Before coming to Beth Elohim, as you know, I spent five years in California. The Golden State is a place of innovation, of creativity, of exploring the new and unusual. So it's hardly a surprise that California has seen an explosion of "independent b’nai mitzvah," in which the bar and bat mitzvah leave the synagogue community and become privatized. These rituals can happen almost anywhere — in a country club, a private home, a hotel, or even a state park.
"It was a beautiful ceremony," gushed a father of a bar mitzvah, quoted in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. "A lot of people said it was the most spiritual bar mitzvah they had ever been to."
The ceremony took place in a restaurant.
If you are the parent of a b’nai mitzvah student, you may have considered this option for your own child. While there are certainly some sketchy, "bar mitzvah lite" practitioners out there, a number of highly skilled teachers offer deep and fulfilling b’nai mitzvah journeys for a new generation of Jewish families.
But for all the creativity and innovation that families may experience in the context of independent b’nai mitzvah, nothing compares to a communal celebration — especially at Beth Elohim.
How can I be so confident? Three important reasons:
It's personal: As I said, private b’nai mitzvah preparation (when it's done well) invites families to create a personally and spiritually moving experience. But at Beth Elohim, such experiences are nothing new. As students prepare to write their divrei Torah (the plural of d’var Torah”), both kids and adults are invited to have deep, personal connection to their Torah portions through weekly family questions. Our services, too, allow flexibility for personal expression. And, of course, students get personal attention not just from me, but from Cantor Sarra and our awesome tutors.
It's global: B’nai Mitzvah are about kids, but they're not only about kids. A bat mitzvah who's been taught only that the day is all about her has been failed by her community. Our B’nai Mitzvah students create Chesed projects that connect them to the world at large. The Shevet Achim and Rosh Chodesh groups, as well as our 7th grade religious school classes, invite students to think as a community. Our b’nai mitzvah learn that being a Jew means being a spiritual seeker, a justice pursuer, a difference maker.
It's communal: Perhaps the best part of our b’nai mitzvah journey is the opportunity to join in our b’nai mitzvah community. I’ve been so moved by the love and support our b’nai mitzvah students show each other. Joining together with their friends, the students create Shabbat community, praying and studying and laughing together.
The grown-ups have gotten in on the act too. I’ve seen b’nai mitzvah families help each other with food prep and serving, editing, rides from the airport for incoming family (and sometimes the occasional emergency latte!)
Every bat or bar mitzvah brings forth Torah. But that isn’t a solitary pursuit. Jews learn Torah together, in community. Some of our students have even chanted Torah at their friends’ b’nai mitzvah.
But even if you don’t have b’nai mitzvah age children, you can help celebrate Torah. First, I invite you to attend Shabbat services, even if there’s a bat or bar mitzvah. Shabbat is always Shabbat, regardless if whether it’s a small group of regulars, or a room full of out-of-towners. You’ll make a new person feel loved. And if I know the Beth Elohim crowd, you’ll even get lunch!
And second, I invite you to attend Shabbat services, even if there’s not a bat or bar mitzvah! We tell our students that, as Jewish adults, they are joining a community of Torah readers. To make sure we’re telling the truth, we’ve started reading Torah at every Shabbat morning service. We’re welcoming Torah readers, old and new, to help us. You could chant as few as three verses. Please let us know when you’d like to try it!
Because the more our Torah community grows, the more our students will see the privilege of chanting Torah as the blessing that it is. And the more they’ll value that community that they have embraced as b’nai mitzvah..
Of course, as great as b’nai mitzvah are at Beth Elohim, we know they could be even better, we continue to look for places to improve our program.
But in just one year here, I’ve seen that we’re working from a great foundation. May we grow — in learning, in spirit, in action — from strength to strength.