My teacher, Rabbi Irwin Kula, frequently reminds that religious traditions almost always originate as tools to get a particular job done in people's lives. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony, one of the most popular traditions in contemporary American Judaism, is no different. Its job is to mark the moment a Jewish child transitions to adult Jewish responsibilities: commitments to a lifetime of studying sacred wisdom, engaging in prayer and spiritual practice, performing deeds of love and kindness, and pursuing a more just and peaceful world.
In a previous era, a child's mastery and performance of ritual was both appropriate and sufficient to get this job done. The ability to lead a prayer service and/or chant from sacred writings indicated to the child, his/her family, and the community that s/he was ready and able to assume adult obligations. That, more or less, is how the dominant model of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, in which leading services and/or chanting from scripture are the primary focus of both the ceremony and the educational journey toward it, was born.
However, in a context, like ours, of unbridled religious freedom, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah tradition has another critical job: empowering and inspiring Jewish youth to a meaningful relationship with Jewish wisdom, practice, and community, so they will freely and proudly choose as adults to accept upon themselves the responsibilities outlined above.
It is this objective of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah that renders the dominant model inadequate, or, worse, counterproductive, failing to inspire children to fall in love with Judaism, and sometimes causing them to downright detest it.
The dominant model is deficient for many reasons. For one, it is too standardized. If the job to get done is inspiring 13-year-olds, who have vastly different capabilities, interests, and maturity levels, to love Judaism, then the approach has to be different for each student. Similarly, the dominant model is too focused on the performance of (specific) rituals. Not every Jew finds meaning in ritual proficiency, and there is more to being a Jewish adult than leading religious services (which is itself, while praiseworthy, not obligatory): Lifelong learning, pursuing justice and peace, and caring for those in need are all equally valid, if not more important, ways of adult Jewish involvement.
Additionally, the dominant model is disempowering: By giving children and families very little choice in the experience of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the process becomes a tedious chore, a list of boxes to check off, rather than a meaningful journey to Jewish adulthood. Rather than strengthening their involvement, the dominant model thus drives children and families away from the synagogue and Jewish community. And dictating the standards and procedures for Bar/Bat Mitzvah from the top-down unintentionally sends the disenfranchising message to children that they cannot be trusted to take ownership of their own Jewish lives. That is exactly the wrong message at a time when we are supposed to be empowering children to take responsibility for their Jewish lives as adults within the community.
When I began my tenure at Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, I spent many hours with a committed and visionary group of parents who recognized these failings of the dominant model. Together, we wanted to craft a new approach to Bar/Bat Mitzvah, one that focused on the tradition's purpose, rather than one that fixated on its outward form. These bold leaders kept everything on the table, refusing to let "the way we've always done things" prevent us from accomplishing the job that needed to get done. And far from desiring an approach that catered to assimilationist tendencies or that watered down their children's Jewish education, we were eager to develop an approach that would empower children to deepen their relationship with God, Torah, and Israel and inspire them, as Jews, to work toward a more compassionate, just, and peaceful world.
What we developed was a new approach to Bar/Bat Mitzvah that is focused on being personal, meaningful, and empowering. In this innovative process, children and parents partner with clergy to design a plan for the child's Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience that is personally tailored to the unique needs and interests of that child and that family. This plan, this b'rit (covenant), outlines details such as the date and time of the family's ceremony (i.e., it doesn't have to take place on a Saturday morning, or even on a Shabbat), elements of Jewish prayer/ritual that the child will master (i.e., it doesn't have to include chanting a haftarah), concrete plans for social action, and other shared commitments and expectations.
To guide those conversations, and to reinforce them afterward, we developed a new set of communal standards aimed at supporting the many core responsibilities of adult Jewish life, including, but not limited to, ritual proficiency. Students are expected to develop projects that address the needs of the local Jewish and non-Jewish communities, strengthen Israel and worldwide Jewry, and repair the world. Students spend significant time with me and with each other discerning the wisdom embedded in our tradition's sacred texts, with an eye toward helping the child fall in love with Torah. Parents join the clergy and the other families for group study and Judaic enrichment activities. And we take time to cultivate the spirituality of the journey to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, each child's connection to God and his/her spiritual life, and the spiritual power of the celebration itself.
The approach we developed here may not be right for every family, or for every community. Indeed, honoring different but equally valid ways of engaging Jewishly is a cornerstone of our philosophy. But our new process has made the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience here more joyous and meaningful for our families, strengthening their Jewish and communal commitments, inspiring them to remain deeply engaged with Jewish life following the ceremony. And, ultimately, isn't that the job we're trying to get done?