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Some 80 percent of children who reach the Jewish rite of passage, bar or bat mitzvah, don’t continue to practice Judaism or even go to synagogue. A cadre of educators in the reform movement hope to stop this attrition, they say, by adding meaning and reducing the fanfare. A temple in Wellesley, Mass., is one of 13 across the country giving it a try.
The phrase bar mitzvah is pretty well known, but often, even among many Jews, what it’s known for is celebratory, almost graduation-like parties.
“The party is a real challenge,” said Temple Beth Elohim Rabbi Joel Sisenwine. “So then the question becomes, ‘What is the big party a means towards?’ That doesn’t mean that the rabbis commanded one to have an ice sculpture of the bar mitzvah boy or a chop liver sculpture, but it does mean that it’s a religious obligation to celebrate. To become bar and bat mitzvah means taking responsibility, reaching out to others, engaging in the spiritual search, struggling with values and ethics.”
Bar and bat mitzvahs often require the child to learn a set number of verses from the Torah in Hebrew and then recite them rotely during the service, Sisenwine says. Before this rite of passage, the child also typically does some sort of community service project, known as mitzvah.
Sisenwine's temple, however, is doing things differently as part of what’s called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. And he credits his temple's different practices with why about 75 percent of the synagogue’s kids buck the trend and stay involved through high school.
Judith Averny, who runs the temple's religious school, says that instead of Hebrew school, the teachers and students call it, "BM3T," which stands for "B’nai Mitzvah Magical Mystery Tour.”
“Our students have so much pressure and creating the community is one of the most important things for us, and that’s I think what continues from grades six and seven into the high school and that’s why they like to be here,” Averny said.
B’nai Mitzvah Revolution curriculum wraps families into more of the rigorous bar and bat mitzvah prep, Averney says. And the usual requirement to perform mitzvah, some kind of social justice or charitable work, is done as a group. Regardless, it’s still a lot of work, which always includes learning to read Hebrew, culminating in the day the child helps lead the congregation.
Last year was 13-year-old Annie Sinert’s bat mitzvah.
“I will never forget the feeling of just standing up there on the bima. And just looking out at all of the faces,” Sinert recalled. "They were all there for me and it made me feel incredible.”
Turning Annie's feeling into a commitment to stay involved in the temple is the goal of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, says Isa Aron, who is a professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and a leader in the B’nai Mitzvah initiative. She says the tradition of bar and bat mitzvah in the U.S. is actually pretty young — only about 100 years old for boys, with girls included much later.
Aron says there’s little scholarship about bar and bat mitzvahs, and only very general liturgical guidance in the Torah itself.
"It’s important to say that there was no ceremony or anything marking that," Aron said. "That just happened automatically to you. If you’re a boy, OK, when you’re 13 time to start fasting on Yom Kippur.
"No one has found any evidence that there was anything like a party,” she added.
In fact, Aron says one scholar thinks the trajectory toward lavish parties may have been hatched by caterers, and that may have been bolstered by an immigrant community eager to assert its American identity. Lost in the process was Jewish identity, Aron says.
And that loss of Jewish identity, Sisenwine says, presents a challenge to introducing young Jews to what he calls “sacred purpose.”
“America does many things well, but sacred community isn’t necessarily one of them,” he said.
Months after her bat mitzvah, Sinert says she’s more committed than ever to maintaining her relationship with the temple and her Judaism.
“If you were to look at a map, it would be like, I’m right there. I’m a Jewish person,” she said. “I feel like a lot more connected to the Jewish community now.”
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