I just came across a well-written post by a Reform Rabbi in Washington, DC, in response to the recent NYT article that seems to be hitting a lot of nerves around the world. While I recognize that some of my colleagues provide this as a fast track, meaningless way to substantiate a monstrous party – not all of us do, and so here is my side of the story!
Bar Mitzvah Training: It’s not just a job….
The New York Times story about on-line bar mitzvah preparation caught lots of attention (at least for a few minutes). You should read it if you have not. It offers a window into some basic problems we face in the American Jewish community today. First, what do synagogues matter anymore? It is possible to do everything Jewish without a synagogue. We often say that the community you find in a synagogue is vital to your Jewish life and not available anywhere else. Whether or not that’s true, the parents featured in the article don’t seem to care. And yet, they DO want bar mitzvah ceremonies for their kids. Or do they? The other important issue in the article is about the meaning of bar/bat mitzvah? The final line of the article says it all: “Once Joanne Kapsack had found a rabbi for Eli to work with, she pretty much bowed out of the preparations, she said. “I just cared about the party.” I am sure this happens equally often in our temple (and others). I must admit that I have never been a bar mitzvah party naysayer. I’ve either stayed out of it and treated it as something outside my scope or I have embraced the idea of the parties as part of the mitzvah and part of the community gathering that can occur. But, nothing has disappointed me more than hearing the post-event assessment from two recent bat mitzvah mothers: it was a let-down. They whole experience, when it was all said and done, was a let down for these mothers. What else could it be after all the hype, the buildup, the money and time spent on it? I have no problem adopting new technology – though I don’t really want an office that looks like the trading floor of a brokerage house. I have no problem with adopting different standards than previous generations simply accepted in order to become temple members. I also have no problem with completely revolutionizing the way we do Jewish education in general. But I do have problems with the ongoing march toward deification of bar and bat mitzvah. Within this trend is not so much innovation as desperation. We will do anything, it seems, to make our kids and ourselves feel good while we and they wallow in ambivalence about our Judaism.Dear
I just came across your comment and wanted to share another aspect of this situation that many seem to forget, or are not aware of.
It saddens me, too, to see the rite of passage as nothing but an excuse to show off one’s financial stature. I’m not a nay-sayer either, but whole-heartedly believe that the community celebration should be one of meaning, with the closest of friends and family surrounding the child, and showing love and support.
I am one of those Officiants, who provide unaffiliated lifecycles to my families, however, not for the purpose of fast tracking, eliminating, or for any other motive. These are families who got lost in the synagogue shuffle, and felt that synagogues were busy expecting congregants to meet their own financial needs, rather than vice versa.
In my town of Weston, FL, the Reform synagogue was bursting at its seams 5 years ago. With 700 families, they had one Rabbi with a lifetime contract since day 1, and a Cantorial soloist (not even a Cantor).
B’Nai Mitzvah services were doubled, to two a day, on Saturday morning ONLY, with 2 students in each service.
Many families wanted Havdalah services. Many families wanted smaller, private services to be held in the chapel, without the big pomp and circumstance and showiness of keeping up with those Jones’s. Many wanted their Rabbi (or officiant) to actually know their child’s name, but couldn’t commit to 3-5 days a week at the synagogue because of other commitments and demands on their childrens’ and families’ lives.
So – because the local synagogue couldn’t (or wouldn’t) meet those families’ needs – and because they truly wanted a meaningful, intimate connection to Judaism, and an opportunity to make their Judaism more personal and meaningful, and relevant, they found me.
I am a deeply traditional, spiritual Jew, with a profound belief, and relationship with G-d. I actually teach my students how to pray – how to understand G-d, and make G-d meaningful and relevant. I actually engage my students in learning, and experiencing Judaism, by cooking in their homes at holidays, teaching them how to teach their parents (many who are in Interfaith marriages) and how to initiate a worship-style dialogue at their Friday night Shabbat dinner table.
Please know that not all of us have offices that look like Wall Street. Mine is covered with photos of families I have worked with, pictures of places that my incredible job has taken me to, and is an environment that helps me remember that I am here to serve people, and not the other way around.
Perhaps if synagogues began acting the same way- more families would walk in the doors, rather than out.
With the most profound respect for your thoughts,
Cantor Debbi Ballard