Preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah is hard work, involving years of intense study and the courage to lead an entire congregation in prayer. Organizing a party to celebrate this milestone — well, that’s no picnic either.
My 11-year-old son, Ari, is now a Hebrew-school dropout. I am aware that that's the name of a comedy act and a line of T-shirts. But, for me, the phrase is not a punch line, but a punch in the gut. I imagine my response was just like parents whose kids drop out of high school: disbelief, sadness and helplessness followed quickly by a healthy dose of Jewish guilt. "Where did I go wrong?" "What did I do to cause him to reject my contribution to his heritage?"
The nerve-wracking morning of a bar or bat mitzvah will eventually be all that's left standing between a student and his or her catered night of extravagant partying. The b'nai mitzvah coach already has helped detangle the Hebrew and trope, but the pressure of reading the Torah portion and haftarah, as well as delivering a speech in front of hundreds of family members, friends and congregants, might make even a usually unassuming bimah look terrifying.
My bat mitzvah invitation had bright purple embossed text on a hot pink card with my name enlarged in decorative script at the top and daisies adorning the bottom. Twenty-plus years later, I remember eagerly waiting for my friends to receive the invitations and running home weeks later to check the mailbox for the return of the RSVP envelopes. Secured in a scrapbook, the invitation is a treasured memento.
Some people live miles away from a synagogue that shares their philosophies and values. Others might have no shortage of resources but have overbooked lives that make fitting in yet another off-site commitment for their 11- or 12-year-old a near impossibility.
Branko Lustig, 78, two-time Oscar-winner for “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator,” will celebrate his bar mitzvah on May 2 at Auschwitz, in front of Barrack 24. He missed his rite of passage as a 13-year-old because at the time he was a prisoner in the very same barrack, having been deported from his Croatian hometown to the death camp when he was 10.
Indeed, bar or bat mitzvah training today has become increasingly reliant on technology to complement learning — from YouTube videos of kids chanting and online lessons with a cantor or tutor to on-the-go studies with an iPod.
"Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage From Birth to Immortality" by Harold M. Schulweis. (UAHC Press, $12.95)
"Finding Each Other in Judaism" distills decades of those quiet, private moments when a curious, wounded or concerned congregant asks the rabbi: "What do I do now?"