It’s no secret that many Jewish organizations dedicate considerable energy and resources to attract new and maintain existing members of all ages. The bar and bat mitzvah experience is undergoing a similar transformation.
Where years ago the 11- or 12-year-old might embark upon their bar or bat mitzvah studies more or less on their own — primarily learning prayers to lead the service and read from the Torah — now there is a more holistic approach that involves the entire family, especially the parents, and begins sometimes years before the child’s milestone event.
Beth Tfiloh Congregation started a “very aggressive program” for b’nai mitzvah families that begins two to three years prior to the celebration.
“I took charge [of the b’nai mitzvah program] to show the children and families this is a priority,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. “We see the buildup to the bar and bat mitzvah as a major opportunity to reach not just the children, but also their parents — Jewishly — so that when they come to the bar or bat mitzvah they are not strangers, and the entire congregation can share in the joy of their simcha.”
Colin Fleisher and wife Jodi bring the family to shul every Saturday, so they are comfortable within the synagogue walls; their son, Eran, will become a bar mitzvah in March. But there are still things they experience as a family that they might not have without the impetus of the b’nai mitzvah program.
“In the last six or seven months we’ve been to Weinberg Park [assisted living] three times to play bingo and visit with the residents,” said Fleisher. It’s nice for his kids — Fleisher’s daughter joined on one visit — to socialize with the seniors because their own grandparents are in South Africa, so both the kids and the seniors benefit from the visits.
One Shabbat per month Wohlberg meets with upcoming b’nai mitzvah families, and for some holidays they share a meal at the synagogue and have a class together; each child is also involved in social action programs.
“Our goal is to make this a religious experience … and in a certain sense we’re not giving people a choice,” added Wohlberg. “If they want to have the bar mitzvah, it cannot be a one-shot deal.”
At Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the b’nai mitzvah training “begins at the earliest stages of religious school and engages the whole family,” said Rabbi Andrew Bush.
The families are encouraged to attend Shabbat services and luncheons, where they can talk about the relationships that will develop between the students, cantor and rabbis throughout their studies. A year out, the whole b’nai mitzvah class attends a Torah study retreat to discuss expectations and the spirituality of the milestone, said Bush.
“In the months of tutoring we try to make it as personalized as possible,” emphasized Bush. “It’s not just mastering Hebrew texts, but also maintaining a relationship with the text, the rabbi and cantor, as we engage [them] in the process.”
Debby Hellman, bar and bat mitzvah coordinator at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, responded via email that the synagogue’s “bar and bat mitzvah experience has the potential to be transformative for the whole family. We try to engage families through a series of family programs that begin soon after the excitement of receiving their child’s date.”
This year, the b’nai mitzvah family education series is called “613 and Me” and includes a social action component.
Some parents choose to honor their children by reading from the Torah for the milestone, explained Hellman, but some haven’t done that since their own bar mitzvah day or not at all, so Chizuk Amuno provides them with support and training.
Stephani and Gary Braverman were recent participants in one session.
With their son, Alec, looking on, they read from the Torah for their first time ever at his bar mitzvah. Alec did as well, and his younger brother Jordan sang the Ashrei prayer. The whole family intends to repeat the experience in honor of the Bravermans’ wedding anniversary next month.
Rabbi Kelley Gludt is the director of congregational learning at Beth Am Synagogue and is also mastermind behind renaming its religious school the Jewish Discovery Lab.
“Seventh grade is a year to build bridges among the families and clergy and between each other,” she said. “We find it’s an important time for families to bond; going through that experience together has an impact, and that bonding is a real way to keep people engaged beyond the simcha.”
In the fall of sixth grade, kids attend a Shabbat program that is open to all families, but a special b’nai mitzvah track allows participants to learn Jewish content in an informal setting, which being outside the traditional synagogue building, said Gludt, is “a great way to set the tone for the entire [b’nai mitzvah] experience.”
Kids are invited to hear their Torah portion sung a year in advance, and then the b’nai mitzvah class has an official kick-off seventh-grade year.
There are four classes that year for the whole family, and they “do value clarification so that the conversations happen about what this [milestone] means for the community, for their synagogue and for their family,” said Gludt.
During the rest of the year, b’nai mitzvah students get together most Sundays to participate in a social justice event, because “we want to set the kids off on a path of lifelong volunteerism in a Jewish context,” said Gludt. “We don’t want them to do it as something to cross off their list as something they do on their way to their bar or bar mitzvah.”
At Kol Halev Synagogue, Rabbi Geoff Basik also considers the milestone a transitional opportunity for some families and views the b’nai mitzvah process as “a real doorway, an opener,” especially for more peripheral or less engaged families to discover and foster their Jewish identity.
The b’nai mitzvah program, called Mensch-in-Training, starts about a year and a half out. For the curriculum, “What Would a Mensch Do?” students and parents study together to foster communication at home about the content and the process.
Kol Halev strives to provide a personalized experience, said Basik. It’s designed to be flexible, especially when a family’s Jewish identity may manifest in one of many ways such as through Hebrew skills, social justice action or even arts and culture.
“They taught me how to incorporate what I liked into my bat mitzvah,” she said. “I liked singing, dancing and playing violin, so they suggested I play a song at my service with my teacher as accompaniment.”
Families “become familiar with Judaism and its value system; that gets expressed in a variety of ways” that are meaningful and accessible to them, said Basik. The goal is for them to “learn about being Jewish and Judaism and plugging them into Judaism in some unique way.”