The Ties That Bind: Marking 20 Years of a Reimagined B’nai Mitzvah Process
JNS.org – In recent years, many communities have taken a fresh look at their b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. How can it be more relevant? More inspiring? And more likely to be a vehicle for continued engagement in Jewish life? After all, as we always tell our 13 year-olds, “It marks the beginning, not the ending!”
As a rabbi and former congregational and family educator, I welcome this examination. The process of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah should—and can—be incredibly meaningful for the child, the family, and, really, the entire congregation. This is also why I’m happy to share the model that we’ve used for 20 years at Beth Israel—The West Temple in Cleveland. Already, with the help of Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, educators around the country have learned how our b’nai mitzvah experience engages the whole congregation. Ironically, it is a model that started out of necessity and blossomed into a defining and connecting element of our congregational life.
Twenty years ago, we found ourselves in a bind. We had just lost our rabbi and would be without another for the foreseeable future. Like most congregations, our rabbi handled the b’nai mitzvah preparation. I was tasked with filling this void; the mantra “it takes a village” would be my guiding principle.
I first met individually with each family at their home. We sat around the dining room or kitchen table, reading through the child’s Torah portion, discussing questions as they arose, and asking the child to choose a section that would be his/hers to read and reflect upon for a d’var Torah (Torah-focused remarks). In the subsequent months leading up to the bar or bat mitzvah, our Hebrew coordinator (the lead teacher in our Hebrew program) took on the role of Torah tutor. Another congregant prepared the student to lead the service.
But what about additional help with the d’var Torah? Reading a section during that initial meeting was lovely. But certainly it did not suffice to prepare a 13-year-old to deliver words of wisdom. This need, to empower the child to learn more and to share more, was the catalyst for Beth Israel—The West Temple’s Intergenerational Program.
Our congregation thankfully has some very learned and special older members. We asked them if they might work with a student to help prepare their d’var Torah. Six said yes, and as the years went by, they were paired with students.
Together, they study the Torah portion. The older mentors provide background information, and help the students research commentaries and create meaning for themselves. Through this chevrutah (studying with a partner) process, each student comes to learn more about the mentor and his/her connection with our congregation. As this intergenerational friendship blossoms, we’ve seen time and again how the student’s parents come to know the older members of our congregation and, of course, how our mentors meet and develop friendships with our younger congregational families.
The program has tangible benefits for our older members, many of whom have children in their college or post-college years and are searching for additional ways to be actively engaged in the life of our congregation. In fact, mentors say that the program deepens their own Jewish learning, as they learn Torah from new perspectives and seek to bring these perspectives to their mentees.
There is something very special about that first meeting with the family, sitting around the dining room or kitchen table and reading the Torah portion together. The family formally sets off on their bar/bat mitzvah journey with the child and his/her parents reading aloud from the Torah. Quickly, the conversation intensifies as they ask questions of each other, all within the framework of a rabbi sitting and learning with them in their home.
Congregation members Evan and Jill Fleisher reflected on how this bat mitzvah process influenced their two daughters, explaining, “The knowledge our daughters gained and the unique experience preparing for their bat mitzvahs were invaluable. Having another adult other than us for our girls to confide in, to speak with, and to take guidance from, was an integral and special part of this. And as a family, we are closer now to the Temple and especially to the individuals who mentored the girls throughout their journeys.”
Twenty years since the program first started, our congregation happily continues it. Though the rabbinical position was filled many years ago, this intergenerational program adds so much to our community by personally touching the lives of so many members. One of the original mentors still works with students. Many other mentors have joined the ranks to help shape their mentee’s d’var Torah. The Hebrew coordinator still helps with the Torah reading. And over the years, some parents have even served as mentors to their children—with wonderful outcomes. The program links our members more deeply and, frankly, connects people who otherwise might never meet.
This process also helped bring to life the concept that becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is the beginning. Students, parents, and mentors enjoy friendships that extend beyond the bar/bat mitzvah experience. Often, on those meaningful Shabbat mornings, a mentor is called for an aliyah during his or her student’s Torah reading. What a heartfelt and deep gesture it is. It connects one generation to another through one of our most ancient and sacred traditions—the study of Torah. Is it rocket science? No. But sometimes, the best way to reimagine a ritual is to hone in on what made it special in the first place.
Enid C. Lader is the former director of congregational and family education, and current rabbi, of Beth Israel—The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She shared this intergenerational program model through Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, whose partner agencies are The Jewish Education Project (New York), the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the Jewish Learning Venture (Philadelphia), and Jewish LearningWorks (San Francisco Bay Area). Shinui is funded by the Covenant Foundation.