When rabbis meet individually with students and their families as the bar or bat mitzvah date approaches, it gives them a chance to deepen the relationship outside of the weekly classes and Shabbat services. For many rabbis, these conversations are key to personalizing the bar/bat mitzvah and help shape the message they give during the service.
To draw out children and families, rabbis often use a standard set of questions and priming activities, both to break the ice and to press children and families to grapple with the lasting significance of the bar/bat mitzvah.
Varying their questions based on what they already know about the child and family and then following their lead, rabbis often start with requests for basic information about school, social and academic interests, friends, hobbies, sports and volunteer activities. But once they do break the ice, most rabbis probe with questions that draw out the uniqueness of each child and family or press them to consider the significance of Judaism in their lives.
One favorite area of exploration is the transition from childhood to adulthood, and rabbis will either broach the topic directly or use the child’s parents as proxies for adulthood.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino, asks children: What do you look forward to in becoming a grown-up? What do you think is the best part of being a grown-up, and what is the toughest part? Approaching the same subject a little more obliquely, he may also ask: What do you admire about your parents?
For Feinstein, it is also important to evoke the parents’ imaginings about what kind of an adult their child will become because he believes the bar/bat mitzvah is as much a lifecycle moment for the whole family as it is a celebration of a particular child.
“The more I can make parents understand that this is not just a ceremony on the bimah — that the way of parenting and the whole language of being in a family will change now that they have a teenager — the more meaningful it is,” he said.
Feinstein tells the parents to look at their child and imagine what he or she will look like in a year — because they will look very different. He also asks the parents to write a letter about what it means to be a grown-up to the 18-year-old their child will be in a mere five years: What are the challenges and the glories? What are the values you want your child to hang onto as they become an adult?
As children are on the threshold of their teenage years, rabbis also try to get them to think about what Judaism means to them.
Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am/Pressman Academy, a Conservative synagogue in West Los Angeles, likes to do this via role-playing. He will say to a child: OK, so I’m a Christian and you’re a Jew. I say to you, “The most important thing in my religious tradition for me is the fact that Jesus loves me. What for you is the most important element within your understanding of your Jewish tradition?”
“People don’t ask themselves these questions; they’re not forced to anymore. American Jewish culture is so tolerant that people are not asked to justify themselves. The differences between Jews and non-Jews are not as pronounced in the lives of these young people as it was 30 or 50 years ago,” Rembaum said.
Looking at children’s understanding of Judaism from a different slant, Rabbi David Woznica of the Reform Westside congregation Stephen S. Wise Temple asks children: What does it mean to be part of a chosen people? How do you understand that? What do you think the mission of the Jewish people is; do we have a unique task in the world today? Which of the Jewish experiences in your life do you find to be particularly meaningful?
He also explores with children their relationship to God, often asking them directly: Do you feel a sense of God in your life? For those who respond positively, he may ask: Where do you think that comes from? What effect does that have on your life?
Many rabbis use their pre-b’nai mitzvah meetings to create a web of meaning around the ceremony itself.
Woznica wants to endow the celebration and the experiences leading up to it with significance. “My hope for both the child and his or her parents is a moment in life that is personal, holy, meaningful and memorable for the right reasons,” he said.
To get at the emotional importance of the event, Woznica will often ask the parents to tell the story of how they got to this point in their lives.
Recently a child’s parents, both Iranian immigrants, talked about how each of them had made their way from Iran to Los Angeles.
Woznica turned to the child and asked, “Did you know that?”
The child responded, “No.”
To another child, whose parent had left Iran alone at age 15, Woznica asked, “Can you imagine two years from now being on your own and in a country where you don’t know the language?”
Rabbis are also interested in broadening children’s understanding of what it means for a bar/bat mitzvah to take responsibility for new mitzvot, or commandments.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Tarzana, approaches the same subject more concretely, asking children: What mitzvah would you like to become an expert in?
This initiates an exploration of the range of mitzvot as the children look at lists of positive and negative commandments, interview their teachers, generate their own personal lists and then select one mitzvah.
“I make a point of saying this can be for any reason or no reason,” Orenstein said. “It can be something that’s always interested them, that’s the easiest, or that they’ve never heard before in their lives. There is no bad mitzvah.”
Once the children have selected a mitzvah, they create an action plan. Orenstein talked about one child who selected “do not murder,” because he thought it would be the easiest to do. Rather than creating an action plan around this negative commandment, she had him look at the positive commandment that Maimonides saw as its equivalent, the commandment to preserve life. The resulting action plan included caring for people in the streets and also an exploration of Maimonides’ physician’s prayer because the child was interested in becoming a doctor.
Orenstein also asks children, in concert with their parents: What does more responsibility mean in your household? “I work with the family to come up with something that will be both a privilege and a responsibility,” she said. The responsibilities children take on have ranged from taking care of the family dog without supervision to helping make morning minyan once a week.
Since most children get a significant amount of money and gift certificates for their b’nai mitzvah, Orenstein asks them to commit to how they are going to use their money, and she helps them set up in advance a system for how give tzedakah, what percentage they will give, and where they will give.
Orenstein also confronts the issue of how to make the party more than just a celebration. She asks children: How could we add more mitzvah into the bar/bat mitzvah? One way may be to incorporate their mitzvah project into the bar/bat mitzvah celebration. They look together at examples of what other children have done, but she finds that children usually have creative ideas, for example, making a centerpiece of artfully arranged nonperishable goods that get donated afterwards to a homeless shelter. They also talk about who would enjoy flowers and who would be willing to take any leftover food.
Rabbi Judith HaLevy of Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation, wants children to be able to acknowledge the value of the bar mitzvah process, so she asks them: How has the bar mitzvah process affected you? How do you feel different now about your bar mitzvah than when you started the process two years ago?
“I feel like this is a transformer PowerPoint moment,” she said. “Kids who go through the process get kicked up a notch in a way they wouldn’t if they didn’t go through the process.”
Rabbis also ask questions that try to penetrate who each child really is as a human being. HaLevy initiates this exploration by asking a key question about the Torah portion. “My job in the process is to take their portion and find the doorway to who they are through this Torah portion,” she said.
For the portion of Naso, which includes the priestly blessing, she asked the bar mitzvah candidate: “If you had the chance to bless everyone in this congregation, how would you bless them?” His answer was “Peace.” This led to a discussion of the fact that peace is often absent both from the Torah and from our own lives and ultimately to the recognition that without peace it is difficult to focus on the Source of all blessings.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin of the Modern Orthodox Young Israel of Century City involves both parents and children in the conversation, and one of his goals is to develop a speech for the ceremony that is not canned, but tailor made for the family and the child, giving them “a message that will resonate with them for life.” To do so, he asks the family for personal vignettes about the bar/bat mitzvah, which he ties in with his Torah message to the child. “A vignette really captures the person,” he said.
For two girls who volunteered at a nonprofit equestrian center that provides horse therapy for physically and mentally disabled children and adults and who also allocated money from their bat mitzvah gifts to adopt a horse, Muskin talked about how the girls incorporated chesed, or lovingkindness, in their lives and tied it to the book of Ruth.
“When a person does chesed, without any ulterior motive, then no one can find fault, and that is what Ruth represented,” he said.
Sometimes, rather than having meetings specifically for the purpose of getting to know the children better, they use work sessions with children on their Torah portions or mitzvah projects to develop these relationships. Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid of the South Bay, a Conservative synagogue on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, uses these meetings to create a sense of intimacy with the child and family; he explained, “It becomes the organic opportunity, just through natural dialogue around issues related to their mitzvah project and the speech on their Torah portion.”
For Stephen S. Wise Temple’s Woznica, the meetings with the bar/bat mitzvah student and family have value in and of themselves, and for him they are personally meaningful. “It is a beautiful moment, a touchstone moment where you can really come to know a family,” he said. “For me, I very much want them to feel a sense of the sacred. I also want them to relax, enjoy it, and be present for it. I tell them, ‘I want you to love it.’”
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