Posts Tagged ‘Bar Mitzvah’

Simcha

May 16, 2012

I am SOOO excited!

This weekend is my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah service, and it has turned into a huge family reunion. For a long time, we thought my 88-year-old father would not be able to manage the trip from the East Coast. Then this spring he and my stepmother decided to give it a go. And when he decided to come, his sister in Orange County decided to come too. And then her kids (my cousins) decided to come. And then their kids, even the college-age ones, decided to come! And then other cousins on the East Coast decided to come!

This is the biggest DeBare family gathering in about 15 years. It’s happening after some sad losses of aunts and uncles in my parents’ generation. We’d all kind of assumed that my dad and his sister would never see each other again in person because of the rigors of cross-country air travel. And now, in about 24 hours…. everyone will be here in one place.

Over the past couple of months, my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah preparations have reminded me what a great institution this is on a variety of levels. Certainly as a way to pass Judaism on to the next generation, and also as a way to provide teenagers with validation and a sense of accomplishment that goes deeper than having the most chic clothes or biggest bling or hottest figure.

But also simply as a life cycle event. People tend to travel huge distances to get together at births, weddings and funerals. But why limit it to those three occasions? Especially when no one remembers their own christening or bris… and no one gets to enjoy their own funeral.

And then today I was thinking about the word “simcha.”  Simcha is Hebrew for happiness or joy, related to the word sameach or “happy.” But it is also used to refer to celebratory occasions like this one. “Is anyone having a simcha this week?” our rabbi typically asks at the beginning of Shabbat services.

The word simcha is much more fitting for what is happening this weekend than “celebration,” or ” family reunion,” or “festive gathering.”

We are having a gathering, yes, A celebration, yes.

But what we are really having is joy.

The Bar Mitzvah-Industrial Complex

February 13, 2011

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?