Rabbi strives to keep ‘mitzvah’ in bar/bat mitzvah

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

It is among the best-known Jewish traditions, one that often sees parents and children alike preparing for months. But Rabbi Ze’ev Smason knows the ceremony marking Jewish adulthood can come with a price.

“Unless inspiration is nourished, even those who did have the benefit of a meaningful bar or bat mitzvah may not have continued afterwards,” he said. “Unfortunately, [sometimes] a bar or bat mitzvah is not a graduation into Judaism but it becomes a graduation from Judaism or at least a recess.”

That’s exactly what Smason, rabbi at Olivette’s Nusach Hari B’nai Zion is hoping to prevent with a new set of educational offerings themed around adult bar and bat mitzvah learning. Covering topics like “Lifecycles: Everything from Birth to Earth” and “Shabbat: At Home and in the Synagogue,” the Wednesday evenning classes will run over 10 sessions in an effort to rekindle Judaic spiritual learning among Jews of any age. The program, which kicks off Oct. 2, will conclude in December with a bar or bat mitzvah at which the student presents an individualized talk to the congregation.

Smason said he hopes the initiative will attract as many as 30 to 50 students and is open to those who have had a bar or bat mitzvah or those who haven’t.

“There are many, many people who, though born Jewish, did not have the benefit of a good Jewish education,” he said. “This is something that really transcends denominations. Even some who might have been brought up in observant homes may not have gotten any Jewish education or a Jewish education they didn’t find sustaining when they got older. It didn’t really answer some of the questions that were important to them as they grew up and matured.”

He said sometimes the problem is that learning was treated more as a functional exercise than a spiritual journey. Individuals may have sat through classes or even repeated the Hebrew in front of family and friends but didn’t really understand what it all meant. Instead, it became about the recitation or the party afterwards. Smason recalled the old joke that bar mitzvahs are sometimes more “bar” than “mitzvah.”

“The education in the old days and still to a degree today was focused on the what but not on the why,” he said. “There was a focus on tradition and rituals but not a focus on the duties of the heart.”

By contrast, Smason said NHBZ’s offerings should impact people on a deep level, imparting knowledge on Israel, holidays, the Torah and other topics.

 “They really touch upon the heart and soul of what Judaism is about,” he said, “the spirituality, the whys behind a number of the things that we do to enable individuals to be more informed and on the path to becoming more Jewishly literate or to rekindle the spark that they once had when they were younger and began to study.”

NHBZ offers the classes for both women and men, a point Smason said is important since females have sometimes been left out of Judaic learning as children.

“Unfortunately, there was somehow this feeling that was pervasive that the boys needed to be educated Jewishly but Jewish education was not for women,” he said. “There are many women I’ve met who feel bad that they missed out on such a marvelous opportunity to learn about their heritage.”

Smason said classes are open to both congregants and non-congregants but reservations are necessary. The bar or bat mitzvah at the end is offered but not required. The main point is clearing the path to Jewish literacy, he said.

“This is an opportunity to approach things from a fresh vantage point,” he noted. “To my knowledge, there is nothing like this that is taking place as an opportunity for the Jewish community in St. Louis. We’ve never done it before and I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

So far, he feels response has been good.

 “We’ve had a lot of people who have registered, surprisingly without there being a lot of publicity,” he said. “I think that with the excitement of the holidays still swirling around, things that take place immediately after tend to get lost in the shuffle. Despite everyone (being) quite busy…we had several preregistrations and a number of inquiries about the program.”

Smason said a little Jewish learning can go a long way. 

“One of the topics that has attracted a lot of interest is Jewish spirituality,” he said. “I’ve found that many people do not associate Judaism with spirituality. They think that Judaism is a religion and in their minds, whether it is expressed or not, they feel that Judaism is a system of things that you do rather than a system of values, beliefs and ethics as well as a way to enhance one’s spirituality.”

Not long ago, he spoke with a Jewish woman who had been bat mitzvahed but had fallen away from Jewish life and started exploring other faiths. Then she heard Smason’s talk on the spirituality of Jewish life.

“She was floored,” he said. “She was floored that Judaism had something to say about that.”

The classes are $99 for members and $125 for non-members. Call 314-991-2100, ext. 2.