The Bar Mitzvah-Industrial Complex

I ushered at Shabbat  services this morning, where a 13-year-old boy was becoming a Bar Mitzvah.  This is one of the little routines at our temple — the family of an upcoming  Bar or Bat Mitzvah is responsible for ushering at the service of a Bar or Bat  preceding theirs.

There are good reasons for this. It takes one little task off the to-do list of the harried Bar Mitzvah family, and it helps foster a sense of community — a sense that the Shabbat morning service belongs to everyone, not just the Bar Mitzvah family.

But in reality, it often doesn’t.

Many times, a Shabbat service that includes a Bar Mitzvah feels like a private event. Friends and family of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah outnumber regular congregants. The sanctuary is filled with visitors who don’t know the songs and prayers, or with teens who sit in a pack and giggle and whisper. The Bar Mitzvah’s parents give speeches about their child that may be very moving, but that don’t have anything to do with Judaism. And as impressive as the d’vrei Torah of many 13-year-olds can be, they rarely match the insight of a sermon by a rabbi or other adult speaker.

Attending a Shabbat service when you don’t know the Bar Mitzvah family can feel like walking in on someone else’s wedding or baby shower.

And in a large congregation like ours — nearly 1,000 families — the chances are pretty good that on any given Saturday, you won’t know the Bar Mitzvah family.

“I feel like a third wheel when I go to a Bar Mitzvah service,” one longtime congregant told me at lunch.

As wonderful as it is, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a doubled-edge institution. On the one hand, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are a pillar of modern Judaism and synagogue life. They boost religious school enrollment and temple membership. They create goodwill and play a major role in shaping the next generation of committed Jews. They’re an invaluable coming-of-age experience for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah him or herself.

On the other hand, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies in many big  congregations have escalated to the point of dwarfing regular Shabbat services — becoming a kind of Bar Mitzvah-Industrial Complex.  (And I’m not even talking about the parties!)

How do you create Shabbat services that will speak to the needs of adult congregants while also honoring 13-year-olds in a manner that meets their family’s expectations?

This particular weekend, it happened that my congregation was holding two simultaneous Shabbat services. So when I finished ushering at the Bar Mitzvah service in our large sanctuary, I dashed around the building to an alternative lay-led service in our new, smaller chapel.

Temple Sinai holds these lay-led alternative services once a month. They’re filled with music — guitar, violin, drums, tambourines — and feel very participatory. Many attendees are “regulars,” everyone seems to know the prayers and melodies, and everyone also seems to know each other.

Today’s alternative minyan felt simultaneously more modern and more traditional than a classic Reform service. More modern: The guitars and folk melodies gave it a Jewish-renewal feeling. More traditional: There were more people wearing tallitot, and bowing or covering their eyes during prayer, than in one of our regular Shabbat services. Afterward, there was a potluck lunch,  a homey contrast to the catered luncheons put on by many Bar Mitzvah families.

So that’s one answer — different services for different needs. One service for the Bar Mitzvah family and friends, one for congregants who want something more intimate and communal.

But that’s a lot to organize. It feels like a bit of a jerry-rigged solution to me. Wouldn’t it be preferable to  integrate a Bar Mitzvah into a regular, adult service — so the 13-year-old chanting Torah would be  just one small part in a service that involved and spoke to the entire congregation?  But I’m not sure that’s an achievable or realistic goal.

What do you think? Any better ideas?

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One Response to “The Bar Mitzvah-Industrial Complex”

  1. Adam Graubart Says:

    Ilana-
    I always enjoy services when I do not know the person. Sometimes more than when I do know the person. I sometimes feel that the guests whom I know can take the joy of services away from me. They are a distraction in my praying. On the other hand, I like helping non-Jewish guests follow the service and even gain a better understanding of Judaism. It is a double-edged sword.
    -Adam

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