Sixth graders at Temple Sinai in Cranston went on a retreat this summer, pondering questions like “What does it mean to be bar or bat mitzvahed?” and “What does it mean to be an adult in the Jewish community?”
The retreat was a new idea, a program piloted as the synagogue joined a nationwide effort to rethink the entire bar and bat mitzvah process.
It’s called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint project of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education and its Experiment in Congregational Education. Reform synagogues in Rhode Island are either participating in or watching the project closely.
According to the project’s website (bnaimitzvahrevolution.org), the initiative was prompted by some alarming trends in Jewish education, primarily the high dropout rate after bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, when students and their families stop attending synagogue and religious school.
“Treating bar/bat mitzvah as the goal and end point of Jewish education has degraded Hebrew learning, stifled efforts to expose students to the depth and meaning of communal worship and led to high numbers of students dropping out of religious school immediately after the ‘big day,’” the website explained.
According to a 2008 study of Jewish education, “More than one-third of students drop out after grade 7 and then the rate of decline accelerates so that by grade 12 only one-seventh of the number of seventh graders is still enrolled. Only a small minority of Jewish children is exposed to formal supplementary Jewish education on the high school level.” (http://avichai.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Supplementary-School-Census-Report-Final.pdf)
There is also concern over families separating the b’nei mitzvah (b’nei is the plural form) from the Jewish community by arranging destination celebrations in places like Costa Rica, and worries abound that elaborate and costly parties suggest that b’nei mitzvahs are moving away from their religious roots.
“We share with many synagogues a growing unease about the way b’nei mitzvah are celebrated,” the website says.
Jewish educators are also concerned that b’nei mitzvahs have become cookie-cutter events.
“In many synagogues b’nei mitzvah observances are standardized, taking into account neither the differences between 13-year-olds, in terms of maturity and interest, nor the differences between families, in their motivations and Jewish identification,” the website reports.
And they worry that students spend most of their time memorizing text in Hebrew instead of appreciating the Torah and relating it to their lives and the world and using it to shape their values.
The reform movement decided it was time to reinvent, even revolutionize, the ritual. Thirteen synagogues started a pilot project to experiment with b’nei mitzvah observance and preparation, teaching and learning Hebrew. Another 67 synagogues joined an active learning network, discussing these issues through webinars and articles.
The goals, according to the website, include generating new ideas and images of meaningful celebrations of b’nei mitzvah and promoting more effective methods for teaching Hebrew and prayer.
Questions being asked include whether to teach Hebrew and require children to read from the Torah, should the ceremony be delayed until children are older and what role social action should play.
“What’s the point of getting your 200 or 300 closest friends and family members together and having your kid read a text they don’t understand in a language they don’t understand?” Isa Aron, who is helping lead the initiative and is a professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, told The New York Times. “Maybe it shouldn’t be such a performance. It should be about becoming part of the community.”
Toy Koritsky, the education director at Temple Sinai in Cranston, said the synagogue signed up immediately to the active learning network.
“That’s something we want to be part of,” she said. “The moment a student becomes bar or bat mitzvahed, they are out the door. We are sending the wrong message. Students don’t leave public school in seventh grade.”
Instead, she said, bar and bat mitzvahs “are part of a lifelong journey.”
The synagogue is looking at its programming in an attempt to connect with its students and retain them. This year, in addition to the retreat, it is holding three sessions for sixth graders and their families, encouraging participants to examine their values and beliefs.
Teple Habonin in Barrington is aware of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. “We’re watching what’s going on,” said Linda Silverman-Levine, the director of education.
“Judaism goes through these periods of societal change,” she said. Today, she said, religion competes with many other social and community responsibilities. “The part that is Jewish is getting smaller and smaller,” she said.
“A lot of what Jewish education was in the 1950s to 1970s is obsolete,” she said. “It doesn’t speak to families and children in our schools.” The Jewish community needs to “make Jewish education relative to our time period.”
The excessive celebrations are not an issue here as in other places, Silverman-Levine said. A few years ago, the synagogue revised its schedule, holding Shabbat services every Saturday and not just on b’nei mitzvah days. “It is a Shabbat service that the student participates in,” she said.
Temple Beth-El in Providence is aware of the conversation but believes the synagogue’s approach to bar and bat mitzvahs is working, said Rabbi Sarah Mack.
“Why fix something that’s not broken?” she said. “What we do at Temple Beth-El works well.”
Rabbi Mack said Beth-El includes a social action component in its b’nei mitzvahs and works to make sure the ritual is community based.
However, she is watching the effort and is open to suggestions.
“We’re always open to rethinking, and seeing how we can be better,” she said. “It’s always good to re-envision and … make it a more meaningful experience.”
Susan Youngwood (email@example.com) is a member of the editorial board of The Jewish Voice.