Bar & Bat Mitzvah Ceremonies

He flashed a wicked little smile just before he said it; one unforgettable sentence that Mick dared to include in his bar mitzvah speech. As my student spoke, I sat in the front row of the shul shlepping nachas as he articulated what bar mitzvah meant to him until he made the observation, “Six months ago, when I first came, I couldn’t read and I didn’t understand what I was talking about. Now I can read fluently, but I still don’t understand what I am talking about!” Ouch!

Mick was a handsome ‘cool’ Australian kid from a Russian Jewish family; his parents and grandparents were deeply moved by his flawless Hebrew singing. I sat there thinking that this family has finally come full circle. The ceremony was charged with the triumph of Judaism over Stalin and communism who denied his family this opportunity for 70 years. Yet the circle was not complete; he was still not totally at home, not being able to understand what he was saying.

Suddenly I felt as if I was the exact opposite of the triumphant boy dressed in his tan slacks and shiny black shirt. I felt defeated under my frozen smile, in my white shirt and black everything else.

For a number of years I have believed there is something absurd going on in some bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah ceremonies. While all the bat mitzvah ceremonies I’ve ever attended were very inspiring and meaningful, people tell me that many bar mitzvahs are more Paris than Jerusalem. The bar mitzvah usually has a fashion element as well and there is also the “Hebrew-Haftorah hurdle” to jump before the ceremony can be completely engaging intellectually and emotionally.

There are a lot of meaningful ceremonies and creative enrichment ideas being implemented. One of the very effective extras often thrown in to the bar or bat mitzvah preparation is the Shabbaton. Just ask my sons aged four and six about what it is like when the bat mitzvah girls come to spend Shabbat with our family and you’ll see their eyes light up. There is something magical about a dozen girls from Masada, state and private schools spending Shabbat together — sleeping on mattresses in the lounge, eating lots of delicious Shabbat food, singing, laughing and trying to observe Shabbat.

In the case of bar mitzvah, we ask boys to give their own running commentary of each of the call-ups of their portion.

Our kids need to know the meaning of the prayers — not just the translation of the Hebrew words Shema Yisrael (“Hear O Israel”) which for some children is about a heroic character out of an Israeli action movie. They need to discuss and reflect on what it means to them. Maybe “Shema” to them is to concentrate hard, to meditate, to open their minds or perhaps their hearts.

Finally, the most vital element is for children to receive the best Jewish education possible from a young age, whether at a day school or a Sunday school. Hopefully when Mick’s sons become bar mitzvah they won’t say, “when I first came six months ago” because their education will have been acquired over six years. Then the circle of Jewish continuity will be complete.

(Mick is not his real name).

Rabbi Zalman Kastel. Rabbi Kastel is the youth rabbi and principal of Eichel-Chabad Hebrew School at Chabad House of the North Shore, Sydney.

This article republished with thanks to the Australian Jewish News.