If you are 12 now, you’ve probably been hearing talk of your bar or bat mitzvah for years. Perhaps you’ve attended the bar and bat mitzvahs of friends or cousins. Perhaps you are the first of your friends to become a bar or bat mitzvah. Maybe you’ve attended a service and thought: How am I ever going to be able to learn all of that? Or perhaps you’ve already begun studying, and so far it’s felt pretty effortless. (Or perhaps you are a parent of a soon-to-be bar or bat mitzvah.)
What follows are my Ten Commandments for bar and bat mitzvah students. Some I’ve learned during my years of teaching and preparing students for the “big day.” Some come from former students who’ve recently gone through the process and for whom the experience is very recent. Remember, if you are having concerns, you’re probably not alone. In any case, while there are no guarantees in life, following these commandments is likely to serve you well and help you to feel prepared, confident, proud and a little less anxious.
I thou shalt make a study schedule
You’re most likely in middle school and have a lot on your plate. You may be in a new school, have a lot more homework, have less free time than you used to, and you may be getting involved in lots of extracurricular activities. As with any long-term project, assignment or goal, it’s best to set a time each day when you will work on it. Choose a time that works most days, and stick to it. The first week or so may be a challenge, but once it becomes part of your schedule and you get used to it, it will come naturally and you’ll see that you are making great progress.
II Thou shalt save thy parents from nagging
Most of us do not want to be nagged. And most parents would prefer not to nag. Once you’ve figured out when you’re going to study, just do it. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah is about taking on more responsibility. What better way than to begin by studying without needing reminders (at least not too many reminders). You’ll feel good about it, your parents will be proud of your self-discipline, and there will be a lot less arguing (which should make everybody happy).
III Thou shalt take ownership of thy studies
Come to your lessons prepared but also with an agenda. Let your tutor know you need help with a particular prayer or that you are having trouble getting a certain melody, or that you just can’t figure out how to get it all done. Ask questions about the Torah portion or about something that didn’t make sense when you were working at home. If you’re having trouble with some aspect of the preparations or you’re feeling anxious, let your tutor (and/or a parent) know that you need help figuring this out. Taking an active role in this process is another way of taking responsibility and ownership and being an adult.
IV Thou shalt limit thy extracurricular activities
You may be thinking: No way am I giving up soccer, trying out for the musical, cheerleading, (fill in the blank). You don’t have to give it all up, but if you want to reduce the stress in your life, it may make sense to plan for fewer obligations during the months prior to your bar or bat mitzvah. Trying to squeeze in play rehearsals and performances, baseball practices and games, schoolwork and bar or bat mitzvah preparation will only stress you out.
V Thou shalt work hard
This doesn’t mean you have to get stressed out. But you want to feel that you worked your hardest and that you deserve to feel proud of yourself. If you can honestly say that you put your best effort and work into making this a special time, then you’ll feel that much more proud of all you accomplished to get to that place.
VI Thou shalt be patient with thyself
It doesn’t all come at once, but eventually it comes together. If you start to get stressed out or frustrated while studying, take a break, have a snack, watch some television or take a power nap. Then come back to it. Trying to learn something when you’re stressed out will often cause you to feel more stressed out.
VII Thou shalt stop and smell the roses
Take time during the weeks and months of preparation to recognize how much you’ve learned and how your confidence has grown as the days go by. Recognize that what you’re chanting today, you didn’t know two weeks ago. Recognize that what you now chant effortlessly, you were stumbling through a month ago. Don’t take all of your efforts and studying for granted. Recognize all that you have learned.
VIII Thou shalt remember this is a prayer service
This is not a performance. It may seem like that as you prepare — or even on the actual day — but you’re leading parts of a service. It’s a sacred time for you and your family and even for your community. Everyone who has stood before the congregation (rabbi and cantor included) have made mistakes. If you do, then you are in good company. And even if you do make a mistake, it doesn’t take away from all the hard work you put into preparing.
IX Thou shalt be anxious
This doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you would be commanded to do (or that you want to hear), but think of it as permission. I usually tell students they are not allowed to be anxious until a month before the bar or bat mitzvah day. And even then, the goal is that any nervousness should be about the fact that you will be in front of a lot of people and not because you are feeling unprepared. That having been said, it’s normal to be at least a little nervous, so don’t fight it. Talk with your parent, tutor, rabbi or cantor about how to calm your nerves a little. But, if you are nervous, then you’re in the majority because most bar and bat mitzvah students are (whether they admit it or not).
X Thou shalt remember you have a lot more to learn
Hopefully the preparation for the bar or bat mitzvah was a positive experience. Hopefully you will feel good about it in the end. Hopefully you will see how much more there is to learn and how much more you can grow through the learning offered at your synagogue and in the Jewish community. Perhaps you will seek out (or be offered) more opportunities to be a leader in your community — reading Torah, being an aide in the religious school, etc. Becoming bar/bat mitzvah is the beginning of a new stage in your life as a member of the Jewish community. Seek out opportunities, take up offers from the clergy or teachers.
Finally, remember: You are taking your place as an adult in the Jewish community, and hundreds if not thousands of other young Jews around the world are as well. You are part of a community of young Jews becoming young Jewish adults. And, you are continuing the chain of all those who have come before you in your family and in your community. You are the next link – connected not only to those who came before you, but also to those who will come after you.
Jeff Bernhardt teaches b’nai mitzvah students at Temple Israel of Hollywood and privately. He is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.