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Bar Mitzvahs: Magic or Tragic?

Bar Mitzvahs: Magic or Tragic?

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It may sound shocking, but the average bar mitzvah is a failure. I don’t mean that the young man failed his test, or didn’t perform adequately on the bimah. And most parties are successful, and lots of fun too.

Bar mitzvahs are failures because once the gifts have been unwrapped, the cash deposited and the balloons popped, what is left? Is there any lasting value to this year of study, of running to synagogue for lessons, of nerves and anxiety? The success of a bar mitzvah should really be judged by the value added to a young man’s life.

The bar mitzvah is meant to be an initiation into Jewish life, and we’ve turned it into a graduation. A young man goes through the compulsory 12 months of drudgery and then wipes his brow, and with a deep sense of relief quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Free at last, free at last, thank G‑d Almighty, I’m free at last.”

It’s like the old story of the synagogue that was plagued by mice, until the rabbi decided to give all the mice a bar mitzvah. They were never seen again. Or the rabbi who said he finally worked out what happened to the 10 lost tribes of Israel. They never really got lost, he said. They just had a bar mitzvah!

A generation ago, the Jewish historian Cecil Roth advocated that the age of bar mitzvah should be moved up to 17 or 18, in the hope that we might then be addressing a more mature young man who would better appreciate what Judaism has to offer. After all, just because he’s reached puberty and biological maturity doesn’t mean he is mentally and emotionally mature.

Can we really prepare 13-year-old boys or 12-year-old girls for the big issues of life? Can we teach Jewish philosophy to this age group? What is the meaning of life? Can one prove the existence of G‑d? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where was G‑d in Auschwitz? The only answer we’re giving them to all these questions is a sing-song passage they must learn to parrot by rote. And, more often than not, they have no clue what they are singing about.

While to this day nobody has acted on Roth’s suggestion, all agree that something must be done. Throughout most of the 20th century, and now into the 21st, the bar mitzvah syndrome is one of Judaism’s most spectacular educational failures.

The truth is that it’s not the young man’s fault. Nor is it the teacher’s fault. And far be it from me to blame the rabbi! It is the system which is doomed to failure, unless an exceptional effort is made by all concerned.

The average bar mitzvah fails because the average family doesn’t really want any dramatic change in their son’s life. Nor do they want him to come home from his lessons and start preaching to them. If bar mitzvahs are to enjoy any measure of long-term success, parents must sit down and give some serious thought to what they actually want from, and for, their son.

Do they want a nice performance in synagogue, a clever speech and a cool dinner dance? Then that’s what they will get. If, however, they sincerely desire a meaningful rite of passage, and a mature and earnest acceptance of Jewish responsibilities, then the whole family will need to prepare itself for meaningful change.

Realistically speaking, this might mean one new mitzvah for the young man: a daily commitment to put on tefillin is a basic traditional resolution. And a new mitzvah for the family—like coming to synagogue more regularly—might be a good start.

Synagogues, too, must offer imaginative programming for this age group that will captivate them and inspire them to keep coming back. That way, when they are more emotionally mature, they will be there to get those important answers to life’s questions.

Of course, many good things can come from the bar mitzvah experience. Setting goals, achieving them one by one, a schedule of hard work leading to recognizable achievements, and at the end of it all, being rewarded for a year-long effort—these are all valuable lessons for life.

But bar mitzvahs have something much deeper to offer. In contrast to today’s lavish parties, my father recounts the incredible non-event his own bar mitzvah was back in prewar Poland.

He was already studying at a yeshivah boarding school away from home. “Shortly before my 13th birthday, I received a parcel from home. Inside were a pair of tefillin and a note from my father telling me to make sure I was called to the Torah for an aliyah for the occasion.”

That was it. No invitation, no party, no photographs, no cash. But he was given the essential ingredients for a successful bar mitzvah: tefillin to bind himself to G‑d, and an aliyah to learn from the Torah how to live. Thank G‑d, they stood him in good stead.

Whether today’s bar mitzvahs will be magic or tragic will depend on the will and determination of the parents. Please G‑d, with their genuine commitment, coupled with good synagogue programming and some inspired teaching, we will make the magic the Jewish people need to build our future.

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Rabbi Goldman johannesburg, sa February 6, 2014

Mazel Tov for the Bat Mitzvah! If you think Chabad.Org is good, why don't you find a real live Chabad Rabbi near you via this link! Reply

Anonymous Rochester, NH February 5, 2014

Bat Mitzvah My daughter turns 12 this Thursday. We are having a bat mitzvah in our own way at home. We are not members of any synagogue because it is expensive and quite frankly boring. Boring in the sense that the rabbis do not teach their congregations the lessons the Parshah teaches. That's why I am a big fan of chabad.org. I have learned more about Judaism than any rabbi at a synagogue is going to teach my family. I guess I have become a teacher and student of Judaism in my own house. My daughter shall read her haftorah in English from this web site. I made a copy for her homeschool portfolio. We will study this week's Parshah. She will light candles this Friday night. That is it. No parties. No gifts. Reply

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