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Jewish Journal

Congregations, rabbis try to stop the ‘Big Day’ from becoming the last day

by Michele Alperin

November 8, 2007 | 7:00 pm

The bar and bat mitzvah is traditionally viewed as an entry point into the adult Jewish community, but for many, it's also seen as the door out of both Jewish education and the synagogue.

Among those who believe, however tenuously, that a b'nai mitzvah ceremony is de rigeur, some join traditional synagogues and others take a different path.

For those who become congregants, Los Angeles synagogues are trying to help b'nai mitzvah students and families understand that the ceremony and its preparation symbolize one point on a continuum of Jewish life and learning. Their goal is to strengthen the communal ties of their marginally committed congregants.

For the substantial group of Jews who remain outside the synagogue world, b'nai mitzvah sometimes opens a small window into the organized Jewish community -- one that can quickly slam shut when people encounter a three-year, pre-b'nai mitzvah "residency requirement" or a huge building fund. But sometimes a sensitive and flexible response by the synagogue can keep that window open just long enough to let a family in.

For families who have joined the ranks of the unaffiliated, the traditional b'nai mitzvah ceremony may not be a draw at all. But as individuals and families become more connected to their Judaism, adult b'nai mitzvah often play a more important role. The adult b'nai mitzvah ceremony is a way for adults to affirm their sense of belonging to the Jewish community.

Most congregations are looking for ways to retain members who initially joined with the idea of remaining only long enough to see their children on the bimah reading their Torah and haftarah portions.

To inhibit the post-b'nai mitzvah attrition of barely committed members and entice otherwise uninvolved families into greater participation, synagogues around Southern California are trying a variety of approaches, including the institution of mandatory residency requirements, creating whole-family learning programs and reaching out to interfaith families.

The residency requirement is one way that synagogues are trying to ensure that the bar mitzvah is not a swinging door. They are working hard to redefine the ceremony's meaning for their congregants.

Cantor Evan Kent at Temple Isaiah wants to convey to all families that the bar mitzvah is just one point in their Jewish education.

"It's not a product," he said. "It's a process that begins the day that the child is born."

But this view, and the residency requirement that supports it, can also set up what may seem like an insurmountable barrier for an unaffiliated family that doesn't even think about b'nai mitzvah until their children are 12.

Kent is quick to say that his synagogue will find a way if these children are willing to study with a private tutor for a ceremony that may not take place until they are 14 or 15.

However, he maintains that any significant weakening of the residency requirement can create a conflict for a synagogue whose goal is to create habits of lifelong learning.

Providing a child only with the minimal skills needed to fulfill the requirements of the ceremony is anathema to Kent.

"Then you're just producing b'nai mitzvah," he said. "What about learning history and culture, and developing skills, and learning ethics and the importance of prayer in your life?"

For those people who, though uncommitted, are willing to join a synagogue for the required two or three years, the bar/bat mitzvah process can be a way to help parents identify with the synagogue community.

To draw in parents, many synagogues have special programs either for them alone, or with their children. At Temple Isaiah, a bar mitzvah family education program helps the family figure out what the ceremony means to them and where the b'nai mitzvah fits in the chain of generations. The families meet three times. First, they take an inventory of their own Jewish roots. The next time, they study Torah together. At a third meeting, a family therapist meets separately with parents and children. "You start to have families realize they are not alone," Kent said.

At Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom's synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, families attend Torah study sessions with the rabbi for five or six Saturday mornings in a row. "They get introduced to the process and excitement of Torah study," she said. "Kids study with adults, so they learn from each other, and they meet other families going through the process at the same time."

Another way to pull in the parents is to offer classes that run concurrent with the children's religious school.

In addition to its ongoing adult and youth programming, Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge offers the Parent and Child Education program, which features a morning of workshops and speakers for parents and children.

"It is something that keeps people aware and alive, emotionally, spiritually, culturally and intellectually," said Cantor Patti Linsky at Temple Ahavat Shalom.

Such congregational efforts are an attempt to emphasize to families that b'nai mitzvah is a communal, not an individual experience. And it's a lesson they start to teach early on.

Linsky explained that at consecration, they refer to the group of young children as the confirmation class of 12 years hence; for example, this year's group would be the class of 2019. Then at age 9, when they start Hebrew school and are finally allowed to attend adult High Holy Day services, students are told it is a privilege they have earned.

The bar mitzvah, then, is merely a single point in a lifetime of Jewish learning.

"We are very honest with our kids," Linsky said. "We give them boundaries and let them know this is a serious thing. The process they follow along the way is as important, if not more important, than the outcome. It's about how they choose to live their life."

Congregations are also starting to give special attention to intermarried families as they negotiate the process of b'nai mitzvah. Particularly delicate for them is how the non-Jewish spouses are treated during the ceremony. If they are made to feel unwanted in this period, they may be out the door for good when the ceremony is over.

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