"Why are you having a bar or bat mitzvah?" Larry Kligman, dean of students at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, asks the school's 65 seventh-graders.
The students are attending a one-day retreat, an event the school has sponsored for more than 10 years, enabling them to reflect on the ritual's meaning as well as the concomitant anticipation and anguish.
"It's a difficult year," Kligman explains, "as the students have to cope with their own bar or bat mitzvah in addition to a heavy academic load and the pressures of attending a friend's bar or bat mitzvah almost every weekend."
This year, Jerry Brown, senior rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, has volunteered to host the retreat at his synagogue as well as lead one of the discussions.
"Why 13? It's an interesting age, but why 13?" Brown asks the students.
"We become teenagers," Joshua I. Goldberg says.
"Teenagers," Brown says, grimacing as he emphasizes the first syllable. "What's different about these teenage years?"
"We learn differently."
"We have more ability to understand things."
He tells them that everything is changing -- physically, psychologically and emotionally -- faster than anytime in their lives except infancy. And that the ancient sages came up with the same number we have -- 13 -- to mark the beginning of adolescence.
"Why do you think the word teenager has a bad connotation?" he asks. "What kinds of things happen at bar mitzvah services and receptions?"
"If you see somebody getting into something, do you want to do a very hard thing and say something to them?" Brown asks.
"Yes, because the bar mitzvah is only fun if everybody is having a good time," Benjamin Selski says.
"A successful bar mitzvah depends just as much on your friends," Hal Greenwald, Heschel's rabbi-in-residence, adds.
Brown tells the students that they are becoming adults in terms of participating in Jewish religious life, but otherwise he considers them "adults-in-training."
He explains that the bar and bat mitzvah is essentially "a big time-out," a chance to think about what adolescence means and to start learning to take on adult responsibilities.
"To be in charge of your own lives is the best thing that you can want. I invite you to take that seriously," he says. "And a bar or bat mitzvah is the perfect place to start."
In another workshop, students are invited to grapple with real life scenarios. "What do you do when you're invited to two bar mitzvahs on the same day?" Kligman asks them.
"If people know there's a conflict far enough in advance, maybe one person can change the date. That happened to me," Samantha Hay says.
"You can go to one person's service and one person's party," Aviva Fleschler says.
Kligman presents another dilemma. "It's 9 p.m. The party's a little boring, but it's not over until 11. What do you do?"
"You should put yourself in the bar or bat mitzvah's place. You don't want that person to feel bad if all the kids are leaving," Alex Kaplan answers.
"And if you're going to be there, you need to be there more than just physically," Betty Winn, Heschel's head of school, adds.
In the sanctuary, Judaic studies teacher Jodi Lasker helps the students "get a feel for the choreography" of the service, first showing them how to put on a tallit.
"Why does a tallit have an atara [collar]?" she asks.
"So you know where to hold it when you're putting it on," Benjamin Wenger answers.
She explains that an atara is not required to have the tallit blessing on it and also tells the students that Torah is read on Mondays and Thursdays, in addition to Shabbat, because those were the traditional market days when people gathered together.
She then asks Josh Goldberg to demonstrate reading from the Torah and shows students where to stand if they're called up for an aliyah.
After lunch, the students break into small groups where they write responses to specific questions. The answers to the first question -- What are you looking forward to? -- are read anonymously.
"The best thing is completing my Torah and Haftarah portion."
"The smiles on my family's faces."
"Giving my d'var Torah."
What are you afraid of?
"I'm afraid that at the service only two of my friends will be in the sanctuary when I'm reading my Torah portion and the rest will be in the bathroom."
"I'm worried my friends will be disrespectful."
"I'm afraid I'm going to mess up during the service and my friends will laugh."
"I wish people would not chew gum and talk."
"I'm afraid my dress will rip."
Students then write down their suggestions for invitation etiquette as well as appropriate behavior at both the service and the celebration. These are presented to the entire class, and copies are later distributed to all seventh-graders and their parents.
"We all now know what to do," says Kligman at the retreat's finish. "Let's do it."
Bar and Bat Mitzvah Dos and Don'ts
DO mail invitations; DON'T give them out in school.
DON'T leave out just a few classmates if you cannot invite the whole class.
DO R.S.V.P. promptly, before the cutoff date.
DO personally apologize and explain to your classmate why you cannot attend if there is more than one bar or bat mitzvah on the same date, it is a good idea to make your decision about which event to attend independently.
DO be respectful in services:
1. Don't walk in and out of the temple, especially in large groups.
2. Do participate in the service.
3. If you know you have trouble sitting for a long time, consider coming a little later in the morning, perhaps at the start of the Torah service.
4. Consider going to the service as an important part of the celebration.
5. Dress appropriately in the synagogue -- covered shoulders, no jeans, etc.
6. If you must arrive late, do not be disruptive when greeting your friends.
7. Don't bring or use your cell phone or pager.
DO be a considerate guest while at the party:
1. Don't be wild in the hallway or restrooms.
2. Stay in the party room, dance, celebrate with your classmates.
3. Thank the host family before going home.
4. Stay for the whole party; don't decide to leave early, especially in a group.
DO remember, your actions should reflect how you want everyone else to behave when it is your special day. -- JU
Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.