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Some Varieties of Bar, Bat, and B’Mitzvah Possibilities

Some Jewish teenagers who have special needs or a disability never get the chance to have a ceremony and a celebration of their emergence into young adulthood.  On the other hand, some Jewish teenagers who have difficulty with reading or speech get pushed into doing a much-too-rigorous coming-of-age ritual that is so stressful and it turns them off to the joys and deeper meanings of being Jewish.

In between these two painful extremes, can we find a sweet spot for our teenaged loved ones?

When my wife and I were starting to plan for what our family was going to do as a life cycle event for our daughter who has dyslexia and some speech difficulties, we were quite anxious.  We knew we didn’t want to set up a disaster or a painful experience for our kid or our family.  So we decided to consult, well in advance, with several “experts” on what was permitted, what was not permitted, and what creative options could be successful for our particular child.

The old joke in Judaism is that if you ask three rabbis to give you an opinion, you will get at least four different opinions.   But in this case, when we asked three different rabbis who were quite different from one another (one traditional, one liberal, and one who combines traditional and progressive), how to do a fully-genuine Jewish ceremony for emerging into young adulthood, all three different “experts” listed the same basics:

  • They each said the ritual of welcoming someone at age 12 or 13 (or anytime later) to be called to the Torah as a full responsible member of the community is a custom that developed over time and isn’t found in the written Torah nor in precise, specific commandments.
  • They each said that the most important parts of the preparation and the ceremony are to empower a unique Jewish individual to feel connected to the Jewish community, to study and explore some cherished Jewish values, to enjoy opening up to a lifetime of Jewish learning, and to find a way of taking one’s place in being part of a people who are passionate about taking good care of God’s creations and helping to repair the broken or unfinished parts of the world.
  • None of them said that extensive memorizing, perfect singing, perfect reading, or a perfect speech is the make-or-break issue.  Rather they said it’s more about having a few moments of coming forward to show the congregation, “I am here.  I take responsibility for being a compassionate Jewish individual.  I have some opinions and things that I’ve learned from other sources about this week’s Torah portion, and I have a few other things to share with this community today and in the future.

One rabbi even said, “If your kid freezes up and can’t come up to the bimah (pulpit), we can bring the Torah down to the front row and that, too, will be a fully legitimate ceremony.   As long as your kid leads the congregation in a few words of prayer or Torah study (no matter whether it’s with a loud voice, a soft voice, or a computer-assisted speaking device), it’s official–your child has emerged as a leader of the community on this sacred day.”

Choosing What Works for Your Particular Loved One

Since the basics aren’t so excessive or complicated, each congregation and each family gets to design the elements that work for the unique individual who is emerging into adulthood.   Here are a few things to consider:

  • Does this individual feel comfortable leading the entire congregation at the regular Shabbat service or do you prefer inviting 36 or 136 supportive people to the late afternoon Minchah service for the ceremony?
  • Is there a creative way to connect with one or more lines from that week’s Torah portion and to open up those in attendance to understand the portion in a new way because of the life experiences and opinions of the 12 or 13 year old who is offering some personal way of looking at it?   If your loved one is comfortable with reading a prepared speech, that’s fine.  But if your loved one has dyslexia or difficulty speaking in public, what if the opinions and ideas of this unique individual are read aloud by a few friends or relatives, or read aloud as a responsive reading where one side of the room reads a few lines from this individual and then the other side of the room reads a few more lines and then back and forth.
  • Is your loved one more of a tactile, artsy communicator rather than a speech maker.   If so, then the Torah teaching can be done as a dance, a song, a series of drawings, a short video, a social action project, or a dramatic short play vignette–as long as it expresses the unique opinions of the person coming of age and as long as it inspires or opens up possibilities for everyone in attendance to go deeper into the ideas or applications of that week’s Torah portion.
  • Is your loved one gender fluid, or transgender, or gender non-binary, and if so then the coming-of-age ceremony can be a b’mitzvah that is welcoming and empowering for this individual’s true self.  Visit “b’mitzvah” on a Google search to get lots of ideas on how to make it profound and meaningful.
  • If your loved one has dyslexia or shyness and is unable to read a “thank you speech” that lists a bunch of complicated names, what if you give this individual a sheet of paper that has a few rows of photos of the 5 or 10 people to thank and it becomes an easy chance to express gratitude rather than a stressful reading assignment.


Making the Preparation More Joyful and Less Stressful

For many teens (whether they are neurodivergent or neurotypical) the preparation months for a bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah, or a b’mitzvah are a painful power struggle or an irritating requirement for a rigid insincere “performance”, and many individuals drift away from Judaism after the stressful preparation months.

What if you and your family and your rabbi, cantor, or tutor did it differently?   What if the preparation meetings, study sessions, social action projects, and back-and-forth conversations could be done with caring, inclusiveness, flexibility, playfulness, and creativity so that the teenage celebrant can look back and say, “Wow, that was an excellent creative collaboration.  My family, my tutors, and the congregational leaders treated me with respect and wanted to hear my ideas, my questions, my frustrations, and my hesitations.   I felt heard, understood, and included in all the major decisions.   They asked for my input in making the ceremony meaningful and making the party work for the diverse types of people we were inviting (adults, kids, teens, friends who are neurodiverse and friends who are neurotypical, guests who are Jewish and guest who are not Jewish).  I felt like I was co-creating something important and profound, rather than being forced to fit into a box or an inflexible script that didn’t feel like who I am.”

These steps of having a voice in the detailed planning and carefully-considerate hosting of diverse guests mean that the Jewish teen will not be treated like a diva or an after-thought, but rather as a compassionate, empathic Jewish young adult who is learning to be an excellent welcoming host like our ancestors Abraham and Sarah were excellent at welcoming people and making them comfortable.   Rather than seeing the months of preparation as the build-up to a “high-pressure performance,” the entire process can be transformed into a chance for this young person to experience what it means to be a caring individual who will be taking a responsible role in being heard and co-creating a beautiful ritual that has joy and numerous meaningful moments.


The book cover features two photos: a young child and an older teen in a graduation robeLen Felder, PhD is a psychologist and the author of 18 books on Jewish spirituality and family tensions, including his newest book “Jewish and Special Needs:  Exploring the Possibilities During Every Decade of Life for Creative Families and Congregations.”  He is also the parent of a daughter who has substantial learning disabilities, but who truly enjoyed her coming of age ceremony that was innovative and participatory.


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