Temple Looks Past Bar Mitzvah ‘Ice Sculptures’

Some 80 percent of children who reach the Jewish rite of passage, Bar or Bat Mitzvah, don’t continue to practice Judaism or even go to synagogue. A cadre of educators in the reform movement hope to stop this attrition, they say, by adding meaning and reducing the fanfare. A temple in Wellesley, Massachusetts, one of 13 across the country is giving it a try.

The phrase Bar Mitzvah is pretty well known, but often, even among many Jews,what it’s known for is celebratory, almost graduation-like parties.

“The party is a real challenge,” says Temple Beth Elohim Rabbi Joel Sisenwine, “So then the question becomes, ‘What is the big party a means towards?’ That doesn’t mean that the rabbis commanded one to have an ice sculpture of the Bar Mitzvah boy or a chop liver sculpture, but it does mean that it’s a religious obligation to celebrate. To become Bar and Bat Mitzvah means taking responsibility, reaching out to others, engaging in the spiritual search, struggling with values and ethics.”

Sisenwine says, often, Bar and Bat Mitvahs require the child to learn a set number of verses from the torah in Hebrew and then recite them rotely during the service. They also do some sort of community service project, known as mitzvah. His temple is doing things differently as part of what’s called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. And he says that’s why about 75 percent of the synagogue’s kids buck the trend and stay involved through high school.

I asked Judith Averny, who runs the religious school, if there’s a secret to the temple’s high retention. For starters, she says instead of Hebrew school, they call it, “BM3T, which is the B’nai Mitzvah Magical Mystery Tour.”

This I had to see. So we walked to the synagogue, where in the late afternoon the “non-Hebrew school” meets.

An animated group of about 70 sixth and seventh graders were singing, discussing what it means to be Jewish and seemingly having a good time.

“Our students have so much pressure and creating the community is one of the most important things for us and that’s I think what continues from grades 6 and 7 into the high school and that’s why they like to be here,” Judith Averny says.

Averny says B’nai Mitzvah Revolution curriculum wraps families into more of the rigorous Bar and Bat Mitzvah prep. She also says the usual requirement to perform mitzvah, some kind of social justice or charitable work, is done as a group. No matter; it’s still a lot of work, which always includes learning to read Hebrew, culminating in the day the child helps lead the congregation.

Last November 23rd was 13-year-old Annie Sinert’s Bat Mitzvah.

“I will never forget the feeling of just being, like standing up there on the Bima. And just looking out at all of the faces,” Sinert says. “They were all there for me and it made me feel incredible.”

Turning Annie’s feeling into a commitment to stay involved in the temple is the goal of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, says Isa Aron. She’s a professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and a leader in the B’nai Mitzvah initiative. She says the tradition of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in the U.S. is actually pretty young. It’s only about 100 years old for boys, with girls included much later.

Aron says there’s little scholarship about Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and only very general liturgical guidance in the torah itself.

“At this age this, at this age that,” Aron says. “You know, like at 70 – wisdom. And it says at 13 – mitzvoth.”

So, it is actually in the Talmud?

“Well, yeah,” Aron says. “But that’s the only thing it says. It’s important to say that there was no ceremony or anything marking that. That just happened automatically to you. If you’re a boy. Ok when you’re 13 time to start fasting on Yom Kippur.”

No party?

“Nothing, right,” Aron replied. “So maybe there was a party, but no one has found any evidence that there was anything like a party.”

In fact, Aron says one scholar thinks the trajectory towards lavish parties may have been hatched by caterers, and that may have been bolstered by an immigrant community eager to assert its American identity. Lost, Aron says, in the process was Jewish identity. And that, says Rabbi Sisenwine, is the challenge to introduce young Jews to what he calls “sacred purpose.”

“America does many things well, but sacred community isn’t necessarily one of them,” Sisenwine says.

Months after her Bat Mitzvah, Annie says she’s more committed than ever to maintaining her relationship with the temple and her Judaism.

“If you were to look at a map, it would be like, I’m right there. I’m a Jewish person,” she says. “Like, you know, I feel like a lot more connected to the Jewish community now.”

That optimism aside, will Annie will stick with it? And will the reform movement’s efforts spread to other Jewish teens? For now, at least  in this one synagogue in Massachusetts, it seems to be working.