The most basic understand of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is that the child is now being counted as a full fledged member of an adult Jewish community. Theoretically this comes with many new responsibilities for keeping mitzvot, but really is defined by how the community treats this person differently than they did previously. There’s a service, a party, potentially aliyot for all the teenagers who have had a bar or bat mitzvah, but do these young adults really shift their standing in our communities? How do we model in real life what we are saying this rite of passage is all about?To start, I have a bone to pick about the word community. I nominate this word as the most grossly overused and devoid-of-meaning noun in the Jewish vernacular. It’s used to mean all Jews who ever lived throughout time and space, down to the few families I actually know really well in my town. We use it to mean “all the people who have signed a paper and pay dues to this particular synagogue” as well as “all the Jews who live within the boundaries of this particular city, state or country”.
What do we really mean by community? After dissecting many smart philosophers, sociologists, theologians and friends, I’ll boil it down to this: A group of people who feel mutual responsibility for one another. It’s a network of relationships (everyone knows some people well, but maybe no one knows everyone well) that share values and a sense of responsibility for each other individually, and for the group (which may have fuzzy boundaries) as a whole.
When you’re young, parents and community are responsible for your well being and nurturing, without expecting much in return. It is not a reciprocal responsibility for one another. But when you become a bat or bat mitzvah, your position in the community changes. Yes, you now have more responsibility for yourself, for others, and for the community as a whole. But along with these additional responsibilities also come additional privileges. How do we model this for our young adults?
To answer that question, we need to ask, ‘what does community mean to teenagers today?’ In a global, connected, empowered world, these young people build their multi-faceted identities in very different ways than most of us have throughout our lives. Thus, the ways in which they feel part of a community is incredibly important. It’s almost definitely radically different than the ways any member of an older generation thinks and feels. In order to embrace them as an adult member of our community, we need to design for how they experience this sense of belonging, privilege, and responsibility. Millennials and Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012, potentially also known as the Pluralist Generation) are growing up in a society that has no dominant race, media, or family unit. Thus, their identification with a specific community requires much more attention, intentional design and, above all, authenticity.
Thus, I challenge us to think deeply about what community really means in your synagogue, and among your network. How do we convey this to those coming of age, and how do we model it, live it, not just give it lip service? What privileges do we give teenagers in our communities? How do we include them, listen to them, empower them? Are teens invited to present their perspectives and ideas at meetings, and to have a voice in the governance of the community? Are other members of the community watching out for them in times of need? What’s mutual about the relationship?
I encourage you to read up on Generation Z. They are not the future. They are the now. And as they approach bnai mitzvah, we have a chance to embrace them with the opportunities, expectations and connections of real community.
Lisa Colton is the Chief Learning Officer for See3 Communications, and the Founder and President of Darim Online. She learn two important live lessons during the preparation for and experience of becoming a bat mitzvah: learning a solid handshake from her first meeting with the rabbi, and her first experience in public speaking in front of a large crowd.