Putting meaning into Bar/Bat Mitzvah

When I was a young man who was about to have a Bar Mitzvah thrust upon me, I well remembers the influences of the occasion, both positive and negative.  I was fortunate to have teachers, including an Israeli shaliach who prepared me and who caused me to take an interest in my responsibility for advancing my Jewish observance.  He set me towards the ongoing path of an ontological quest for all matters Jewish.

There were things that I liked about the Bar Mitzvah, the element of personal responsibility, the importance placed upon my entry into the community as an “adult”, and the realisation that I was being gifted a unique heritage and identity.  There were other things that I did not enjoy.  This included the mixed messages from amongst my peers.  One minute we would be learning together, the next minute we were being taken to McDonalds for a treat.  The Bar Mitzvah parties were not linked to the ceremony and very lavish, on occasions ostentatious affairs.  For the record, I almost refused to attend my own Bar Mitzvah reception because, as was the norm, it was not kosher.

More than anything else, I detested the way in which the girls were accorded their Bat Mitzvah.  Back then it was an annual ceremony, where the group of girls collectively stood in Shule and read insincere transcripts about Jewish virtues.  Thankfully the experience of the Bat Mitzvah in Perth has long since evolved into an individual simcha.

The modern day Bar/Bat Mitzvah is still fraught by a material branding that can be counterproductive.  We send the wrong signals when the ceremony marks the end of, not the start of, a connection with regular Jewish education, shule participation, and active community involvement.

In Perth an ugly culture has evolved amongst a section of the community.  While it is very nice to see the classmates of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah support their friends by turning up to the Shule ceremony, it is odious to watch children dropped off with a mobile phone, and told to discreetly ring their parents when they are ready to be collected.  What type of message does this send to the child, also within their Bar/Bat Mitzvah year?  That Shule and Shabbat are not important?  That it’s OK to disrespect the sanctity of the Synagogue?

It is not a new phenomenon that I describe, but one that I have seen grandly on display in three different shules over the past month.  The lack of decorum within each of the Shules has been poor enough, but it has been particularly evident that many of the young Jewish adults of our community have no idea how to conduct themselves in Shule.  It is not helped when there are adults, many of whom are regular shule attendees, who sit around them without even a siddur or chumush, doing nothing but shmooze.

I noticed a letter in last week’s Maccabean from Tuvia Book, a participant in the recent Carmel School Jewish Education Conference.  He praises the Perth Jewish community for having a single Jewish day school, and describes the respect, tolerance and open-mindedness that the students exhibit.  He is absolutely right, and I share his accolade.  Each day I marvel at the genuine way that children from all types of Jewish homes interact, and irrespective of levels of observance, demonstrate respect for each other.  Much of the parent body is much the same, but sadly it does begin to break down when parents do not accord the same respect to each other that their own children exhibit.  From an Orthodox standpoint, I often feel that tolerance is demanded of me, but when it has to work both ways there is no reciprocal expectation.  Observant parents cannot demand or reasonably assert that everybody should be “frum”.   At the same  time, when in a communal setting, non-observant parents should make a greater effort to respect the traditions of their own religion and include all those who are involved in their simcha by adhering to a recognised communal standard.

This is especially so when parents of Bar/Bat Mitzvah students spend large sums on receptions at exclusive venues, invite children from kosher homes, but do not care for making the reception kosher for all the participants.  Such a decision creates a dilemma for a significant number of religious children who want to support their friends, but feel compromised by the situation.  It also sends the very opposite message to the child of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah on what the occasion itself represents.  From personal experience, I can attest that a non-kosher Bar Mitzvah has a lingering impact on the impressionable mind of a young Jewish person about how Judaism is valued by their parents.

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah does not have to be the rowdy ascension that it has become.  Traditional Orthodox Synagogues used to require the recitation of the Bar Mitzvah prayer.  Within that was a declaration of humility, and an accepting of an ongoing obligation.  In the days of the Temple Jewish people brought sacrifices to G-d to express remorse for our misgivings and appreciation for our fortune.  Today we stand in Shule and communicate these emotions through introspective prayer.  It is such prayer that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah should come to express and understand, and that from this day will carry them through to the day of, Im yirtza Hashem, their chuppah.

In the words of Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence “This occasion is about much more than a moment.  A Bar or Bat mitzvah ceremony doesn’t turn us into an adult.  God doesn’t want more or less from us because we had a ceremony in Shule.  However, the way we approach the ceremony can speak volumes about our Jewish maturity at this time, when a young adult launches into an ongoing and developing relationship with Jeiwsh study and practice, as a member of the community.”

The best way to achieve this is to deliver the Bar/Bat Mitzvah graduate the opportunity to transition from student to leader.  Through reinvesting and continuing their learning, they can be afforded opportunities, to run youth services for young children, to work with cheder teachers to support the learning of others, to be commencing hadracha work within Zionist youth groups so that in the space of a few years they assume leadership.

Being a member of the Jewish community is not a spectator sport, and this has to become the primary focus, message, and understanding of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  It’s time to transform the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience from an elaborate party into a more modest and meaningful occasion that has more emphasis on the preparation and post ceremony communal role, and less on the party and PDJA (Public Display of Jewish Admiration) in Shule.  The Bar/Bat Mitzvah must be made to feel closer to the authentic and true rite of passage that it is, delivering the young Jewish adult a greater sense of belonging, attachment, involvement and continuity.  We can all contribute towards that, and we should all be able to share in the celebration of that, without restriction.

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