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August 25, 2017  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

It’s time to move beyond B’nai Mitzvah

By RABBI JOSH HEARSHEN Congregation Rodeph Sholom

For many years, synagogues have employed a very specific tactic to balance their budgets: B’nai Mitzvah.

We have always been assured that we will have congregants because they will want their children to have an ornate celebration for their 13th birthday. This was not always a budgetary issue as it originally had valid reasoning associated with it as it was believed that we would change the life of the child and thus the their trajectory as a Jew. The problem was that when they grew up and became parents the trajectory was not altered at all and they became wrapped up in the same cycle that their own parents were in. This is a major problem in the Jewish world today and one that needs to be addressed.

I have spoken on this issue at conferences and in interviews. I believe deeply that it cuts to one of the major issues that the Jewish people face each day. The lesson that we have learned is that so long as we continue to focus on Jewish children and make them the central idea in our synagogues we will continue to create a community of Jewish children, but not of Jews. To be perfectly clear I am not saying that Jewish children should not be a focal point of our communities, but I am saying that they should not be the focal point. We need to continue to work to make our communities places where Jews are the focal points no matter what age they are.

For generations we have heard from Jews that they will join a synagogue when they have kids. This has been a forgone conclusion for far too long. I love to ask the naïve and contrarian question: why wait? Aren’t you Jewish?

Synagogues cannot be the home that people find because they want to raise Jewish kids. They need to be the home for their Jewish lives that will, God willing, include Jewish children. In examining this problem we find that the b’nai mitzvah is a symptom and not the problem itself. It has taken me some years to discover this as early on I was known for proposing that we do away with the pomp and circumstance associated with the 13th birthday of a child and deemphasize it so that we could return to teaching more philosophy, theology and history to our religious school kids and prepare them for a lifetime of being Jews and not a single day performance.

I have realized that doing away with B’nai Mitzvah as we know them is not an answer. The answer is to transform them into something that attacks the problem of disconnected Jews in our midst seeking meaning.

It is one thing to identify a problem and a totally different thing to identify solutions. I will be honest. I am going to leave you all to mull this over and offer suggestions to solve this problem, but I do have some of my own. The first thing we must do is abandon any curriculum or ideology that presupposes that religious education concludes in seventh grade. We must begin to offer a steady education from k - 12. We must do this because we need to emphasize that it is just as important as our math and science studies and also because the older we get, the further up we are on Bloom’s Taxonomy and thus find more and more meaning.

In the scenario where children leave their religious studies at seventh grade, we lose because they are just beginning to learn to apply and to analyze and so much more. The experience becomes more meaningful as it is less and less rudimentary. This is based on the belief that more informed and educated Jews will remain more involved in the future and will yield more Jewishly identified families.

Another step in repairing this is to do everything in our power to make the process meaningful. Performances are not meaningful in a vacuum. But if the child is tasked with doing more than preparing for the “big day,” it becomes more of a labor of love. There will always be the basic features of the service like Torah reading and the Haftara coupled with the leading of services.

But we need to do more. This is where the idea of the mitzvah project came from. It was important for the kids to do something for the big day on their own. The project should not just be a one-time event and it should be more than raising money. In fact, it should also not be limited to “good deeds” as mitzvah means more than a good deed. It is something commanded for the purpose of connecting us to God. Regardless, it is essential that the kids do more than the rote exercises and instead find ways to make the day engage them and the entire process be more meaningful.

When it comes to B’nai Mitzvah I seem to have a love-hate relationship, but it is not that hard to overcome this. I believe deeply that B’nai Mitzvah can be used to rescue Judaism and to make us a stronger community. The core that we need to embrace is that we are looking to mold and create whole Jews that will be at home in their Judaism for their entire lives. Once we accept that basic premise, the rest will simply fall into place.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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