The Silence of the B’nai Mitzvah

This post is by Ilana Horwitz, a first-year student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies

(this is not exactly the invitation that I received, but you get the picture)
(this is not exactly the invitation that I received, but you get the picture)
A few weeks ago, I received a very elaborate “pop up” Bar-Mitzvah invitation showing the Bar-Mitzvah boy amidst the NYC skyline and was amazed by how fancy Bar-Mitzvah invitations had gotten since my Bat-Mitzvah. Ironically, that same week, I read an article that described the Bar-Mitzvah in the following way:

The commercial Bar-Mitzvah ceremony … has evolved its own ritual, resembling closely the extravaganza of the wedding ceremony. There is the march, the bringing of the Bar-Mitzvah cake, the lighting of the 13 candles, the use of the choir….

As you can probably tell from the specific traditions, this is a description of Bar-Mitzvah in the 1960’s, but substitute in a few modern-day traditions, and not much has changed among B’nai Mitzvah celebrations in liberal Judaism. In fact, B’nai Mitzvah have probably become even more extravagant. Just look up “Bar-Mitzvah Party” on YouTube for some examples. I even came across a service that will organize a Bar-Mitzvah cruise to the Caribbean and other international destinations.

Numerous articles have discussed the problems with this B’nai Mitzvah phenomenon. First, the lavish parties are generally not coupled with religious ritual (i.e., the synagogue-based component of the Bar-Mitzvah). When I read the accolades on the Bar-Mitzvah cruise website, one client said his child’s Bar-mitzvah experience was memorable and then proceeded to rave about the food and the sights; there was no mention of the Bar-Mitzvah service whatsoever. Furthermore, the majority of Jewish youth who attend supplementary school see their B’nai Mitzvah as the culmination of their Jewish education, as evidenced by the precipitous declines in supplementary school enrollment rates.

Numerous initiatives are now underway to revamp supplementary education. In “Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century,” Jonathan Woocher concludes that we can remedy the seemingly anemic state of religious education with “life-centered” approaches that are relevant to students’ lives.

But here is the problem: we actually have very little empirical data about what youth see as relevant.

You might be surprised to know that very few studies related to Jewish education contain a youth perspective. For example, a 2013 report of strategies for educating and engaging Jewish teens was based on a scan of teen and young adult education and engagement efforts and a single focus group comprised of only five teens. A well-regarded 2003 study of Jewish summer camps did not entail the personal account of a single camper. The few studies that do collect data from youth provide a limited perspective, primarily about teens’ participation and satisfaction rates in Jewish education.

If we want to revamp the Jewish education system to make it meaningful to Jewish youth, we have to understand the experiences of youth in the system. For example, within the context of supplementary school, how do youth perceive relationships with peers and adults? Do they feel cared for and safe? Do they feel efficacious and empowered? We also need to learn what matters to youth, inquire about their interests in Judaism, and explore how Jewish supplementary education can enhance their life, not burden it.

Ami Fields-Meyer, a high school senior wrote an article urging Jewish professionals who interact with youth to consider the following paradigm shift: “In the impressionable eyes and hearts of my generation, modern Judaism — at least for the time being — is in need of recontextualization. A focus on the spiritual is valuable, but a focus on the experiential, practical, empirical, and political — exposure to civic responsibility and our role as global citizens — is invaluable and imperative.” Ami’s perspective provides rich data about elements he is seeking in his Jewish education experiences.

Instead of wringing our hands over seemingly lavish or vacuous B’nai Mitzvah celebrations, or offering new panoramic visions of what Jewish education could be, why don’t we pay more attention to the voices of the students who are becoming B’nai mitzvah themselves? We might have something to learn from them.

The youth voice is powerful and we should make a concerted effort to incorporate it.

  2 comments for “The Silence of the B’nai Mitzvah

  1. Sarah Farkas
    November 27, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Our small shul here in NW Florida is struggling with this very issue. Every single B’nai Mitzvah kid has abandoned Jewish studies and only manages to attend services during the High Holidays. This is a huge problem for the future of a Jewish presence here.

    We are embarking on a new plan to engage our youth in tzedakah projects in the broader community by asking them what is important to them. They will choose and design the project(s), work with the Temple Sisterhood and share a common goal. We hope to interweave Jewish thought and tenets in the process, making their Jewish roots relevant in today’s world.

    Ilana, you’ve uncovered a growing gap in modern American Jewry. I hope you will pursue solutions and continue to share with us.

  2. Zvi Weiss
    December 2, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    I agree completely with the importance of considering the prospective students’ perspective, interests and needs, but I also think there needs to be research done on parents. It is my impression that today’s parents often view their children’s continuing religious education (and participation in synagogue life) as a burden that they are happy to have off of their plate. It would be great if we could think about what would contribute to parental support and encouragement for their children continuing Jewish engagement post Bar Mitzvah.

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