Ah, the thrill and abandon of early adolescence. Laughing with friends; smacking gum and blowing bubbles; sending your best buddy messages in sign language across a crowded room. And, if you're lucky, the rabbi won't shoot you a dirty look when your behavior interferes with the bar mitzvah boy's Torah portion.
Our sages taught that a parent is responsible for a child until that child reaches the age of 13 years and one day, at which time he's ready to assume full responsibility for observing the commandments and for all his deeds. Perhaps our sages should have specified that all deeds include stuffing up toilets with rolls of toilet paper, downing the remains of alcoholic beverages, running wild in hotel parking lots, having elevator races and destroying someone else's furniture.
Currently, having a son on the bar/bat mitzvah circuit myself, I've been privy to many horrific tales of the disrespectful and downright out-of-control behavior that can take place at these meaningful celebrations. While some of the more extreme stories may simply be suburban legend, there's no doubt that disorderly conduct at bar and bat mitzvahs is a recurring problem.
This unruly behavior is hurtful, if not heartbreaking, to the bar/bat mitzvah families who've invested many months -- not to mention dollars -- anticipating and preparing for this all-important day. It negatively impacts visitors to the synagogue and regular congregants, as well as rabbis forced to add policing to their list of Shabbat morning duties. Still, an unsettling ripple effect stemming from these young guests' thoughtless actions may travel beyond the scope of our personal celebrations. Consider the non-Jewish friends who witness Jewish children audaciously misbehaving at such supposedly sacred events. And those that jostle hotel management and party planners into shying away from the bar/bat mitzvah "industry" for fear of property damage and risk of reputation.
Finally, there are jaded kids who have come to believe that their own traditions and prayer are unworthy of their reverence and respect. The overwhelming nature of the task of busting bad bar/bat mitzvah behavior feels somehow analogous to that of disinfecting the mountain of muddy laundry my son brought home from overnight camp.
"Start with the underwear and move out from there," insisted a friend of mine. When confronted with a mess of such magnitude as a heap of filthy camp frocks -- or an epidemic of poor bar mitzvah behavior -- the underwear, the bare basics, no matter how skimpy and thong-like, is the place to begin.
Myrna Rubel, a middle school principal at an Atlanta Jewish school, heeds to this truth, working to foster a formidable foundation of bar/bat mitzvah etiquette in her 12- and 13-year-old charges. They talk about proper synagogue behavior, including keeping your siddur open during services whether or not you believe you know its content as well as your locker combination.
Unfortunately, Rubel also knows another truth -- clean underwear doesn't necessarily guarantee presentable clothing. And that while in the days of the sages, 13 and one day may have been old enough to take on full responsibility for observing all the commandments, in the days of Snoop Dogg and Puffy, 13-and-one-dayers tend to fall short in the personal responsibility department. Consequently, Rubel offers the following recommendations to parents:
At your own child's bar/bat-mitzvah:\n
• Arrange for ushers to be present at services and prepared to manage any behavioral problems.\n
• Don't be afraid to have a pre-party powwow with your young guests regarding your expectations and the consequences of misconduct.\n
• Feel comfortable calling parents of children who misbehave. (Wouldn't you want to know?)\n
• Hire a party planner to keep an eye out for questionable activity.\n
• Plan a separate children's party; kids will be less likely to act out due to boredom or be tempted by alcohol.
At the bar/bat mitzvah of others:\n
• Don't assume that your child's behavior is the responsibility of day school principals, religious school directors, rabbis or other parents. It's yours.\n
• Accompany your child to services and model appropriate behavior.\n
• Don't allow kids to dress improperly or promiscuously.\n
• Consistently, if not relentlessly, review the basics of bar mitzvah behavior with your children.\n
• If you know your kid tends to bore easily and subsequently seek out other means of having "fun," pick him or her up early from the party.\n
• Organize a meeting with parents of other children in the same grade. Brainstorm ideas and join forces.
An invitation to a bar or bat mitzvah isn't a glitter-clad proclamation that your kid will be out of your hair for the majority of Saturday. On the contrary, it is a summons to us to do our jobs as parents, role models and true Jewish adults.