackets were determined to have a bar mitzvah for their son and believe the experience brought Gabriel closer to Judaism.

Educator Owen Meldy, founder of the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah Service, has been providing independent b'nai mitzvah to families such as the Shackets for the past 15 years, averaging 50 b'nai mitzvah a year for families from San Francisco to San Diego.

He employs seven tutors and owns five Torah scrolls as well as four complete bimah settings, each with a complete sound system and a CD of liturgical music specially arranged for a 75-minute service.

Meldy, 64, who previously ran the bar and bat mitzvah training program at Stephen S. Wise Temple, believes he is providing a much-needed service to the more than 80 percent of Jews who are not affiliated with a synagogue.

"I have a sense of mission. I make it possible for every Jew to exercise their birthright for a bar mitzvah," Meldy said.

But not everyone agrees with this approach.

Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, the Union for Reform Judaism's director of worship, music and religious living, believes that independent b'nai mitzvah promote a consumerist mentality and consequently make Judaism what someone purchases or creates for his or her own family, taking it completely out of the realm of community.

"A lot of Jewish rituals, most of them, in fact, are private, such as baby namings, wedding and funerals, but this one, specifically, is supposed to be done in the midst of congregation," she said.

Todd Shotz, founder of Hebrew Helpers, a bar and bat mitzvah tutoring company that also provides packaged bar and bat mitzvah services for unaffiliated families, understands the community component. As a result, he requires his b'nai mitzvah students to attend at least five Shabbat services in different synagogues.

Since founding Hebrew Helpers in 2004, Shotz, who wrote the seventh-grade religious school curriculum for Wilshire Boulevard Temple and has been teaching Hebrew since he was 15, has coordinated 24 private b'nai mitzvah services. Additionally, he has 10 more booked for this school year.

Shotz, 33, who also works as a television development company vice president, requires students to commit for at least a year, with an hour's tutoring weekly. Students learn to read Torah trope and also have lessons on basic Judaism, including kashrut, holidays and Shabbat.

"Proper preparation has always been a theme for me," Shotz said. "We're not rent-a-rabbi. I feel like we're reaching all these people who are getting lost in the shuffle."

A bar or bat mitzvah with Hebrew Helpers costs $2,950 and includes the service coordination, clergy fee, personalized prayer booklet and bimah rental. Tutoring is separate, at $85 per hour, adding another $3,000 or more.

Dinah Lenney relied on Hebrew Helpers for her son Jake's bar mitzvah, which took place Feb. 4, 2006, in the rented sanctuary of Temple Knesset Israel of Hollywood.

While Lenney identifies as a Jew, her husband is not Jewish, and the couple decided early on not to give their children any religious education. The impetus for the bar mitzvah came from Jake himself, who insisted to his mother, "When I grow up and celebrate the holidays, I don't want to call you every time I want to sing a song."

Jake studied with Hebrew Helpers for a year and a half, preparing four aliyot and the Hebrew blessings and prayers. For one year the family also joined the Jewish Renewal congregation B'nai Horin/Children of Freedom, where Jake attended religious school every Sunday.

"I really felt we were able to architect a service that reflected our beliefs as a family and our value system," said Lenney, who no longer feels guilty about not giving her child a religious education.

No statistics exist on the spread of this phenomenon. But in addition to local companies offering independent b'nai mitzvah services, Web sites such as RabbiRentals.com and iRabbi.org now advertise the availability of freelance rabbis nationwide.

And while Jerusalem has always been a popular place for destination b'nai mitzvah -- a variation of the private service -- families are now holding bar and bat mitzvahs in other locations. These include the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas or Curacao, resorts such as Jackson Hole or Joshua Tree National Park and foreign locales such as Budapest, Montenegro or even Kaifeng, China, the site of an ancient Jewish community. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of "Putting God on the Guest List," says that the increase of independent b'nai mitzvah makes him "very uncomfortable." He laments the child being deprived of the warmth and embrace of the Jewish community as well as the obligation to support that community.

According to Salkin, families who can't find synagogues to meet their needs, especially in a city such as Los Angeles, haven't looked hard enough.

"Money is never the object; that's a Jewish urban legend," said Salkin, rabbi and executive director of Kol Echad: Making Judaism Matter, a transdenominational learning community in Atlanta.

Salkin sees these events as the ultimate consumerization of Judaism. "When we say that Judaism is here for my needs, for my family, at the moment when we need it, we've turned Judaism into a consumer good," he said. And, he maintains, we are conspiring in its disappearance.

But the families see the opposite happening.

Harvey Shacket, whose second son, Jeremy, is currently studying for his bar mitzvah with Owen Meldy, believes Meldy is doing a tremendous job of keeping people in the flock.

"He's taught my kids to be Jewish," he said. "It's the best thing we ever did."

For more information, visit Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah Service or Hebrew Helpers.

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