Opinion | The Drawbacks of the ‘DIY’ Bar or Bat Mitzvah

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By Rabbi Benjamin David

Jews in the Philadelphia area, and indeed outside of the Philadelphia area, are increasingly seeking out alternative B’nai Mitzvah options, including hiring clergy to perform their ceremonies at hotels and, as was recently reported in the Jewish Exponent, at “golf clubs, banquet halls and destination resorts.”

As a rabbi, I am thankful that we live in a time when Jewish practice is far from myopic. There are countless opportunities for us to live our Judaism in ways that resonate, spanning the denominational spectrum and more. Going further, there are synagogues, community centers and chavurot designed to provide substance and meaning for LGBTQ Jews, Jews of color, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, Jews who believe ardently in God and those who do not. Our ancestors could never have dreamed of the panoply of choices available to today’s Jewish family.


That said, I worry we are not paying sufficient attention to the deeply rooted meaning and fulfillment that comes from belonging — and belonging specifically to the Jewish community precisely now, in 2019.

The Mishnah famously teaches that we are not to separate ourselves from the community. This is problem No. 1 with the so-called DIY Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It exists minus the backdrop of a broader Jewish community to which the student belongs and feels the support of in times of joy as well in times of difficulty.

This is more than family; it is the abiding sense that who I am matters, that in an age of alienation and isolation and wondering where and how I fit in, that I am part of this sacred people. With such prevalent anti-Semitism and such rampant anti-Israel sentiment, how vital it is that we as a community stand tall and strong in our shared commitment to Torah, heritage and tikkun olam. To become a loner sets a dangerous precedent and carries a dangerous message for our kids, I fear — namely, that the Jewish community doesn’t need you. We do need you.

There are also broader educational implications of the DIY Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Without a religious education that provides context, I wonder whether the true meaning of this rite of passage holds in ways it otherwise might have. As most educators will agree, the ceremony is but one component of a broader educational experience, one that is aimed to deepen our students’ sense of Jewish history, the Holocaust, Torah and midrash, and what our core values are as a people. Without this backing, the ceremony becomes just that: a ceremony and perhaps little more.

If we live in a world of creative ceremonies, then we certainly live in a world of creative education, where synagogues and schools across our area are drawing on technology, art, culture, music, drama and language in altogether new ways. There is family education, peer-to-peer learning and a wide variety of informal Jewish education happening within our camps and youth groups. These educational opportunities lend meaning not only to Bar/Bat Mitzvah but to Jewish life, offering at least a chance at deep and lasting Jewish connections through time.

Finally, we must not forget that synagogues today, and certainly the one where I have the great privilege of being rabbi, are ready to work closely with the family to create a ceremony that is appropriate, meaningful and truly elevates the student. Some chant more, some less. Some lead the service outright, others don’t. Some services take place before a sprawling Shabbat crowd, others in the smaller confines of our library. Some mitzvah projects are grand and far-reaching, some are modest but no less powerful. I am proud to stand with colleagues who are working tirelessly to create rites of passage that resonate and work for and challenge our learners in the most pressing ways.

As we approach the beautiful and sacred spring festival of Pesach, I pray that we remember to stick together as we traverse our modern-day wilderness, always honor our sacred story and work as one to build a Jewish future that brings to the fore the very best of Jewish ideas.

Rabbi Benjamin David is the spiritual leader of Adath Emanu-El in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey.

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