2003-01-10 Rabbis B'nai Mitzvah
and Gail Umeham
Sometimes their own memories are so pleasant that rabbis want students under their tutelage to feel what they felt at their bar or bat mitzvahs. Then again, sometimes the flashbacks are so disagreeable that rabbis do everything in their power to shield their students from such experiences.
Heritage recently surveyed 15 local rabbis, representing a wide spectrum of Jewish practice, about their bar/bat mitzvah experiences. Eleven of them were men; four were women.
Perhaps no two rabbis had more contrasting experiences than Rabbi Chalom Boudjnak, a French Chasid who today directs the Chabad House at San Diego State University, and Rabbi Alexis Roberts, spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation.
give a speech at a Friday night service at the Conservative synagogue I grew
up in. The cantor met with me once to give me a tape and once to check in and
instruct me in how to dress modestly enough.
"I think that families are different today. Often the event is influenced by issues of interfaith families, single-parent families, blended families, multiple parents and grandparents, gay families, lesbian families and families who live great distances from one another, to name a few.
"The reflection of today's Jewish community in the ritual of bar and bat mitzvah shows new images of family life. The event, the ritual and the celebration can facilitate exciting, warm and meaningful family gatherings."
Rabbi Baruch Lederman of Congregation Kehillas Torah, an Orthodox congregation, said the bar/bat mitzvahs that he conducts today are the same as the one he had, "with one major difference: When I was a bar mitzvah, we did not give a speech. I canıt remember any of my friends giving a speech, either. I donıt know if this is a difference in the times or just a New
"I work hard with the kids and make them work hard, too, but I donıt give them more than they can handle. When my kids finish, they have a sense of accomplishment. They understand what they are talking about and they feel proud that they have constructed a speech. I guide them, but I don't do it for them."
One thing about bar mitzvahs "thatıs the same and that will never change is the wonderful, warm and emotional feeling of pride the whole family experiences thatıs the essence," Lederman added.
Rabbi Tamar Malino of Temple Adat Shalom, a Reform congregation, agreed with
Lederman's view about the warmth of family.
Malino recalled that for her own bat mitzvah, "I studied for a long time, partially at the synagogue and partially with my father. This was a very powerful experience for me. Having the whole family and community around me, it was wonderful. I remember feeling very spiritual and see that today, too. This was one of the things that influenced me to become a rabbi."
Today, Malino commented, bar/bat mitzvah services "seem more personalized" than when she was growing up. "Services here have more contemporary music and songs."
Not all the family memories from a bar mitzvah will be warm and happy. Rabbi Philip Graubart of Congregation Beth El, a Conservative congregation, said one painful memory about his own bar mitzvah was that "it was the last simcha my family celebrated together as a family." Before the bar mitzvah, his parents made a decision to divorce, but to not announce it until after the bar mitzvah. Nevertheless, Graubart knew his parents' breakup was coming and therefore "was very conscious of what a poignant and sad occasion we were all facing."
"My own bar mitzvah taught me to be especially sensitive to family dynamics," Graubart said. "A bar/bat mitzvah is not just a transitional occasion in a child's life, it's a momentous occasion for the entire family. Along with the obvious joy that everyone feels, there are strong undercurrents of anxiety, fear and, depending on the circumstances of the individual family, genuine sadness.
"I feel that itıs my role as a rabbi to acknowledge the existence of these darker emotions and allow the ceremony or at least the preparation for the ceremony to reflect how everyone is feeling."
the Haftorah dealing with Samson."
After becoming a rabbi, "I definitely decided that all of our students at Temple Emanu-El would lead much more of the service and understand what they are saying. It was because of my experience that I devised our system where each student looks up each word in their Torah portion in a Hebrew/English dictionary. They work out their own translation of the Torah portion and translate it "at sight" from the sefer Torah. One of my goals is to make our students Jewishly literate so that they can go to college or any synagogue in the world and understand what is occurring."
In some instances, bar/bat mitzvah candidates excel well beyond their classmates, perhaps providing for them the first inkling that they might someday become rabbis.
Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal of Tifereth Israel Synagogue, a Conservative congregation, said one of the highlights of his own bar mitzvah was "reading from the Torah. I learned trop and read the entire parasha, which was quite unusual in those days. It is more common for bar/bat mitzvah candidates to read more of the Torah reading today at their services. I encourage kids to
lead as much of the service as they can, in the same way that I was encouraged."
Rosenthal said today, while a student prepares for bar mitzvah, "there is a greater emphasis on doing mitzvah projects than in my youth. A greater emphasis is also put on a child continuing his or her Jewish education."
Rabbi David Barnett of Congregation B'nai Chaim, a Conservative congregation in Murietta, grew up in Seattle in the "classical Reform movement" when "it was not the custom in the congregation to wear any kipot, to wear a tallit or to chant the blessings before the Haftorah, or to actually chant either the Torah or the Haftorah. Times have changed, even in that congregation! I was the first student to chant the blessing for the Haftorah, and then that was a big deal!"
Barnett said that "the overall feeling of being surrounded with warmth, love and appreciation is the primary memory I have of the occasion of my bar mitzvah then, one which later served as a positive and significant milestone in the conglomeration of life events which would later propel me toward the rabbinate."
Some rabbis remember their bar/bat mitzvahs as a time when their own religious inclinations proved to be at variance with those of their parents.
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, a Reform rabbi who serves as director of Hillel of San Diego said her parents thought of Judaism as a home-based religion and didn't care whether their children became b'nai mitzvah, "but I did care."
In that sense, she said, she feels similar to people she teaches for adult b'nai mitzvah. "The individuals called to the Torah have made a choice, although those of the adult b'nai mitzvah are more mature and thoughtful," she said.
Goldstein described her bat mitzvah as a "truly spiritually significant experience" and said she remembers that during a practice session, "when the rabbi took the Torah out of the Ark I was overwhelmed to think that I was going to be connected. ... I didnıt feel worthy."
She said that her grandparents had left Germany in 1937 and that "at the time of my bat mitzvah my grandmother sent me a note telling me that the presence of all of the family that did not get out of nazi Germany would be with me as I read the Torah blessings."
Rabbi Jeff Lipschultz of Temple Beth Sholom, a Conservative congregation, remembers that at the time of his bar mitzvah his parents had been divorced.
"Mom was a ı70s hippie, Dad an M.D. and his new wife wasn't Jewish. This created quite a bit of tension as Dad wanted her to be part of the event."
Instead of a typical bar mitzvah, "I had a hippie/alternative bar mitzvah," an "interactive service with non-Jewish anti-war poems" and "we sang John Lennon's 'Imagine.' The rabbi didnıt like the line '..and no religion too,' so we had to cut that."
Now that heıs a rabbi, "I certainly wouldnıt allow a bar/bat mitzvah like that," Lipschultz said.
Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman of Congregation Beth Am, a Conservative congregation, had an Orthodox bar mitzvah. As he looks back upon it, he wonders if it would have been better for the bar mitzvah age to be 18. "I donıt think 12-and 13-year-olds are mature enough for the responsibility of bar mitzvah," he said.
He remembered that his parents rented the Atlantic Beach Hotel in New York and brought family and friends there for an entire weekend. "My friends and I had never slept in a hotel before and we had a wonderful time. At 2 a.m., we had a water fight which brought my Aunt Gittle upstairs to our room. ... We made a mess of the hotel."
Rabbi Mel Weinman of Temple Etz Rimon, a Reform congregation, said when he became a bar mitzvah in 1933, "I had a terrible portion to read. I wouldn't wish it on anyone; it had to do with leprosy."
His bar mitzvah came during the midst of the Depression, a stark time. Yet, despite the poverty and despite the gloom of his Torah portion, he nevertheless remembers his bar mitzvah as an occasion worth repeating.
According to the belief that 70 years represents a normal lifespan, anything after that is considered in folk tradition to be a second life. Turning 83 this year, Weinman commented that he is "ready to do my second" bar mitzvah.
That may be one of the greatest testaments of all to the bar/bat mitzvahıs enduring impact.