Jewish Journal

What to Do When the Kid Just Says ‘No!’

Jeff Bernhardt, Contributing Writer

Posted on Mar. 18, 2009 at 3:32 am

While the majority of young people preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah might not skip merrily into every tutoring appointment and eagerly look forward to the hours upon hours of studying (iPod tuned to the haftarah blessings rather their favorite playlist), they at least recognize that the preparations are part of the expectation that parents, family and community have of them. And other than some parental nagging (“Did you go over your Torah portion today?”) or a call from the tutor suggesting that he or she may need to ramp things up, progress is made, preparations are on schedule and a pride-filled service takes place.

According to the Talmud, when a child is created there are three involved — the man, the woman and God. As we know, once a child is born, many forces come to shape the child. Some might say (and have) that it takes a village. As that child nears the age of adulthood and responsibility, and prepares to acknowledge this before his or her community through bar or bat mitzvah, there are three partners: the child, the parents and the rabbi/cantor/educator (representing in some ways the Jewish community). The effectiveness of this partnership may be most in evidence when everything does not go as planned.

Take the case of the defiant child — the boy or girl who, on the brink of becoming a Jewish adult, revolts against this very idea. This young person may stomp his feet or fold her arms, refusing or resisting the very idea of bar/bat mitzvah and saying, “I’m not going to do it.”

Looking at this defiance through the prism of those three partners may help better understand it.

The Young Person

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman could tell that Samantha (youth names have been changed), her student at a former congregation, didn’t want to be in her office for the first bat mitzvah appointment. When Scheinerman, who is now with Beth Shalom Congregation in Westminster, Md., asked Samantha how she felt about beginning the process, the student announced that it was all nonsense, there is no God, and therefore she wanted nothing to do with Judaism, the synagogue or becoming a bat mitzvah.

After more questions, the rabbi found out that Samantha’s conclusions resulted from her understanding of the Holocaust — if there were a God, then God would have intervened and her relatives and millions of others would not have perished.

Another student of Rabbi Scheinerman, Michael, also acted defiantly — he was uncooperative, sullen and a bit rude during their first meeting. After some questions, his demeanor transformed into sadness. Michael reported that he was struggling in algebra. This was taking a devastating toll on his self-esteem.

In both of these cases, as is often the case, the defiance was about something other than the bar/bat mitzvah — a struggle with belief in God or even something wholly unrelated.

In both of the situations Scheinerman faced, she was able to address and work through the defiance once she understood the true issue.

For Samantha, Scheinerman spent the first session exploring her questions and told her that bat mitzvah studies would begin only after she had worked through them. Samantha came back to the second lesson having thought of little else all week; she came to the conclusion that God was present during the Holocaust but that human decency was absent.

In the case of Michael, the rabbi helped him find new ways of approaching algebra, and she studied Torah with him, as well.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin, spiritual leader of Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles and a former bar mitzvah teacher, recalled a student of his in another city. Avi was the son of a rabbi. He was nice, but, according to Korobkin, his parents were not nurturing and were not engaged in his education. Looking back, Korobkin believes it’s likely he had some learning disabilities.

Avi approached the bar mitzvah experience defiantly, Korobkin said. He managed to accomplish the learning, but it took constant communication between the parents and Korobkin and lots of coaching.

Looking back, Korobkin suggested that in a less-pressured setting, Avi might have had a more positive bar mitzvah experience.

Korobkin believes that for some young people, particularly in the Orthodox community, there may be tremendous pressure from parents and peers to accomplish more than they can (e.g., chant the entire Torah portion, the entire haftarah, prepare and deliver the d’var Torah and often more). This is a lot of external or internalized pressure, particularly when a 12-year-old is not a stellar student.

Jonathan, a student of mine, in an initial meeting, along with his mother, began to tear up and all but crawl into his mother’s lap. It wasn’t hard to see that there was a problem.

He protested the idea of going through the bar mitzvah process. Jonathan didn’t want to become a bar mitzvah, and the list of reasons seemed to grow with the conversation. It became apparent that these were more like excuses, and there was something underneath the emotional defiance. After more questions it became clear that this defiance was more about his anxiety about the process and the service, rather than a deep philosophical, theological or emotional opposition to the idea of bar mitzvah. Once we got to the root of the problem and he felt he was heard, we were able to work together with his parents, knowing that he was struggling with anxiety. He would need support to walk through the process and receive as much information as we could give him about what each step would involve, including what it would be like on the day of his service.

The Parents

Matthew and his parents came into Rabbi Jerry Brown’s office to talk about how to handle the student’s defiant attitude. The parents explained that when Matthew refused to attend religious school or prepare to become a bar mitzvah, they made a deal with him: If he agreed to go to Jewish summer camp and continue with some of the confirmation classes, they would allow him to drop out of Hebrew class and they would cancel the bar mitzvah service. Matthew was delighted with the deal.

When summer approached, Matthew protested again, and they agreed that he could go for the shortest amount of time — a two-week session. A few days into camp, the parents got a call from the camp director. Matthew got on the phone and gushed about how great camp was and that he wanted to stay longer. Unfortunately, the director explained, there were no spaces available for the following sessions. Matthew became furious.

After recounting this to the rabbi, the parents pointed out that the reason Matthew could not stay longer in camp was because he had insisted on only attending for two weeks. Matthew then blurted out: “But you’re the parents. You’re supposed to know what’s best for me.”

Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, N.J., noted that he has been through defiance often and said, “I don’t know that I have ever seen a ‘defiant’ kid who was not in some way a product of defiant parents. When the parents have a good attitude, see that the kids get to lessons on time, make sure he or she practices at home, and so on, things work…. On the other hand, when I think about every kid that comes to mind who might fall into the category of ‘defiant,’ it’s because the parents, whether actively or passively, ‘allow’ him or her to be.”

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, believes that a contributing factor in defiant attitudes is when a family has a tenuous relationship to the synagogue community and the child gets the message that he or she is expected to hold values which the family does not hold. When the family is involved in synagogue life and is part of the community, the experience is organic and the child is less likely to feel that this is a burden and possibly rebel against it. He or she is less likely, then, to have a negative experience, which would possibly be associated with Judaism.

If the family is involved in the process, actively taking part in the service, perhaps by reading Torah or actively engaging in the learning, then the message will be more positive, Diamond said. By the same token, when the young person is given the message (in these words or more subtle ones): “Your grandfather became bar mitzvah, your father became bar mitzvah and now you can suffer through it as well,” then the take-home message for the child is clear.

Yavneh Hebrew Academy’s Korobkin agrees that such mixed messages — which can come from parents, a teacher or the community — can create a negative experience, leading the young person to wonder why he should go through all this work if it’s all just a big show.

The Rabbi (Cantor, Tutor, Jewish Community)

The Board of Rabbis’ Diamond believes that part of the solution lies in the approach that the rabbis, the tutors, the educators and the Jewish community as a whole take toward bar and bat mitzvah. He contends that part of the problem that sometimes manifests itself in defiant students is how the bar or bat mitzvah itself is approached. The staff and the community can send a positive message or a message of resignation. The way the experience is couched should not be one of “just suffer through the next seven months and you will be glad you did it when the day comes,” he said.

Diamond contends that because the bar or bat mitzvah can be the beginning of a serious, thoughtful Jewish education, the student is ripe for learning. A negative approach loses the bar or bat mitzvah student before this new developmental stage can benefit everyone. By not making it the big deal it has become, Diamond believes we can send the message that bar/bat mitzvah is not an end point but a beginning to a new stage of learning and Jewish identity and connection to community. The extravagant parties only contribute to an emphasis on the wrong aspect of the experience.

Instead, Diamond suggests using a student’s defiance to everyone’s advantage. When the defiance is about not believing in God or about struggling with the big questions, the rabbi or educator can study with the student and model that Judaism is about struggling with the big questions. The student can perhaps even include those challenging ideas in the d’var Torah.

Sometimes, a young person just isn’t ready to become bar or bat mitzvah at age 13 because of this defiance or resistance. Diamond suggests that forcing a young person to go through the experience may well lead to a negative experience and may very well not strengthen the young person’s Jewish identity. In that case it can become counterproductive.

Cantor Ellen Dreskin in New York agrees. “If you work too hard to convince someone that they should do this even if they don’t really mean it, because that’s what we do, then it sets up a very poor model for the deeper significance of all things Jewish in one’s future,” she said.

Rabbi Mickey Boyden of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel, said that he makes it clear when he has a defiant bar or bat mitzvah student that he is not in the business of coercion, that if the student wants to forgo this he or she can. One advantage to this approach, according to Boyden, is that the young person won’t see the rabbi as siding with the parents, and it keeps the relationship with the rabbi intact.

Rabbi Stephen Arnold, rabbi emeritus of Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in approaching these students, was clear that there is a difference between becoming a bar mitzvah, which happens automatically when one turns 13, and the public ceremony during which there is communal acknowledgement of this shift. He assured each student that if the young person’s concerns could not be addressed to his or her satisfaction, the rabbi would champion the child’s right to opt out of the public ceremony.

Arnold continued, though, by making the point that while this was negotiable, the continuation of Jewish study was non-negotiable. Often, the public ceremony was postponed until the young person felt ready for it. As an example, he recalled a student who decided that she was ready during her junior year of college, at which time she was called to the Torah “to the embarrassment of none and the joy of all concerned.”

One rabbi approaches the student who says “I don’t want to do it” by looking at whether the student originally made a commitment to follow through, in which case she couches the dilemma in the context of kibbud av v’em, honoring one’s parents by fulfilling the commitment. It is an opportunity, she said, to see commitment as an act of respect and a real-world lesson in needing to finish a task that may have lost its appeal.

Korobkin suggests that one solution lies in the assessment of the child’s learning ability and the young person’s ability to accomplish what is assigned. He cautions not to overpressure the young person, in order to avoid leaving a negative taste in his mouth. And he suggests that the teacher befriend the young person, develop a relationship, become a positive religious role model first, and then get into the preparation and studies. The teacher must manage the difficult position of being compassionate toward the student and being responsive to the students’ expectations.

The parents, child, rabbis and educators ultimately form a partnership, working together to bring the young person to the special day. The seeds are planted early on though — through the messages, the values and the relationships built prior to the day. l

Jeff Bernhardt is a b’nai mitzvah teacher, Jewish educator and freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

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