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Revamping the Bar Mitzvah Experience

May 15, 2014 | by Daniel Wolnerman

My bar mitzvah was a celebration of ignorance. It’s time to stop the charade.

Nineteen years ago this week I had my bar mitzvah. I stood at the bima and chanted the Torah portion and Haftorah. And I did not understand a single word that came out of my mouth.

I was congratulated for doing an amazing job. Friends and family lauded me for my hard work, my impeccable chanting, and for taking upon myself the additional responsibility of leading the Shacharit and Mussaf services which was only possible through countless hours of study and practice. Everyone was so proud. Nineteen years later I’m not really sure why. In many ways my bar mitzvah was a celebration of ignorance.

Whenever the synagogue subsequently called on me to chant the Haftorah and lead services, I felt like a fraud. How can I lead the congregation in prayer if I don’t understand the words I am saying? How can I use the prayer book as a way of communicating with God if I don’t understand my end of the communication? Does God really take pleasure me sounding out words for three hours on a Saturday morning? I was plagued by these questions, and bothered that nobody else seemed to care.

My grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor, implored me to put on tefillin every day. I did this diligently, waking up earlier than necessary, beseeching the Almighty with sounds I did not understand while wearing leather straps and boxes.

Years later I took a fresh look at the siddur. This time I looked at the English. It raised a new series of questions but at least I understood what I was saying. And after taking the time to learn more about Judaism as a discerning adult, I started finding answers to my questions.

Driving Jews Away

There’s a famous joke about a synagogue with a mouse infestation. After trying various unsuccessful methods for removing the rodents, the synagogue decides to give the mice bar mitzvahs, after which they were seen much less frequently. Does the typical experience of Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah do more to drive young Jews away from Judaism than draw them in to the beauty and depth of our rich heritage?

During my years as a campus rabbi I have asked hundreds of students – the vast majority of whom are not committed to communal Jewish life – about their Hebrew school and bar mitzvah experience. Over 80% felt that the “Jewish” part of their bar/bat mitzvah was a charade having more to do with making their family proud than taking a meaningful approach to embracing Judaism.

What message are we sending our youth when we embrace this charade? How does this affect a young Jew’s relationship with Judaism? Would we respect a professor who reads from a textbook but does not understand what he is saying? Would we give accolades to a student who does not understand the words coming out of his/her mouth during a presentation? Would you be moved in any way if your spouse read you a love poem in a language he/she does not understand? Where is the heartfelt communication?

Something needs to change. All the effort, energy, and passion we spend preparing our youth for their entry into Jewish adulthood could be better spent. Instead of focusing on chanting, we should focus on instilling Jewish values and literacy within our youth. If we want our newest adult member of the tribe to proudly represent the Jewish people, they have to know what the Jewish people represent. If we want our youth to embrace Jewish values, they have to know what those values are and where they come from. If we do not instill Jewish values in our youth they will obtain their moral compass elsewhere. As Kanye West, the rap superstar, says in his taunt to parents, “who [are] your kids going to listen to? I guess me if it isn’t you!” Do we really want the rap music industry being the source of our children’s values?

The bar mitzvah is an incredible opportunity to shape one’s appreciation for Judaism. If the service and Torah reading remain in the realm of chanting words not understood then the message we send is that the Torah is not worth understanding. Let’s instead give them an appreciation of the relevance and depth of Torah’s wisdom for living.

The Pew report published last October tells us that the retention rate regarding young Jews is very low. They simply are not interested in Judaism. It is hard enough to get a young Jew to take a free ten-day trip to Israel. We won’t succeed in getting young Jews to take Judaism seriously if we allow the bar mitzvah and other central aspects of Jewish celebration to remain mindless and unfulfilling.

I have met many Jews on campus who sincerely want to connect to Jewish spirituality even though they are frustrated praying in a language they don’t understand. I believe the value of Jewish literacy is embraced by the entire denominational spectrum. But the status quo is not working. Let’s end the charade and work together to find a ways to breathe some life back into Judaism.

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