The B’nei Mitzvah Evolution/Revolution/Ban Debate

Every once in a while, a celebrity or politician gets misquoted or a sound byte is used out of context and ripples begin to infiltrate that person’s career for a while until it all gets cleared up.  While I am not a celebrity, I was recently mis-represented in Patrick Aleph’s Blog on entitled “Ban the Bar Mitzvah: A Rabbinical Student Rethinks The Time Honored Ceremony.”  Since I do have an incredibly strong opinion about eliminating the b’nei mitzvah ceremony, and am very vocal about it (even blogged about it in August 2010 entitled “At what age are we ready to CHOOSE Judaism?“), I thought I would summarize and clarify my opinion today.

Over the past two years, I have presented on this topic in several milieus and will be doing so again in a few weeks President’s Day Weekend at Limmud NY in a session titled, “You are Cordially Uninvited: The Case for Eliminating the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremony.” In addition, I have provided some educational content to The Jewish Future’s Conference: The Role of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in America Today being held February 27th, 2013 in NYC.

So how was I misrepresented? and what is difference of the dialogue I have been facilitating and what was eluded to by Mr. Aleph?  He stated: “I did not realize the degree of disengagement that the bnei mitzvah process causes until I saw a presentation by Jewish education consultant Robyn Faintich from JewishGPS…”

At no point in my presentation did I say it was the process that causes disengagement (although if asked, I would say there are elements of the process for many – not all – that do turn young Jews off of formal Jewish learning).  In my presentation, I first laid out the the traditional texts and historical information that shaped the modern day experience. This helps participants understand that bar/bat mitzvah is not only NOT Torah commanded – a common misconception –  but that the age set out in Torah for the age of maturity is different than that Talmud describes (20 vs 13).  I also framed that the bar mitzvah ceremony was intended to be about public acceptance of obligation and challenged that 12/13 year-old teens today aren’t in a place to make that commitment – to CHOOSE Judaism in that way.  I emphasize that the language of “getting a bar mitzvah” is problematic in that we haven’t educated our communities to understand that you don’t get “bar mitzvahed” rather you become Bar Mitzvah without a ceremony at 12/13.  Then I shared the current statistics of post-b’nei mitzvah drop out.   Then I shared what I thought could potentially be done with the significant dollars that families spend on the b’nei mitzvah process, ceremony and party (average is $15-$30k) if those dollars were instead funneled directly into Jewish education. I conclude my presentation by asking the participants to engage in visioning what kind of new ritual we could develop as our teens go off to college that would, in fact, legitimately mark the first time they will be independently responsible for choosing their Jewish lives.

I provide the cliff notes version here today because for a more complete version I would mostly enjoy people attending my session at Limmud NY or engaging with the content that will be published by Jewish Futures  (which I can publish a link to once it’s posted) or by hiring me to come to their community to facilitate the same dialogue (I modify the session slightly when facilitating it with adult learners vs facilitating it for educators/rabbis).  In addition, I hope that this makes the distinction between what I said the day Mr Aleph was in attendance at my session versus what he eluded I stated.

As I have spent a lot of time today reading the numerous responses to Mr. Aleph’s blog, responding to direct messages to me, commenting on friends/colleagues Facebook postings of the blog, I have found myself focused on the following few issues:

  • Not all pre b’nei mitzvah experiences are horrible.  Not all b’nei mitzvah education programs are drop-off and only engage the teens themselves.  Not all b’nei mitzvah teens are “forced” to learn.  Not every ceremony is rote and meaningless.  Not all religious schools are places of extreme dread.  Yes … AND … I do believe that the supplemental/part-time/complementary system is broken resulting in 82% post b’nei mitzvah drop-off and most (not all) congregations are afraid to take the boldest risk needed in order to re-imagine it for fear of loss of membership and subsequently educator/rabbi jobs.
  • As a the project director for Shevet: Jewish Family Education Exchange and a member of it’s faculty, I am all for family education initiatives and spend a lot of time providing professional development to educators, lay leaders and rabbis on the topic. I do however, object to a “Family B’nei MItzvah” in terms of the language use (same reason I don’t think we should have “Adult B’nei Mitzvah). My objection is that we negate the fact that Jews become Bar/Bat Mitzvah at 12/13 regardless of a public ceremony and confuse people by the terminology.
  • While I applaud the URJ for convening a national thinktank and engaging pilot congregations in the re-visioning of the b’nei mitzvah process – programmatically called The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution –  I by no means agree that the outcome is a “revolution” but rather an “evolution.”   To me, a revolution hits hard, hits fast and revolutionizes an organization/culture/industry/product.  The work that the URJ leadership and participating congregations are doing is incredibly important self-reflection, adaptation, experimentation, dialogue, etc.  Even self-admittedly by its leadership this change will take a few years to be fully adopted – a few years is not a revolution.  From my understanding, the program still makes 12/13 the age of demarcation and still results in a congregation-based ceremony that is the culmination of an experience the teen had.   Again, it’s an evolution of the current ceremony and current learning that takes place leading up to that ceremony – but in my opinion, not a revolution.

This conversation about the role that the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony plays in Jewish education and in Jewish life is robust and fired up.   Just a few days ago my colleague/friend Wendy Grinberg, educational consultant who founded Jewish Education Lab, wrote this piece “Emphasize Bar and Bat Mitzvah MORE” in response to a recent panel discussion held in NY (the recording of which can also be found on that same page).  As I stated before, The Jewish Futures Conference is facilitating a dialogue about this at the end of February and the URJ will continue to do it’s work with B’nei Mitzvah Revolution.  I am sure these are just a few settings in which this is/will be discussed.

What I know is that there will not be one definitive nation-wide or even klal yisrael-wide decision on how we as Jews in the 21st Century should be approaching the role this ceremony plays in our educations systems and in our lives.  However, the dialogue and debate is healthy and productive – as long as we are all quoted and referenced appropriately and accurately.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jody Harburger
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 22:33:22

    Rites of passage are an anthropologic phenomenon. Cultures are sustained by them. They benefit the tribe, the family and the individual. The authority of the Tribal leaders and high regard for those who soar from the process of “coming of age” events is essential to the sustainance of cultural continuity. Our American experience is more focused on the individual and less on the group (tribe). There are benefits and costs that derive from the liberation from authority in American society. Group identity is, on balance, weakened by the liberation from authority. The only substitutes I have seen are provided by role-models that are chosen by the young. Parents, clergy, educators, committes and boards are mostly incapable of investing role models with the power to impact the lives and values of youth and seekers. It happens for some leaders and seekers who pair when exposed to each other. The most we can do is identify and patronize such role models and provide environments that lend themselves to such pairing.


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

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