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Revamping the Bar Mitzvah Experience

Revamping the Bar Mitzvah Experience

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

by

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.

Share your ideas in the comment section below.

Published: May 17, 2014


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Visitor Comments: 20

(16) Madison Holland, May 19, 2014 6:28 PM

Agreed. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah right of passage should focuss more on the adolescent Jew's comprehension and application of the Jewish values.

This was a brilliant article. I'm proud to say I have gotten to know the Wolnerman's over the last few months and I have spent many of Shabbat Friday night dinners and Saturday lunches with their family. Great atricle Rabbi Wolnerman! I loved this piece and I kinda wish I could go back in time and apply your message to my Bat Mitzvah experience.

(15) Naomi Ruben, May 19, 2014 5:15 PM

How do parents teach what they don't understand

We teach our children many things, but it is difficult to teach what we don't know. Many parents have a view that temple/synagogue and religious school is just as they were as kids. Do they themselves delve into their own beliefs, model studying and learning? Do they offer to teach in the religious schools? Do we pay people well who are excellent teachers? Judaism is a tiered study, and while Hillel may think we can teach it all on one foot, we need to offer varied experiences, and and various approaches to learning. I am not sure there is any sense of obligation taught, that possibly we encounter "Convince me that I should be Jewish." Do we allow people of our faith to learn and question and disagree? Are people shunned because their plates/homes/actions or are not "kosher enough" Do we nit-pick someone's level of observance instead of meet them where they are? Are prayers more important than actions? Could we have prayer books that have a line of English directly under a line of Hebrew with footnotes on the page? The new Reform Siddur has a lot of explanations surrounding the prayers. It takes a village to raise a Jew, Not everyone will want what we are selling, but we have to have a few things on our shelf to buy. One size does not fit all/

S Ray, May 20, 2014 1:51 PM

There are several Artscroll siddurs that have what you want.

Try the Artscroll interlinear siddur or the transliterated siddur and I think you will be pleased with them.

Anonymous, May 21, 2014 11:53 PM

Artscroll Interlinear Siddur

The Artscroll Interlinear Siddur has helped me a lot over the last few years in understanding the words. reviewing it during Chazarat Hashatz also helps.

(14) Abraham Tache, May 19, 2014 3:38 PM

I've been Saying the Same for Years

I am a 69 year old man with five children (3 males). I support Hillel in words and deeds. For years I've been saying that the Bar Mitzvah ceremony and "Bar Mitzvah Project" are an agony imposed on our children. I've been accused of being a "self-hating Jew" because for decades I've been saying that Bar Mitzvahs actually push our children out of our religion. My two younger sons (13 and 20) read the Hebrew prayers and could not wait to get out of the shul (my 23 year old son swore he'd never go back). Our family got lucky that, after several years of my insisting, my younger sons are going back to shul during the Holidays and some Shabbats. My youngest son now attends Friday night services at Hillel regularly at the University of South Carolina. A Bar Mitzvah should be a joyous occassion, not a ceremony to push a child out of our tribe.

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