Rena Morano, Rabbinic Associate, Congregation Ner Tamid
I have six brothers, and I remember the excitement that surrounded each Bar Mitzvah. I watched proudly as each was called to the bimah to chant his Haftarah, and I took great pleasure in aiming bags of candy and throwing them from the women’s balcony of our shul. I learned the Torah and Haftarah blessings by listening to my brothers practice. I have three sisters, and it never occurred to any of us that we should or could have a similar celebration.
Change has been gradual but consistent since the first American Bat Mitzvah in 1922. Today’s girls no longer have to be satisfied with being spectators at their brothers’ achievements. I’ve mentored many students as they’ve prepared to become a Bat or Bar Mitzvah. They have been boys and girls twelve or thirteen years of age, the customary ages for this celebration, older teens, and men and women from their thirties into their eighties, making up for a lost opportunity in their youth, or rededicating themselves to their Jewish identities. Some have been proficient readers of Hebrew; others weren’t able to read aleph, bet. Some studied with dedication; others required a great deal of encouragement. Some had the support of families; others undertook this on their own. Some were from two-parent Jewish families; others from interfaith or other non-traditional homes.
Jews mark the beginning of spiritual and mental adulthood with the time of intense preparation for the Bat or Bar Mitzvah ceremony. In my role as mentor, I have learned that the months of preparation are more important than the culminating ceremony. Some students delight in unpacking the deeper meaning of a Torah text. Some work to master the chanting of the reading. Some have to overcome the natural shyness to not only speak, but to sing in front of an audience of expectant family and friends. All must learn to prioritize their increasingly busy lives – school, work, sports, and other activities – in order to devote a significant amount of time to this endeavor. All of this require effort, and for some, struggle. The effort and the struggle (moderated by caring mentors and family) result in a beautiful growth in maturity, increased self-confidence, and a deep sense of satisfaction at having successfully passed through a time of coming of age in their own eyes and the eyes of the community.
On the other hand, I have also witnessed youngsters who withdrew on the verge of celebrating their Jewish adulthood. Most of them are left with a sense of incompleteness and self- dissatisfaction. Some come back years later to prepare for an adult Bat or Bar Mitzvah. Some talk wistfully about what they started and didn’t finish.
Why do I believe so strongly that it is essential for today’s Jewish youth to dedicate themselves to a time of study and reflection culminating in a Bat or Bar Mitzvah ceremony?
Historically cultural groups of all kinds have always intuitively understood the need for ceremony, especially one that marked the coming of age of an adolescent. A coming of age ceremony told the community that the youngster was no longer a child. The desire to prove to the world, “I’m not a little kid anymore!” is a deep-rooted need in today’s youngsters, as well. In the absence of a coming of age ceremony endorsed by the community, a child will create his own. As a teacher of high school students, I can tell you that those are often at best non- productive, and at worst self-destructive.
I think it is a mistake when parents decide to let their child choose whether or not to pursue a Bat or Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Consider how many things are not a child’s choices: karate, tennis, gymnastics, drama, baseball, music lessons, horseback riding, and other activities that parents pay for and for which they demand commitments from their children
As parents, we require many things from our sometimes reluctant children because we know they will be valuable to them in later years. We spend the first eleven or twelve years of our children’s lives teaching them the how and the why of doing mitzvot so that they can continue in this practice for the rest of their lives. Yet, there are children who are not allowed to miss a tennis lesson or a soccer match, but who are permitted to opt out of learning that will bond them to the Jewish community and give them a spiritual foundation that will last all of their lives.
I have had some students who were so enthusiastic about becoming a Bat or Bar Mitzvah that they didn’t require an adult’s watchful eye. To be honest, most young students are not like that. Given the choice, they’d rather be with their friends, sleep late, watch TV, or play. But there is no mistaking the look on their faces when they step down from the bimah and realize, to their astonishment, that they did it! The hours of work have resulted in the admiration of their parents and relatives, the approbation of the congregants, and the respect of their peers. But most importantly, as they conclude the ceremony that marks their coming of age, they stand up straighter, walk more confidently, and are ready to embrace the further challenges of life.