Every so often, parents ask me if their child’s bar (or bat) mitzvah can take place at camp over the summer. Camp, they tell me, is the place where their child feels most connected to being Jewish. I always tell these parents how touched and honored I am that they would ask … and then I send them back to their congregation, because, at my core, I believe that bar mitzvah should take place within the embrace of family and community.
But here’s the challenge: for many of our kids, camp is their Jewish community. We are the place where they pull themselves up to the table of Judaism, explore their place in the world, and begin to build a deeper connection with the larger Jewish world. And we are the place where they really grow into young adults. Unfortunately, for too many of our kids this doesn’t happen as easily in synagogues; bar mitzvah, which many of our families see as the “capstone” of the religious school experience, is the test for which our kids have been cramming for years and years. And, just like most tests they take in middle school, they will forget much of it the next day. Why? Because while we expect them to stand on the bimah to “become an adult” by singing in a language they don’t understand, worrying about their voice cracking, and smiling nervously at their grandparents’ friends, many of them – appropriately for their age – are still being kids and thinking about who they will dance with at the party later that night. We are trying to get our kids to find meaning by doing things that we, as adults, find meaningful. And while this is a lovely idea, we all too often forget this most simple fact: they aren’t adults.
If we want bar mitzvah to be meaningful for our kids, we have to find ways for it to speak to them as kids (not only to us as adults): it must grow out of experiential learning, be based in a community of their peers, have age appropriate connections that are designed to be long-lasting, and maybe, just maybe, be fun. Imagine if these things (all of which exist in summer camp) were integral parts of the bar mitzvah experience, so kids could have a powerful experience similar to those they have at camp surrounded not only by their friends but also by their family and home community.
The goal of bar mitzvah is to turn kids into committed Jewish adults. Clearly, it’s not working as well as we’d like. On the other hand, camp does work; research shows that kids who go to Jewish summer camp have a stronger and deeper connection to the Jewish community than their non-camp-going peers. Knowing this, how can we re-imagine bar mitzvah to make sure it is – like camp – a transformative experience? How can we make sure our kids see bar mitzvah as just the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the Jewish community? And how can we use this ritual to welcome them into Jewish adulthood in a way that makes them want to be here?
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is Executive Director of Camp JRF.