Observations from a Bar Mitzvah Family Meeting in Columbus

by Rabbi Misha Zinkow

It was evident to me when I sat down with the Greens that Isaac was not a happy camper. I’ve known him since he was about 4; he’s a great kid, an upbeat and cheerful child, and the son of communally-active and highly engaged parents. So an unhappy face on this one was inconsistent with the subject of our meeting, about which I presumed he would be excited: his bar mitzvah next year.

Since I know that Isaac is comfortable around me (comfortable enough not to feel like he needed to present himself disingenuously), I asked him, “What’s with the face and body language?” And Isaac was predictably honest: the looming prospect of sitting in his bedroom, headphones clamped over his head to perfect the recitation of prayers with which he was already familiar from his day school experience, and to memorize a Torah and Haftarah portion, were simply not activities he was feeling inspired to do. No surprise in that revelation.

The more Isaac described how trapped he felt by the journey on which he was about to embark, the more eager I grew, and when he was finished with his description of the impending doom, I could reveal to him that we, his rabbi, cantor and educator, all understand his consternation, are sympathetic. What’s more, we even agree with him – which is why I was able to say,“Isaac, we want to suggest a totally different way to think about and approach your bar mitzvah.”

The long-faced boy immediately uncurled himself from his slouch to pay attention, even if a little skeptically. Now that I had stirred Isaac and his mother’s curiosity, I was able to explain how we hoped to make the bar mitzvah experience deeper and more meaningful for him and his family.

It goes like this: the bar mitzvah student and his parents read the week’s Torah portion and look at some supplementary commentaries and material we provide. From the Torah portion, they harvest a Jewish value (or perhaps more than one) to which they resonate. Perhaps it is a value they already appreciate and act on, or a value to which they aspire to embrace more fully. We then provide study materials on that value(s) from primary and secondary sources, and set up a series of touch-base meetings to make sure that they are making their way through the materials and for conversation about the study material.

The bar mitzvah student will have three ways to experience and “live” the value: through Torah, Avodah and G’milut Chasadim. The “Torah pillar” is the study of the portion and commentaries. The “Avodah pillar” will be the learning, or review, of a set of prayers our BMR task force determined were “essential” (e.g. Sh’ma, the first three benedictions of the Sh’moneh Esrei, Torah and Haftarah blessings, Kaddish Yetom), and the learning of a few verses of Torah and perhaps Haftarah (this, compared to the 15-18 Torah verses and the 9-12 of Haftarah our b’nai mitzvah currently memorize). The “G’milut Chasadim” pillar will be communal engagement through the value – acts that animate the value on two fronts: locally and with the global Jewish community and/or in Israel. And finally, we will ask the student to create a presentation that reflects his/her experience, to be presented during the Shabbat service or Kiddush following the service.

It would be untruthful to say that Isaac leapt out of his chair with gratitude and enthusiasm. However, when I finished the explanation of the “new-and-improved Bar Mitzvah,” his attitude and demeanor had undergone a major change, and he was very enthusiastic, as were his parents, about this new way of approaching what to him was destined to be a life-cycle passage through which he would, at best, sleep-walk.

Isaac is the fourth child to whom I have presented our vision for a revolution in the way we “do” b’nai mitzvah. All of them, and their parents, while anxious about what the outcome will “look like,” are excited about being the first to experiment with breaking out of our inherited practice, which we have acknowledged may no longer be the best practice.

Rabbi Misha Zinkow has been Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel in Columbus, Ohio since July, 2004. Temple Israel is participating in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Pilot Cohort. 

Originally published at B’nai Mitzvah Revolution

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