Reform Judaism has not ‘dumbed down’ bar/bat mitzvah

Jeffrey Stiffman is Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Shaare Emeth.  

By Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman

J. Martin Rochester’s recent op-ed  (Oct. 30 commentary, “Lowering the bar on bar/bat mitzvahs”) evinced a misunderstanding of the new Bar/Bat Mitzvah Initiative of the Union for Reform Judaism. While I agree that there is a problem in the retention of students after bar/bat mitzvah, his analysis of the problem is flawed.

I believe that he has taken the words of a few rabbis out of context, accusing the Reform movement of wishing, to use a phrase, “dumb down,” the bar/bat mitzvah experience.

It is true that, in its early years, Reform in Europe and then in America eliminated the ceremony of bar mitzvah in favor of Confirmation. This was done for a number of reasons – the first being that a 13-year-old boy or girl was far from being considered an adult in society. The founders felt that a ceremony for both girls and boys, at an age when they could integrate more complex theology, would be more meaningful to all. They held Confirmation on Shavuot , the festival celebrating the acceptance of Torah by their ancestors. It was a good idea, but didn’t eliminate bar mitzvah.

They didn’t understand the emotional pull of the tradition of a young man becoming a bar mitzvah upon not only the student, but upon the family as well. As often happened in Jewish history, the rabbis were outvoted by the laity. Reform then readopted the ceremonies, but not as a sign of the students having become adults. They reinterpreted bar/ bat mitzvah as an important milestone along the road to Confirmation and then full adult Jewish Identity.

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Many congregations, including the one I served and attend, meet with parents and students three years before the actual date of the ceremony. Serious discussions are held about the history and meaning of the ceremony. They read a book entitled, “Putting God on the Guest List,” designed help them fully understand what the ceremony can mean. We have instituted educational requirements, including required years of religious and Hebrew education. In most Reform congregations, writing introductions to the Torah and Haftarah portions helps the student to become a teacher as well. In addition, students are asked to create a mitzvah project putting the ethical values of Judaism into action. All of this takes place in the context of the family being involved in Jewish life with their daughter or son.

Many students and families take this very seriously, fulfill their requirements with diligence, and feel proud of themselves. Many studies by mental health professionals have reported that those adolescents who have an experience allowing them to do excel before family and friends tend to have a better adolescence. The rabbis knew this centuries ago when they invented the concept of a young man formally becoming a Bar mitzvah.

However, one size does not fit all in Jewish life.  (Two Jews = three opinions.) Students are individuals. Some have learning difficulties. Others have non-supportive families. All feel peer pressure. It is this problem, I believe, that the Reform Initiative tends to address.

We have to be flexible enough to understand that some students are unable, because of physical or mental barriers, to fulfill the traditional role. We modify the requirements for them.

We understand that some students are not as excited by chanting an ancient text as they are by doing tzedakah and Tikkun Olam. While not eliminating the first, we work with them to enhance the second.

Let us be clear. The Reform movement has not abandoned the ceremony of bar/bat mitzvah. But each synagogue implements these in its own manner. The Union for Reform Judaism has begun its initiative not to weaken this important ceremony, but to strengthen it.

I must disagree with my lifelong friend Martin Rochester on one of his conclusions, that only a traditional prayer experience will make a meaningful bar/bat Mitzvah. We all want people to be inspired and uplifted by participating in Tefillah. For some, traditional Judaism is the answer. I respect my Orthodox co-religionists deeply.  For the great majority, inspiration comes from other forms of prayer. Again, one size does not fit all. For me, a fourth-generation Reform Jew, my mode of prayer is equally meaningful. In Reform congregations, this can be modified to meet the needs of each Bar/Bat Mitzvah and his/her family. There is diversity in Jewish practice. We are all searching for the right way to inspire of 13-year-olds as well as our adult Jews. 

The challenge of the Reform Initiative is to enable Reform congregations to enhance worship, engage young peoples’ hearts and minds, and hopefully strengthen the Jewish future. Jews of all levels of observance face these concerns. It would be wonderful if we could unite in facing this serious challenge.