You Say You Want a (B’nai Mitzvah) Revolution

Why do so many synagogues struggle with Hebrew instruction, t’fillah education, and post-b’nai mitzvah celebration? We have come to believe that these challenges — and others, too — are all related to one deep-seated problem: Jewish learning prior to age 13 is driven by the bar/bat mitzvah celebration.

This common practice was instituted more than 70 years ago to increase involvement in the synagogue. But, it has had the opposite effect. Treating bar/bat mitzvah as the goal and end point of Jewish education has degraded Hebrew learning, stifled efforts to expose students to the depth and meaning of communal worship, and led to high numbers of students dropping out of religious school immediately after the “big day.”

Is this a concern for your synagogue? If so, have leaders in your synagogue community been thinking about new ways of approaching b’nai mitzvah? Chances are, the answer is “yes.” We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re committed to finding them.

Since the Campaign for Youth Engagement was launched at the URJ Biennial in December, URJ professionals, lay leaders and our Movement-wide partners have been busy working out the details of this important initiative. In keeping with the mission and momentum of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, I am pleased to announce the launch of the The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint project of the URJ and HUC-JIR. B’nai Mitzvah Revolution will empower synagogues to improve the quality of Jewish education in their communities, reduce the staggering rates of post-b’nai mitzvah dropout, and return depth and meaning to Jewish learning.

In the next year, we will work together with a small number of congregations to explore this issue. This pilot cohort will learn together and share resources and ideas as they experiment with revolutionary approaches to b’nai mitzvah observance and preparation, as well as more effective models for learning Hebrew, kavannah (intentionality) in prayer, and other curricular areas. Dr. Isa Aron, Professor of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR, joins me in serving as co-director of this exciting project.

How can your congregation get involved in the revolution?

Please feel free to contact me with questions, suggestions or concerns. And remember: This is your Campaign!

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Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

About Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

Bradley Solmsen serves as the North American Director of Youth Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). For eleven years Bradley served as Director of Brandeis University’s Office of High School Programs which includes BIMA, Genesis, and Impact: Boston. Rabbi Solmsen was ordained at The Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and received a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has extensive experience as a Jewish educator in Israel and North America working with teenagers and college students and training Jewish educators. Bradley is married to Aliza Kline and is the proud abba of Ela, Gila and Nomi.

4 Responses to “You Say You Want a (B’nai Mitzvah) Revolution”

  1. avatar

    One thing that is VERY important is real Hebrew education. If we want to increase kavannah, then people MUST UNDERSTAND what they’re saying and singing. Besides, it’s much more fun that way anyway. If kids don’t agree with it, then we must consider adapting the texts to something that young people can pray with intention, within reason. To that end, I also strongly feel that we have matured to the point where we can give the notion of vernacular worship a serious re-appraisal, without being scared of “going back” to Classical Reform. There is still a place for vernacular song and prayer in Reform Judaism, and it can be made relevant and interesting by the right worship modalities and musical styles. Perhaps it’s time to let the pendulum stop swinging and fall to the middle–we have made a point of rebelling against Classical Reform. Fine. Now let’s go for a balance. We shouldn’t let the denigration of Progressive and Diaspora Judaism in Israeli society scare us into taking the “American” out of “American Judaism”. We can have our challah and eat it too!

  2. Larry Kaufman

    Jordan, I think you need to define “a real Hebrew education,” which of course will be a challenge because you first have to know the goal. (My Hebrew school’s goal did NOT include bar mitzvah preparation or familiarity with liturgy other than Shabbat and holiday kiddush, Chanukah candle blessings, and Ma Nishtana.)

    And then you need to reconcile your call for real Hebrew education with your call for reducing its use in liturgy.

    Other than asking for a different, albeit undefined, sort of Hebrew education, your comment deals not so much with rethinking bar mitzvah but with rethinking worship. Why don’t you put your worship suggestions into a new post, so we can appropriately discuss the merits of your ideas?

    • avatar

      Points well taken, Larry, and they may get worked into a new post. However, the issue of making worship both intellectually accessible and emotionally meaningful couldn’t be MORE relevant to “the B’nai Mitzvah revolution”. Milestones like B’nai Mitzvah and Confirmation are supposed to cement within young people a motivation to continue involvement in Synagogue worship and events. If it’s not meaningful, they won’t stay. A love of Judaism and Jewish knowledge permeates every fiber of my being, and even I didn’t go back to Temple after my Bar Mitzvah!

      Though perhaps not appropriate here, I plan to outline exactly how I reconcile my insistence on better Hebrew education with my suggestion to judiciously reduce its use in public worship.

  3. avatar
    Jessica Kirzane Reply July 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    One thing that I have often found puzzling when recalling my own Hebrew School education and also my brief time spent as a Hebrew School teacher was the amount of time that was given over to teaching the letters themselves. So much rote practice sounding out letters without meaning attached to them! Art projects involving letters, games involving sounding out syllables that may or may not mean something.
    In my university level Hebrew class, we did the aleph-bet in a matter of days. When I instruct Yiddish courses these days, my students learn the aleph-beys within the first two weeks. I give them the aleph beys, we do a few exercises just working with letters, but very quickly we shift to words, with transliteration and letters attached. And sentences, paragraphs, etc. And students learn the letters alongside words and meanings, so that the letters are not the point, but the meaning itself. And this means that they are not only more interested in learning the letters, but also that it is easier to learn the letters because students go from sounding out to recognizing words.
    I’m not sure what priorities should be in terms of what Hebrew students should know – which liturgy or which words we would deem most important, but I do feel that the letters themselves are not the point.

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