A Push For Less Fanfare, More Meaning At Bar Mitzvahs

Apr 29, 2014
Originally published on April 29, 2014 4:43 pm

Some 80 percent of Jewish children who complete their Bar or Bat Mitzvah don’t continue to practice Judaism, or even go to synagogue, after their ceremony.

Now, some educators in the Jewish “Reform Movement” hope to stop this attrition. The key, they say, is to reduce the fanfare and add more meaning.

New England Public Radio’s Susan Kaplan takes us to a temple in Wellesley, Massachusetts, that’s one of 13 across the country giving it a try.


  • Susan Kaplan, reporter and host of New England Public Radio’s local All Things Considered in Amherst, Mass. She tweets @radiosue.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's HERE AND NOW. Some 80 percent of the 13-year-olds who take part in the Jewish rite of passage Bar - or for girls, Bat Mitzvahs - don't continue on to practice Judaism or even go to synagogue. And now some educators in the Jewish Reform Movement are hoping to change that. The key, they say, is to reduce the fanfare - less party, more meaning.

New England Public Radio's Susan Kaplan takes us to a temple in Wellesley, Massachusetts that's one of 13 across the country giving this new thinking a try.

SUSAN KAPLAN, BYLINE: The phrase Bar Mitzvah is pretty well-known, but often, even among Jews, what it's known for is celebratory, almost graduation-like parties.

RABBI JOEL SISENWINE: The big party's a real challenge.

KAPLAN: That's Rabbi Joel Sisenwine, one of the rabbis at Temple Beth Elohim.

SISENWINE: So then the question becomes: What is the big party a means towards? That doesn't mean that the rabbi has 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.

KAPLAN: Sisenwine says often, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs 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...

JUDITH AVERNY: BM3T, which is the B'nai Mitzvah Magical Mystery Tour.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, ready? One, two, three, four, (singing in Hebrew).

AVERNY: 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.

KAPLAN: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So, in a moment, we're going to turn to our Torah Service, the central part of our service. But before we do, I ask you to turn to page 12, and Annie's going to lead us in this very familiar passage from the (Hebrew spoken).

KAPLAN: This is last November 23rd, 13-year-old Annie Sinert's Bat Mitzvah.

ANNIE SINERT: (Singing in Hebrew)

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. That just - they were all there for me, and it really - it made me feel incredible.

KAPLAN: 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, 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.

ISA ARON: At this age, this, at this age, that. You know, like at 70, wisdom. And it says at 13, mitzvoth.

KAPLAN: So, it is in the Talmud?

ARON: Well, yeah. 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. When you're 13, OK, time to start fasting on Yom Kippur.

KAPLAN: No party?

ARON: Nothing, right. So maybe there was a party, but no one has found any evidence that there was anything like a party.

KAPLAN: 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: Jewish identity. And that, says Rabbi Sisenwine, is the challenge to introduce young Jews to what he calls sacred purpose.

SISENWINE: America does many things well, but sacred community isn't necessarily one of them.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Hebrew)

SINERT: If you were to look at a map, it would be like, I'm right there. I'm a Jewish person. Like, you know, it just - I feel, like, a lot more connected to the Jewish community now.

KAPLAN: That optimism aside, will Annie stick with it? And will the Reform Movement's efforts spread to other Jewish teens? For now, at least here in this one synagogue in Massachusetts, it seems to be working.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Hebrew)

KAPLAN: For HERE AND NOW, I'm Susan Kaplan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.