At what age are we ready to CHOOSE Judaism?

On Friday, I posted this tweet: If we call them “adult” at 13, then why not ordain him? Or maybe we shouldn’t call them “adult” at 13? http://tinyurl.com/tooyoungrav. The article is about a young man in Israel who would like to be a rabbi at age 14, but people are arguing that he is too young.  I offered up this question regarding the article because I have been trying to engage Jewish education colleagues in considering that we have the Bar/Bat Mitzvah CEREMONY age set too young.

Today, I came across this tweet: @JewishIdeas Should we make the bar mitzvah age later, now that maturity comes so much later? http://www.jidaily.com/jJjg/t. Here is a copy of the article the link leads to:

August 25, 2010, 2:34pm

‘Today You Are … Still a Child’: Why 13 Is Too Young For Bar/Bat Mitzvah

By Renee Ghert-Zand

We learned from the cover story of the past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that there is a debate raging in developmental psychology and neuropsychology circles as to whether there is a new stage in human development called “emergent adulthood.” Some might call it “prolonged adolescence,” but apparently, a lot of people are asking a variation of the question “What Is it About 20-Somethings?”

The jury is still out as to whether the fact that so many young people in their 20s are not yet financially independent, settled on a career, or in long-term, committed romantic relationships is a definitive indication that humans are not cut out to assume the responsibilities of adulthood until they reach the age of 30.

Whether or not you completely buy the new theory, this re-thinking of the timing of the true onset of adulthood has not only biological, social and economic implications, but also religious ones. If brain imaging research has found that the human brain does not finish its major growth and hardwiring until approximately age 25, then what are we Jews doing declaring young people adults at the age of 12 or 13?

The concept of adolescence has been around for more than a century, with just about everyone in the developed world recognizing that young children do not turn into adults overnight. We haven’t thought of 13-year-olds as true adults for a very long time.

So why have we not re-thought a tradition that dates to ancient times, when we well know that what made sense to life then does not apply to our contemporary existence? OK, so we gave in to inertia, we just let things go with the traditional flow for the past century. But now that we have the evidence, it’s high time that we reconsider whether it is right and fair for us to confer Jewish adulthood on our 7th and 8th graders merely to ensure a steady stream of minyan makers.

Rather than lament the drop off of congregational and educational participation of teenagers post-b’nai mitzvah, maybe we should remind ourselves that they are just that: teenagers, and not adults. Teenagers get a kick out of doing davka (basically doing the opposite of what we want them to), so why not psych them out by not expecting them to act like adults, which we all know they aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not advocating that young Jews should never have the privilege of taking on the responsibility or the mitzvot. I’m not calling for the abolition of the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. What I am suggesting, however, is that if the teenage and 20s years are all about exploring one’s identity, trying new paths, gaining experience and finding personal meaning and direction, then what is our hurry? Why not extend the Jewish educational journey for youth, and gain the benefit of not losing the momentum from making a major stop during middle school? Maybe then, when they finally do emerge as actual adults, they will really be ready to commit to living a Jewish life.

Why not re-envision this Jewish coming of age so that when a young Jew stands up at his bar mitzvah or her bat mitzvah and says, “Today, I am an adult,” he or she can really mean it and the rest of us in the congregation can really believe it?

This is the response I wrote in the Comments section:

I have, for the last few years, been challenging my Jewish education colleagues to consider this discussion with the following implications:


a) Educate our communities that at the age of 12/13 a young person becomes Bar/Bat Mitzvah without a ceremony, without a party, without being called to the Torah.

b) Alter, throughout K’lal Yisrael, what happens communally when a young person becomes Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

c) Abolish Confirmation across the board.

d) Develop a Jewish education system (in both supplemental and day school education) where learners between the ages of 12/13-18 are taught a set of skills around critical thinking, personal integration, context framing, problem-solving, etc. all through the lens of Jewish knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors.

e) At the age of 18 (or end of 12th-grade year), as an emerging adult is about to enter the next phase of life, institute a new ceremony. This ceremony would recognize that this young adult is about make many more independent choices about how to live Jewishly. It would allow our young Jews the opportunity to use the knowledge learned to stand publicly and share how they intend to shape their Jewish future. This ceremony would mark the moment where a young Jew moves from being born into Judaism (Brit of Fate) to actually choosing Judaism (Brit of Faith).

This idea of moving from Brit of Fate to Brit of Faith was concretized for me a few years ago when I co-authored a curriculum with Rabbi Michael Shulman in which we framed for our teen learners that being born Jewish isn’t enough. That each one of us has to actively CHOOSE Judaism and when we do, we move from just being born a Jew (Brit of Fate) to the Brit of Faith.  On August 17, 2010, I posted this link on my personal Facebook page:

Several years ago, I wrote a retreat curriculum for Brit of Fate to Brit of Faith based off of another curriculum (same name) I co-authored with Rabbi Michael Shulman. This article in Huffington Post (Who’s a Jew? Redefining Jewish Identity for the 21st Century) brings similar issues to light.

One of the cornerstone pieces of the modified curriculum, is from the concept that a child converted to Judaism at birth (or as a young child) is offered the option to opt-out before his/her b’nei mitzvah. The main discussion of conversion of minors in the Talmud is in Ketubot 11a and the conclusion of the discussion is, “R. Joseph said, ‘When they (converted minors) have become of age they can protest (against their conversion).'”

Do we really believe that a 12/13 year-old has the capacity and knowledge to make this choice?  Are you prepared to offer all young Jews the choice to opt-out prior to b’nei mitzvah? If the answer is “no”, how can we believe they are ready to “opt-in” at that age either? After studying this text,  I asked a group of 10th-12th graders if they think they would have been ready (emotionally or intellectually) to make that choice at 12/13 and they all offered a resounding “no.”

With all of this data, discussion, thinking, postulating, and framing of this issue, I wonder which Jewish education institution is going to make the first step with this bold change.  I believe wholeheartedly that if we were to take this step, we would stem the tide of post-b’nei mitzvah drop-off and that we would also change the entire culture of synagogue affiliation for the sake of “getting my child bar mitzvahed” (which incidentally is incorrect terminology).  If it’s the congregation you work with or volunteer for, and you would like to discuss this further, please feel free to contact JewishGPS.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The B’nei Mitzvah Evolution/Revolution/Ban Debate by Robyn Faintich « Jewish Futures - An Initiative of The Jewish Education Project.
  2. Trackback: Re-Visioning the Jewish “Coming of Age” with post-B/M teens | JewishGPS

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