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The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Experience Needs to Change

Did you chant a Haftorah at your Bar or Bat Mitzvah?

Do you remember what it was about?

Have you chanted any others since then?

Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, believes that the heavy emphasis on teaching youngsters to chant a Haftorah on their special days is a sign of “wasted training and the wrong message” for Bar and Bat Mitzvah youngsters.

“We’re not preparing them for Jewish life” with such rituals, she says. “On the contrary, we’ve sabotaged their Jewish life.”

Strong words, but Rabbi Levitt has given the subject a lot of thought, based on her observations of many years as a pulpit rabbi and officiating at hundreds of coming-of-age ceremonies. And she is not alone in her critique of many Bar and Bat Mitzvah services that emphasize mastery of a particular element of the service – frequently based on memorization – rather than a wider understanding of what it means to become an adult, Jewishly.

For too many youngsters, the big day marks the end of formal Jewish education rather than a transition into Jewish adulthood and an advanced stage of learning and identity.

It’s long been a cliché and embarrassment that so many Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in America are marked by excessive spending, with elaborate themed parties that have little or no religious content. Part of why the post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah festivities tend to eclipse the religious ceremony itself may be because the synagogue service often has little meaning for the youngster in the spotlight. For most, the Hebrew prayers tend to be recited without full understanding of their significance, and the Haftorah reading is a segment from the Prophets seemingly unconnected to the narrative that comes before and after.

“The irony is that the words of the prophets, which were supposed to stir the people, now put them to sleep,” says Rabbi Levitt. Look around the synagogue during the youngster’s chanting of the Haftorah, she says. “It’s narcolepsy.” She says the emphasis on having youngsters spend many months learning the trop, or cantillation, of the Haftorah, often through personalized training, is a waste of time and effort, teaching the youngsters “something they don’t need to know and won’t remember in a year.”

What’s more, she points out, the one-on-one Haftorah lessons may well be the only time in the child’s life that he or she will have such an intense Jewish educational experience. Why, then, devote it to such a narrow purpose?

It’s important to step back and rethink what message we want to convey to the next generation in preparing them, at a tender age, to become members of our community. Why should they continue their Jewish education if what we have taught them until now doesn’t seem relevant to their lives or inspire them to dig deeper into their Jewish identity?

We need to make the most of this precious time in our children’s lives, instilling them with the creativity, passion and majesty of Jewish life rather than settling for ceremonies devoid of meaning to them.

Excerpted from “Changing Up the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Experience” by Gary Rosenthal in The Jewish Week, April 20, 2012.

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