It’s no secret that many of us who have reached the age of Jewish majority mourn the “problem” of b’nai mitzvah: its lack of meaning and its failure to engage young people in the Jewish community. But what if the problem isn’t b’nai mitzvah? What if what’s to blame isn’t the ceremony or the materialism or even the diverse needs of the young Jews who undertake this important right of passage? What if the problem is us?
As much as b’nai mitzvah is about the coming of age of young Jews, it is also about us. The community. The “grown-ups,” the elders. It is about our ability and intention to recognize this moment in young people’s lives, bear witness to who they are now, and celebrate the possibilities of who they will one day be. My question, similar to one David Bryfman posed to me last week, is “how?” How do we recognize tweens and teens for the talents, accomplishments, and identities they have now while simultaneously creating opportunities for them to grow into their new roles as our equals and even our leaders?
In the short time we have been exploring this question at the Jewish Women’s Archive, we have uncovered a few possible answers. Through both MyBatMitzvahStory and Living the Legacy, we engage young Jews with role models. Using real-life stories and first person accounts of historical and contemporary Jews, teens are able to explore the big questions of adulthood—Who will I be? What will my impact be on the world?—through an American Jewish lens. It is history, (in addition to Torah study, ritual, and tikkun olam), that provides relatable, insightful, and concrete examples of what being and doing Jewish in 21st century America can look like.
But role models aren’t enough on their own. It is up to us adults to inspire young people to grow, to nurture their curiosity, and to give them opportunities to engage with us as equals. JWA encourages adults and kids alike to use oral history as a tool for facilitating this process. When young people conduct interviews with older relatives and community members, they discover their own heritage and traditions. They also break the ice for creating even more intergenerational conversations that continue beyond the curricular goals of b’nai mitzvah preparation. Most importantly, oral history interviews allow young people to set their own agenda, to ask important questions, and create opportunities for us to honor them with honest, personal answers.
These exchanges foster an exploration of history, values, and experiences that encourage young Jews to see themselves in a new way—as members of a Tribe and actors on a continuum of Jewish life. As adult Jews who share our stories, we demonstrate to young people that we trust them with our legacy, we feel privileged to share our lives with them, and we come to understand how we have shaped them, and they us. Using interviews as a catalyst, adults set a clear expectation: We want to tell our stories, and we want to know yours, too.
What happens on the bima during a bar or bat mitzvah is certainly important and momentous, but the close of the ceremony marks more than the end of a process toward a singular goal. It also marks the beginning of a new process, in which the conversations young Jews have with their elders serve as the basis for the exploration of what it means to be a part of the Jewish community beyond the classroom or synagogue. We grown-ups can welcome young people into adulthood by answering their questions, sharing our stories, and then supporting them as they try to figure out what it all means. It’s up to us to share how we have struggled (and still struggle) to understand our place in the community, and to help the next generation of Jews discover for themselves what becoming a Jewish adult is all about.
Etta King currently works as the Education Program Manager at the Jewish Women’s Archive. A graduate of Brandeis University and Habonim Dror North America, she combines her passions for storytelling, learning, and community building by helping educators bring Jewish values, culture, and history alive through primary sources. Etta also teaches about nature, improvisational theater, and Israeli dance.