Contact Us

Rethinking Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Rethinking Bar/Bat Mitzvah

 Email

The bar or bat mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage from minor to adult, is one of the greatest milestones that Jews experience. But aside from the lavish parties, there are many ways we can infuse this milestone with relevance. Here are six suggestions to help make the big day even more meaningful.

Find Your Jewish Passion

Many synagogues have their own “cookie-cutter” way of conducting bar/bat mitzvahs. Often, though, the most meaningful celebrations are ones which incorporate kids’ true passions.

For example, when a friend’s son—an ardent musician—became a bar mitzvah, he was given the opportunity to lead sing-alongs at a local Hebrew school. The message he received couldn’t have been more encouraging: There are ways for him to use his talents and passions in his Jewish life.

The Torah tells us to “love the L‑rd your G‑d with all your heart.” The great sage Rashi says this can mean using everything that’s in our hearts—even things that don’t immediately seem “religious”—to grow spiritually. We each have special talents and abilities, and part of growing up is finding ways to use them to spiritual ends.

Try brainstorming with your child. Does your daughter love shoes? In the months leading up to her bat mitzvah, perhaps she can organize a shoe drive for needy families. The bar/bat mitzvah is a perfect time to teach children how to utilize their talents and passions to contribute to the community and develop their unique Jewish path.

“Graduate” to a Higher Level of Jewish Learning

Instead of “graduating” from religious school at thirteen, becoming a bar/bat mitzvah can mean moving on to a higher (and more interesting) level of learning.

Once kids reach their teens, all sorts of opportunities open up. Local community colleges will often allow younger teens to enroll in Hebrew classes. Synagogues and youth groups run programs for teens—or even allow teens to sit in on adult programs. Alternately, consider arranging one-on-one tutoring with a local rabbi.

Make a Siyum

Siyum means “conclusion” in Hebrew, and it’s also the name of a celebration when we finish reading a Jewish book. Some bar/bat mitzvah kids study a Jewish text in the months leading up to their big day, so they can add a siyum (when they talk briefly about what they learned) to the festivities.

I’ll never forget talking with one boy who made a siyum at his bar mitzvah for a part of the Torah he’d studied with his brother. “It brought us so much closer,” he said, referring to the time he and his brother had spent together, discussing the concepts they read about.

One mom I know started reading a few lines of the classic Jewish book Pirkei Avot with her daughter each week. The entire text was new to each of them, and they both enjoyed talking about the various ideas the book raised—and even getting to know each other better. Their weekly study was so meaningful that they don’t want to give it up; after the daughter’s bat mitzvah, they intend to start another book together!

Study partners need not be family members, however. I know one boy who studies with a local rabbi, talking on the phone a few minutes each week as they work their way through a Jewish book. They are timing the conclusion for the boy’s bar mitzvah celebration a few months away.

Connect with Others

Reaching out to people in the community like rabbis and teachers also has another benefit for bar/bat mitzvah kids: It can help put them in touch with Jewish role models.

The great Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel counseled, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). Judaism is meant to be practiced with other people, and studying for a bar/bat mitzvah is a great way to begin making those connections.

Check out bar/bat mitzvah classes that synagogues or other organizations offer in your community, and consider reaching out to local rabbis and teachers for one-on-one study.

Consider taking on a “mitzvah project” as a means to connect with different Jewish organizations. One girl I know began volunteering at a local Jewish school for children with developmental disabilities, and quickly became immersed in the community there, finding friends among the children and the other volunteers. She continued her volunteering after becoming bat mitzvah, and is even considering a career in Jewish education now.

Consider a Private Celebration, Too

Although many bar/bat mitzvah celebrations are dictated by synagogue calendars, a Jewish boy is considered a bar mitzvah when he turns thirteen, and a Jewish girl is a bat mitzvah when she turns twelve.

I once mentioned this to a friend whose son’s bar mitzvah ceremony was scheduled many months after his actual birthday. She decided to honor the day he actually became a bar mitzvah with a small ceremony for immediate family only. They attended early morning services on a weekday morning, and her son said a brief blessing over the Torah. Afterwards they ate lox and bagels together with the weekday “regulars” at synagogue, before going to work and school.

Years later, her son confided in me that that brief, early-morning service, with only his parents and a few congregants there to say mazal tov and really spend time talking with him, was more fun than his much more lavish celebration later on. (You can find the date of your Hebrew birthday here.)

You also may want to consider trading in a big party for a family celebration in Israel. Visiting holy Jewish places or gravesites of righteous people from our past can help inspire the whole family to remember what being a bar/bat mitzvah is all about.

Take On a Mitzvah

Bar/bat mitzvah literally means “a son/daughter of the commandments,” and signifies that kids are now responsible for fulfilling the Jewish commandments.

One way to make this transition more meaningful is to begin doing a new mitzvah. The entire family can even take on a new mitzvah in honor of the child.

Girls might consider starting to light Shabbat candles on Friday night, for instance. A common mitzvah for boys is beginning to wear tefillin, ritual boxes that contain prayers, for weekday morning prayers. (In fact, this mitzvah is so identified with a bar mitzvah that in some Sephardic communities, a bar mitzvah boy is called a tefillin on his big day.)

One girl I know told me that she decided to give up eating pork when she reached her teens. She saw herself as a more mature Jewish woman now, and she wanted her diet to reflect that.

However you choose to celebrate a bar/bat mitzvah, remember that the day is not the culmination of months of lessons and preparation, but rather a stepping stone on a path of continual learning and growth.

Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D., is a mother and adjunct professor of political science living in Chicago. She is the author of Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat (Continuum, 2011).
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
3 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Celia January 16, 2014

Yes! Visit Israel Our plans exactly! More meaningful to visit Israel, as part of a tour group, than having a large party where people just eat and dance. Reply

Ron Sharpe The World January 14, 2014

Bar and Bat Mitzvahs I compilment Yvette Miller for including in her message to the 12 and 13 year olds the idea of the family visiting ISRAEL. Such a trip will give these new young adults an indelible memory and a closer connection to the Holy Land and what it means to be Jewish. Reply

Lael Chicagoland January 14, 2014

what Great Ideas! I really like the ideas that you have suggested. One of the synagogues that I used to attend had a wonderful Rabbi that worked with each Bar or Bat Mitzvah candidate to make the accomplishment meaningful. Each young person was helped to find a cause that they related to and felt able to contribute to. As an attendee, I couldn't tell the difference between the celebration of a poorer candidate or a more wealthy one. Reply