Parenting Podcast: Today I am a Man

Parenting Podcast by Wendy Grinberg, RJE

The Jewish community is losing boys who drop out of Jewish life after bar mitzvah in unacceptably large numbers. Jewish institutions are struggling to keep teenage boys engaged. Left unaddressed, the trend threatens to undermine the Jewish future and leave a generation of boys ignorant of the wisdom, core values, community, and spiritual nourishment Judaism provides.”
Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action, Moving Traditions, 2010

If we believe that Judaism is a meaningful component of a full adult life, then how are we equipping our children to grow into knowledgeable and engaged Jewish adults? The bulk of our efforts are spent on children. Most people expect that sending their children to religious school two hours/week starting in kindergarten and then four hours/week from fourth through seventh grade is a solid commitment to Jewish education. If you do the math, assuming the child goes to school every year for 30 weeks (a generous estimate) and never misses a day, that is the equivalent of just under 25 weeks of public school (assuming 5 hours a day of study). That’s six months of school, spread out over 8 years. Even if you wanted to compare it to a subject that was taught for an hour/day in public school, you’d have less than three and a half years of study, and I’d argue that everything we want to teach in religious school is more than one subject. What do we expect? After essentially three years (on the generous end), or just six months of elementary school, a basic understanding of holidays and Bible stories and a moderate degree of fluency reading a foreign language is not bad. But it’s not enough time to learn what our rich tradition has to offer, nor to really demonstrate why an adult would want to spend time at synagogue or marking his or her life through Jewish ritual.

Judaism is countercultural. It has a powerful message to offer us,particularly when the message of the dominant culture is corrupt. But it also takes courage and knowledge to understand that power and to live by it. This is why it is so important that we reach our teens as they are figuring out what kind of men and women they will be. The Reform Movement will be addressing this challenge head-on at the Education Summit on Youth Engagement as part of the 2011 Biennial Convention. Join us. And listen to this week’s parenting podcasts from Deborah Meyer and Rabbi Daniel Brenner of Moving Traditions to learn from this exciting organization about powerful ways to reach our young men and women.

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Wendy Grinberg, RJE is a URJ Parenting Specialist.

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3 Responses to “Parenting Podcast: Today I am a Man”

  1. avatar

    I grew up at a Temple that “required” all religious school students to prepare for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and then continue religious school until Confirmation at age 16. I was among the few students in my class to drop out after Bar Mitzvah and never get confirmed. While my reasons for dropping out were probably quite different from others (I chose to continue independent Jewish reading and study), I am convinced that if the major milestone were Confirmation at 16 (with no B’nai Mitzvah at 13), more people would continue with religious school all the way through. I have always been something of an “old soul”, very mature for my age, and even I was barely mature enough to appreciate the gravity and meaning of my Bar Mitzvah. How much less profoundly, then, did my classmates grasp theirs? If their behavior in Hebrew school and religious school was any indication, the answer is MUCH less.
    By the time I was 16, I would have been sufficiently moved to awe at a ceremony formalizing my obligations to God, the Jewish People, and all the world, had I been forced to go through with such a ceremony. I suspect the same would have been the case with the majority of my peers. Instead, from what I can gather, those who went through with Confirmation seemed to devalue it because they figured they had already done the “important stuff” at age 13, even though in my estimation they had taken that too lightly as well.
    My own personal experience brings me to the conclusion that only uncommonly mature, spiritually sensitive, and intellectually outstanding kids can really make a Bar or Bat Mitzvah a worthwhile endeavor at age 12 or 13, while the vast majority are far better equipped for such a task around Confirmation age. Therefore, I believe that the quality of Jewish education and the sense of Jewish obligation in our youth would be immeasurably improved by the discontinuance of B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies in favor of mandatory Confirmation, which should become even more of a momentous event. My reasons for thinking this are totally separate from my personal view that Confirmation in the Classical Reform vein is a superior ceremony–naturally, if most Reform congregations were to follow my advice, this new “confirmation” would no doubt resemble a traditional Bar or Bat Mitzvah with Torah and Haftorah cantillation, and hopefully none of the lavish, materialistic partying or gifts.
    I hope that some education administrators from our congregations are reading this, because I really think this might help!

  2. avatar

    @Jordan Friedman
    The Classical Reformers had and introduced your idea well over a hundred years ago, and it was relatively standard in Reform until fifty years ago. (And I recognize that you know this as well as I do.) Sensible, pragmatic, egalitarian, and ideologically sound, it was nonetheless rejected by the marketplace. Vox populi vox dei.
    BTW, when Confirmation was the norm, it WAS characterized by lavish partying and materialistic gifts. Many congregations tried to mimimize this by promoting group receptions. As a result, I used to attend both the group reception and the personal reception — call it the law of unintended consequences.
    Edwin Arlington Robinson published the definitive commentary on your perspective in his poem Miniver Cheevey.

  3. avatar

    @ Larry
    My advocacy for that educational model is largely independent of its Classical Reform historicity. It was done years ago, and was good but not perfect. We changed the minhag to include b’nai mitzvah, and it’s not working so well (assuming a goal of sound Jewish education and spiritual and moral elevation of youth). So, perhaps the old format, with modifications to adjust for changed times and tastes, would be worth trying again.
    Vox populi vox Dei is a dangerous adage. As Alcuin wrote in his famous 798 letter to Charlemagne, “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.” For the Latin incognoscenti among us (including me) this means “Those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”
    On the other hand, some congregations had Bat and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies during the height of their CR period, though they might be unrecognizable as such. I know one gentleman who was Bar Mitzvahed at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas in the 40s!

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