B’nai mitzvah students give new meaning to tzedekah

BY ELLIE S. GROSSMAN

Who says kids today are lazy and self-centered? Uhh, maybe I did, but never mind. Ask any typical hormonal, pimply pre-teen preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah and he or she will show you the contrary.

Consider, for example, the relentless demands on Jewish 13-year-olds who are about to embark on symbolic adulthood. To start with, they diligently practice their Torah portion; study their Haftarah; write a personal interpretation of the weekly Torah portion, called the D’var Torah; and put up with their mothers who obsess for a whole year over everything from the guest list to the dessert table.

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In addition, they are required to chant the Ve’ahavta and several other Hebrew prayers like a trained soprano, only with a cracking pubescent voice in front of a live audience that includes their middle school buddies.

On top of that, they also must master the art of public speaking and compose an eloquent speech that evokes their already emotionally charged albeit proud mother to sob uncontrollably in the front row and cause further embarrassment in front of their friends. From a parent’s perspective, bar/bat mitzvah participants have more on their plates than hungry truck drivers at Hometown Buffet.

Yes, it’s hard to imagine how a seventh grader can stand before a congregation in confidence and lead a Shabbat morning service when they aren’t even old enough to drive a car and many of them still can’t figure out how to keep their bedrooms clean. Yet with a little guidance from the rabbis and tutor, the majority of bar/bat mitzvah students manage to rise to the occasion and meet the challenges set before them by their religious ancestors thousands of years ago.

These goals are inscribed in Pirke Avot, which says, “Al sh-losha de-va-rim ha-o-lam omeid: al ha-Torah, v’al ha-a-vo-dah, v’al ge-mi-lut cha-sa-dim.” That means, “The world stands upon three things: Torah, Worship, and Acts of Loving Kindness.”

These three pillars sum up the requirement to become a bar/bat mitzvah, and they are the foundation of b’nai mitzvah programs at congregations nationwide. Unlike in any other religion, the bar/bat mitzvah experience gives young Jewish people the privileged opportunity to be a role model to their peers and discover their own strengths and uniqueness. And when they read from the Torah for the first time, the ceremony itself represents a beginning, not an end, to their Jewish journey.

The bar/bat mitzvah celebration is indeed the best time to demonstrate their individuality and lifelong commitment to do their part in making the world a better place, also known as tikkun olam. That’s right, in their spare time, bar/bat mitzvah students are required to choose their own social action causes that make a difference in the lives of others through acts of loving kindness.

Again, sounds like way too much to handle when this age group is already overloaded with schoolwork, sports, extracurricular activities, and more places to be than a Hannah Montana tour bus. Even so, the new generation of b’nei mitzvah students knows how to get the job done. They are bright, outspoken, multi-dimensional, creative, caring, and hard working, to say the least. Likewise, their concept of tzedakah includes more than collecting money for a random charity. In fact, the biggest question they face, other than how many presents will they get, is which social justice project is right for them.

To find out more about what makes a mitzvah project meaningful and slightly off the beaten path, don’t miss next week’s “Mishegas of Motherhood” column.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Currently, she is obsessing over the invitations for her son’s upcoming bar mitzvah, so please feel free to send any advice to: [email protected] or visit her Web site www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.

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