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Renewing the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, One Student at a Time

On a recent Saturday evening, I found myself in a small artsy theater in downtown Seattle for the debut of an original animated film. When the film ended, the young filmmaker, Frieda, was greeted with thunderous applause. Afterward, she joined me on stage for a Director’s Q&A session, where I interviewed her about both the content and the making of her movie. The topic of the film? Parashat Beshalakh. The occasion: Frieda’s Bat Mitzvah! (View the short film here.)

Admittedly, Frieda’s bat mitzvah celebration represents a departure from the now-standard American bar/bat mitzvah ritual. The Jewish community in this country has come to expect that bar and bat mitzvah celebrations will take place in particular settings (typically, synagogue sanctuaries) and will include particular content elements (aliyah blessings, key prayers, a d’var torah or speech, and often Torah and/or haftarah readings). Many congregations treat this life-cycle event as sacrosanct, and even build synagogue life around it. And yet, this life-cycle event has certainly not existed in its current form from time immemorial; in my opinion, it is crying out to be renewed and rejuvenated!   

A bar mitzvah, Michael, receives a blessing from the rabbi

At the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle we have tried to really rethink bar/bat mitzvah and develop a more intentional, innovative, and content-rich approach.

When our community was launched in 2006, the oldest children of the founding families were only 8 years old. This afforded us a unique opportunity: many years of lead-time to dream big and redefine (from scratch!) what it means to mark one entry into the world of Jewish adulthood today. 

As parents and educators in our community wrestled with what the right approach would look like, a few key principles emerged. For example, we articulated that Kavana’s bar/bat mitzvah process should:

  • serve as a meaningful entry point into adult Jewish life for each individual, rather than as a graduation from Jewish childhood
  • feature intellectual challenge and the mastery of significant Jewish content related to their interests
  • enable bar/bat mitzvah students to share their learning with a community of peers and adults
  • encourage the application of Jewish learning to real-life situations, and the integration of Jewish values into the core self.

Notably, we did not determine that every bar or bat mitzvah needed to look similar, in either form or content.

Since 2011, dozens of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies have taken place under Kavana’s umbrella, and our community prides itself on the fact that no two have been identical. Clayton learned to play klezmer music on his violin and used the music as an entry point to exploring key texts and chapters in Jewish history. Mikaela launched “the Burrito Project” – in which she and her classmates hand-rolled burritos monthly and delivered them to homeless residents of Seattle – and taught about this project in the context of a creative Kabbalat Shabbat service. Elie capitalized on his musical abilities, learning not only Shabbat shacharit and the Torah service but also chanting his Torah and haftarah portions using three different trope systems on Shabbat Shira (the Sabbath of Song). Guy, a military history buff, led an intimate havdalah and Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony in his home, and gave a presentation about the history of the Maccabees which featured a Power-Point presentation and a scale-model of a key battle made using paper mache and Legos. Anya celebrated her bat mitzvah on a Shabbat/Rosh Chodesh, and now regularly leads Hallel in our community. Micah embarked on a learning project about the Jews in the Greco-Roman world, and will be tour-guiding a number of archaeological sites for his family when they travel to Israel together this summer. The list goes on and on…

Hava’s “camp-style” bat mitzvah took place in a local park. Photo credit: Meryl Schenker.

Admittedly, Kavana’s tailored approach to bar/bat mitzvah is not without challenges. Allowing students to select their own formats, venues, and Jewish content goals utilizes far more staff time than a more standardized approach would (think: rabbi, skilled tutors, logistical support). As a result of the personalized curricular approach, students do lots of their bar/bat mitzvah preparation with private tutors and therefore do not automatically share the experience with a whole class of peers (we have built a complementary Middle School Program that features a peer community, but it is decidedly not a bar/bat mitzvah prep program). And Kavana’s commitment to pluralism necessitates adopting a truly non-judgmental approach, even in cases where some families opt for less Hebrew or prayer content… a stance that challenges the educational assumptions of many rabbis and synagogues.

That said, families who participate in Kavana’s bar and bat mitzvah program report – across the board – very high levels of satisfaction, learning, and personal meaning. As I left Frieda’s film screening, I was amazed at how this self-directed bat mitzvah process had sparked serious engagement with the Jewish interpretive tradition and also generated a deep sense of pride; over the course of the evening, a connected, conversant, and confident young Jewish woman had emerged! I firmly believe that this innovative and flexible approach to bar/bat mitzvah has the opportunity to ignite many more young Jews in the same way it ignited Frieda and her family.

Rachel Nussbaum is the Rabbi and Executive Director of the Kavana Cooperative, which she co-founded in 2006. In addition to working at Kavana, Rachel has served on the faculty of the Wexner Heritage Program, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel program, and Rabbis without Borders. She has appeared on Newsweek Magazine‘s list of “America’s Top 50 Influential Rabbis.” Rachel was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2004.

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