The Talmudic rabbis way-back-when figured that at 13, a boy was old enough to know right from wrong and therefore become responsible for fulfilling the mitzvot (commandments) that are part of being a Jewish adult – in other words become a bar mitzvah. While it’s a pretty dubious concept today that a teen knows enough right from wrong (Jamie-Lynn you ignorant slut!), the unintended yet fortuitous benefit of the rabbis’ proclamation is that modern parents of a 13-year-old are given an invaluable opportunity – to connect (or reconnect) to their faith in a more reflective, spiritually meaningful way.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve seen a lot more life go by since the day we stood with our tiny eight-day-old son and committed to raise him as a Jewish male. Like many of my friends, I felt the bris ceremony to be more historically significant than personally meaningful. It was something that we were expected to do – it was a lovely ceremony in our home filled with over 120 friends and family members, followed by a simple meal, and my parents and grandparents kvelled. Since then we’ve done what’s minimally expected of Reform Jews – we’ve sent the kids to religious school, hung mezzuzot (prayer scrolls) on our doorposts, celebrated the holidays, tried to teach the kids a little Jewish history, instilled the importance of tzedakah (charity).
But not til now – planning our oldest son’s bar mitzvah – have I felt in my own heart a real, true connection to my faith. The process has made Judaism personally meaningful to me and I wish – I hope – that my friends who are embarking on this process take the opportunity to look at Judaism with more perspective and make the occasion meaningful for themselves and their children, rather than just blindly going through the motions because you’re supposed to.
I agree emphatically with my friends that religious education was a horrific bore when we were growing up. It was a dreaded obligation at best, and a guilt-laden turn-off at worst. Our parents made us go, perhaps because they were expected to send us, perhaps in hopes that something would rub off and we’d grow up to be good Jews, or perhaps to have Sunday mornings to themselves. They didn’t care that there was no fun in Jewish learning because that’s how they grew up and if they had to go through it, so did we. (“It’s not supposed to be fun!”)
Things couldn’t be more different today. Aside from occasional complaints about the inability to sleep in on a Sunday (and an old, crotchety teacher here and there), my boys have embraced religious education right up through today. Without a doubt it’s due to the Reform Movement’s effort to inspire and create dynamic Jewish communal activities. Our temple in Providence and our new temple here go to great lengths to involve families in learning, in worship, and in social networking in order to create a Jewish community and a feeling of connectedness – to God, to the temple, to our heritage, to other families, to our own families. Any given week there might be a family Shabbat dinner at temple, or an interesting speaker, or they might invite the whole 6th or 7th grade to receive personalized prayerbooks or they hold Shabbat services on the beach here in the summer. Dismiss these opportunities and you’re missing out on a lot, plus you’re passing on to your children the attitude that being Jewish is just a label, not a way of life. And sadly, that’s precisely why Jewish continuity is in critical danger.
We first began to see our kids’ genuine interest in Judaism when the three oldest joined the youth choir at Temple Beth-El last year. The brotherhood of three felt comfortable enough together to break into the heretofore all-girl group, and were joined shortly by a few other brave gents. In addition to hanging out with a gaggle of cute Jewish girls (which I think was their initial motivation), they learned the words and tunes to the songs sung at Shabbat evening services. And we started attending services when the youth choir was featured. They saw how much fun it was to have temple friends and to get to work with the incredibly sweet and talented Cantor Judy, and they all decided to work on the Purim Spiel, the story of Purim always performed each year by adults and kids together in a wacky, cheesy way. (Last year was “Disco Megillah,” complete with a mirrored ball and songs from the Studio 54 era, adapted with clever lyrics to tell the story – Queen Esther sang “Stayin’ Alive.”) Bingo! They felt part of a community. And it wasn’t a drag to go to Temple anymore.
The connectedness continued over the summer, as they had seen ads at temple for Eisner Camp, a Reform Jewish camp in the Berkshires and begged to go, since some of their temple friends had gone and loved it. It was a transformative experience for all three of them, and they came home singing songs and living some of what they had learned. Most importantly they’ve made lifelong friends from around the northeast who come from families to whom Judaism is a priority.
Of course these days becoming a bar/bat mitzvah means you have a requirement to attend a certain number of Shabbat services. At my insistence, we started going to Friday evening services as a family, and now there isn’t one of us who doesn’t look forward to Friday night. We love singing the prayers, learning new tunes, feeling connected. Last week, as we were putting on our coats after the service, David remarked, “Even though it was a crummy week and the stock market tanked, I loved being able to put it aside and relax and enjoy the service.” That’s what Shabbat is all about! I felt like my nagging and dragging them each week had actually paid off and helped my family (particularly the BIGGEST boy) find meaning, Yesterday I had to disappoint a friend who is going to be in town this Friday evening and wanted to meet us for dinner. Much as I adore her, I couldn’t be persuaded to blow off services, because not only would my whole family be disappointed, but I would have to wait a whole other week to go back and hope we were singing the Craig Taubman version of “L’cha Dodi” which has been my earworm ever since Cantor Harris introduced us to it last Friday night!
Face it. By bar/bat mitzvah age, you really don’t have much longer to make a significant impact on your child’s life. Often we forget in the shuffle of day-to-day life that we teach by example. Think about why your child is become a bar/bat mitzvah in the first place. Because you had to do it? Because your parents expect you to do it? Because his or her friends are doing it and you don’t want your child to feel left out? What’s the point? Instead of just being a checkbook and the chauffeur to bar mitzvah lessons, consider the preparation time an opportunity for you to become involved in the bar/bat mitzvah journey, and in the process you just might enlighten yourself and deepen your commitment to Judaism. It’s a different time in your life, a different time for Reform Judaism, and I wholeheartedly encourage my friends to look at it again.
Ben and I have studied his Torah portion together and discussed it at length. I’ve been so impressed by how meaningful the Torah teaching and the preparation process as a whole has been to him, and I know it’s due in large part to him feeling connected to his faith and having the interest to learn more. And I’ve appreciated the opportunity to learn more as well. Back in 1979 when I became a bat mitzvah, we learned the prayers surrounding our Torah and Haftarah portions, and the portions themselves. That was it. We didn’t lead the prayers like they do today. We didn’t learn what our portions meant because we didn’t have to write and present a d’var Torah. It’s no wonder my friends and I felt little connection to our Jewish faith and have spent most of our adult years just going through the motions.
Most folks know I plan a mean party. But this time around I’ve spent the bulk of my time trying to make the occasion as meaningful as I can for our family, rather than a quintessential Reiser bash. I’m awed to have the opportunity to renew my faith. In the name of Jewish continuity, I urge my friends with a child’s bar/bat mitzvah on the horizon to give it another try in a way that’s meaningful to you. You don’t have to become Super Jew (or, as we used to call my Mom, “Shirley Goodness”). But maybe you’ll find something that touches you, and you can genuinely pass a bit of your spirituality on to the next generation. Our past was built on it, and our future depends upon it.