What the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Is (and Is Not)



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[Editor's Note: Rabbi David's congregation, Adath Emanu-El, is participating in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Active Learning Network. This article originally appeared in the synagogue's bulletin as an opportunity for congregants to learn about the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution and their role in shaping it within their community.]

by Rabbi Benjamin David

Last month – on the front page of the New York Times, no less – there was a lengthy article on the state of b’nai mitzvah ceremonies in the United States. This coverage came just days after the latest example of an over-the-top celebration outside Las Vegas, which featured an ostentatious display of dancers, lighting, and more. Perhaps you saw the video on YouTube. The newspaper article questioned – as we all do, I believe – how this rite of passage can become as meaningful and as moving as our ancestors intended. The article proceeds to highlight and applaud what is being termed the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a program run by the Union for Reform Judaism, which aims to inject thought and scrutiny into the broader process of becoming b’nai mitzvah.

We are participating in this revolution. We are not overhauling our program. We are not doing away with time-honored traditions associated with becoming a part of the adult Jewish community. We are not removing text, Torah, or song from a service that resonates deeply. Nearly every Shabbat morning throughout the year, I have the abounding honor of watching as our young ones command the bimah, demonstrating to themselves and those who love them that they are responsible, ever thoughtful and ready for adulthood. I see glowing parents and grandparents brimming with pride.

So as participants in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, what exactly are we doing? We are examining the process leading up to this service, select aspects of the service itself, and Jewish life following the service. What should seventh grade look like here at Adath Emanu-El? What should sixth grade look like? How about fifth? In addition to asking what we want our children to learn, we are asking what we want our children to experience. How can community service help reinforce the mandate we inherit to be partners in repairing our world? How can peer mentoring help our students feel more connected to one another and their congregation? How can teen teaching give them the confidence they need? How can our post b’nai mitzvah program provide our teenagers with an impactful Jewish experience that is relevant to them and their complicated teen lives?

Like many of you, I, too, am very interested in answering these questions. Indeed, I believe that b’nai mitzvah, like all Jewish rites of passage, from confirmation on Shavuot to wedding beneath the chuppah, have the power to change lives in ways that are quite real. These are moments that can bring us closer to God and grant us perspective. They are moments that can root us even more deeply in a past that is sacred, and prepare us for the future that awaits us. They are moments, lastly, that can stay with us forever.

As we enter 5774, I look forward to joining in many such events and, by your side, making Judaism real in your life and the lives of your loved ones.

Benjamin David is the Rabbi of Adath Emanu-El in Mt Laurel, N.J.  He is the co-founder of the Running Rabbis, a global social justice initiative. He and his wife Lisa are the proud parents of Noa, Elijah, and Samuel. 

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