August 10, 2006
Facing Up to Roadblocks Barring Path to Bimah
Adam Green has been involved with synagogue and Jewish activities since preschool. But at 12, he has decided that becoming a bar mitzvah is not meaningful to him and has refused to continue in that direction. Adam's parents have enlisted the help of their rabbi and his sixth-grade religious school teacher, with whom Adam has had a close relationship.
Even though he is currently off the bar mitzvah track, Green's parents are pushing him to continue his Jewish education and to consider the possibility that he will have his bar mitzvah sometime down the line.
As any Jewish parent knows, it is not unusual for children to resist attending Hebrew school, just as they complain about doing their homework or practicing the piano. During the preteen years, childrens' comprehension of what God means to them is still under development.
However, said Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, parents need to think about how committed they are to raising Jewish children.
"It amazes me when a parent says that their child does not find Judaism relevant, that it is difficult for him or her to master the material or to find time for their Jewish studies," he said. "I ask them what they would do if their child said they were no longer going to math class because it is difficult and seemingly irrelevant."
Leder estimated that out of roughly 170 students who become b'nai mitzvah each year at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, only a couple of students actually drop out. Why children drop out, or at least entertain the idea, usually develops when parents, either explicitly or implicitly, send the message that the b'nai mitzvah is not that important to them.
"When the kids get a hint of this parental ambivalence, they drive a wedge right through the parents, the synagogue and the family in order to rebel," Leder said.
It is a somewhat different issue, however, when a child patently decides that he or she does not believe in God.
Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray, of Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City, spends a lot of time with kids who are unsure about how they feel about God or are questioning their faith.
"I explain to them that taking on mitzvot does not require belief in God, but it does require making a commitment to honor mitzvot in a personal way," he said. According to Ezray, the integrity of the moment requires that the student feel a connection to what he or she is doing. Sometimes, he said, the b'nai mitzvah can be delayed, giving the child time, further education and support so that they are able to develop the connection.
Ezray stressed that the meaning of the event is more about connection than about the quantity of material mastered.
"How much Hebrew the students learn or how well they recite their haftarah is less important than their understanding of what it means to be Jewish," he said. Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes said that children need inspirational relationships in order to define Jewish education as an integral part of their lives.
"When a teenager is indecisive about b'nai mitzvah or about continuing to participate in Jewish education, the intervening variable is almost always the special relationship he or she has with someone at synagogue," Jeret said. Jewish mentors can inspire and motivate teenagers to make Judaism and participation in synagogue youth groups a priority. And as they move into the teen years, that involvement becomes even more significant as peers replace parents as the primary influence.
Most Jewish educators would agree that the b'nai mitzvah service is only a piece in the entire pie of a Jewish life. Children who go through the motions of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah without developing connection to Jewish friends, community and synagogue tend to decrease their involvement in religion as they get older. By the time they become adults, their Judaism probably will take a back seat to the other demands of daily life.
Thirty-five years ago, Marc Levin begged his parents to let him abandon his bar mitzvah studies.
"I was miserable," Levin recalled. "I didn't feel prepared, and I didn't like the rabbi. At the time, the whole process was meaningless to me."
In the end, Levin did have his bar mitzvah but remembers it as a painful experience: "I cannot say that I'm sorry I did it, but I do regret that it was not a positive or inspirational event for me. It took many years and fatherhood before Judaism became an important part of my life."
Mike Kopulsky, a businessman and former seventh-grade teacher at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, believes that even if a child does not intend to become a b'nai mitzvah, he or she still should participate in Jewish education.
"It's very important for kids to bond with their Jewish peers," Kopulsky said. "Teen years are a tumultuous time in which kids need more guidance than ever. Our post-bar mitzvah studies delve deeply into the issues that kids really care about. Whether a child has had a bar mitzvah or not, I'd still encourage him to continue [or even begin, as is sometimes the case] his Jewish schooling."
Kopulsky had a student in his class several years ago who made up her mind that she was not ready at 13 to become a bat mitzvah. However, she continued to attend religious school, and she decided it was time two years later. She celebrated her bat mitzvah alongside her younger sister.
Ultimately, according to Leder, it is up to the parents.
"Allowing a child to give up at 13 what will be looked back at with true regret is a huge parenting mistake," Leder said. "We all know that parents have to choose their battles with their teenagers, but having a bar or bat mitzvah is a battle every Jewish parent simply must win."