Everyone’s talking about bnei mitzvah. Rabbinical students want to ban them. Kids are taking to youtube for cooler and more expensive invitations than you’ve ever dreamed of. Non-Jews want to inspire their kids by giving them some ceremony which seem to benefit no one but the party planners, photographers, and DJs.
And this might sound kind of funny coming from someone who helps people plan their kids’ rites of passage, but I think most Jews on this planet, or I should say, in North America, make far too big of a deal about this without even knowing what the ceremony is or isn’t supposed to celebrate.
On this thread, where a friend of mine gave some tips as far as what to give as gifts, I responded such:
You wrote: “a celebration of achievement. It is a spiritual rite of
passage that connects one generation to another.” I would demur. I
think it’s a celebration of arrival through an entryway. An entryway to
life as a responsible Jew. The “achievement” hasn’t actually happened
yet, and a child becomes bar or bat mitzvah when they have their
(Hebrew) birthday on the thirteenth (for girls twelfth) birthday of
their lives – this is an upgrade in spiritual status, that, according to
the Jewish sources, takes place whether they are reading from the
Torah, vacationing in St. Martin, asleep, or converted out. It happens
to you. How you celebrate it is entirely optional and has varied
greatly by community and history.
I recognize that this is radically different from how most Jews think about bnei mitzvah, but it’s what the sources say.
What do most American kids think? That you have to go to Hebrew school for (fill in the blank) years, to learn Hebrew, so that you can read from the Torah, so that you can have a party like your friends and get lots of gifts.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong. My dear American Jewish children:
1. You don’t have to go to Hebrew school.
2. You don’t have to learn Hebrew.
3. You most certainly do not have to read from the Torah.
4. You do not deserve a party for that dubious accomplishment or any other for that matter.
So what do you have to do?
1. Learn about Judaism from whichever source will inspire you most to live it, love it, breathe it, and understand it.
2. Learn how to talk to God in your own words.
3. Acknowledge in some way that the day you turn 12 or 13 is special because you are now autonomously responsible to live Jewishly.
4. Thank your parents for giving you all of the above.
Shall I tell you why I feel so strongly about this?
1. Going to Hebrew school to learn Hebrew reading, a skill that many kids will never use again soon enough to matter, often makes them hate Judaism.
2. Kids are so entitled and spoiled as it is, that we don’t need to feed the frenzy by offering them a mini-wedding (which actually deifies them far more than a wedding) for “performing” in Hebrew.
3. And of course, the problem everyone, including me, is struggling with: how to keep kids engaged once the carrot is consumed off the stick (you can’t use your gifts? won’t get your album? unless you keep studying Judaism?).
What’s the solution? Haha, if I could put that in a paragraph I’d be a wealthy woman. Of course there are no easy solutions. The way most North American congregations have evolved, they are often bnei mitzvah factories. Where else are dues coming from? But I am not here to solve the problem of congregational survival. I am here to solve the problem of bored, spoiled, disconnected kids. And parents, this is in YOUR HANDS.
Take back control. Stop feeding the cycle. Say “no” to crazy parties, to multiple thousands of dollars going, yes, down the drain, to ridiculous senses of entitlement among our kids who still think they deserve who-knows-what. If you really want your child to be “affiliated” as a Jew, find good role models in Judaism for your kids, and make sure they hang out with your kids as often and as enjoyably as possible. Don’t be afraid to talk about God as though He actually exists. Bring Judaism into your home as a living, breathing religion.
Mostly, find ways to engage in Jewish study yourself and demonstrate to your kids that Jewish learning never stops. “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself
in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they
will not themselves study Torah but will simply instruct their
children to do so” (Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk).
And then we’ll be up to the grandkids’ bnei mitzvah. I wonder what those will look like.