He was terrified. I mean really scared. As I stood next to him on the bimah, in front of his family and the rest of the congregation, I congratulated him on what a great job he was doing, trying to get him to smile. He looked at me and said, “I’m nervous. I’m really nervous”. As his eyes filled with tears, I told him that he was allowed to be nervous, but that he should remember that he was in a room full of people who loved him. As I returned to my seat I felt myself go back in time. I recalled the moment when another 13-year-old boy stood on another bimah. He had been so scared that morning he couldn’t eat breakfast. So, on that Shabbat morning, before the Shema, he turned to Mr. Cohen, the Temple president, who was standing next to him, and said “I think I’m going to throw up”. As I began to collapse on the bimah, just before I fainted dead away, I saw my father move faster then I’d ever seen him move before, leaping up the stairs, zipping past the shtender, to catch me. As I remembered my moment of terror, all those years ago, when I became a bar mitzvah, I looked at Jacob, and thought to myself that no one should go through this torture.
Rabbi Bradley Solmsen has written that in our tradition “bar and bat mitzvah is not something that just happens TO us, but an event that requires the bar or bat mitzvah to take an active role.” Of course he’s right, but the reality of the bar/bat mitzvah tradition is that it is a rite of passage that has for many become a trial, filled with pain, anxiety and yes, sometimes torment, not only for the young boy or girl who is about to go through the ceremony but for parents, and caregivers, who are concerned not only that their child succeeds, but that the party goes well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard mothers of a bat-mitzvah stress over finding a DJ or the right color tablecloths. There’s something tragic about this. As a Jewish educator I’ve seen kids put themselves under so much pressure just to master this blessing or that piece of text or melody, that they shut down. That’s not the point of becoming a bar-mitzvah. When a kid is stressed out about “her big day”, well, she’s not BECOMING a bat-mitzvah; she’s HAVING a bat-mitzvah, in the same sense of having root canal.
As we move forward, let’s explore how we can help our young people experience becoming a bar mitzvah as the beginning of the process of becoming an adult. Yes, there is a ritual that needs to be mastered, but part of bar mitzvah tutoring can include conversations (with caregivers/parents as well as with the child) about what it means to grow into oneself; and how we learn from our mistakes, and why we shouldn’t be afraid of failure. Let’s help our bat mitzvah student AND her family engage in learning how to take ownership of a path that will lead, to a sense of responsibility and self-fulfillment.
The Talmud teaches us that it’s the obligation of parents to teach their children how to swim. Maybe the bar/bat mitzvah industry can be reframed as swimming lessons for pre-teens and their parents. Not only would the kids begin to learn what it means to take ownership over their actions: parents would learn how to let go. If we can succeed in converting the trial by fire bar-mitzvah phenomenon into a rite filled with celebration, a true “coming of age” event, then perhaps the Jewish future would be strengthened by a generation of kids who remember how their journeys into adulthood began not with stress, or fear, or nausea, but by joy.
Peter Eckstein is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens, FL and is the Technology Integration Educator for the Commission for Jewish Education in West Palm Beach, FL. Having earned his Masters in Elementary Education from Nova Southeastern University and in Jewish Education from Hebrew College, Peter also has a Certificate in Education Technology Integration, from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and is currently enrolled in a Certificate in Online and Blended Learning Design program, also with YU. He has the title Reform Jewish Educator (RJE) from the Reform Movement and Conservative Jewish Educator (CJE) from the Conservative Movement.
He tweets as @redmenace56 and blogs as The Fifth Child at http://jcastnetwork.org/5thchild