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Bar and Bat Mitzvahs: What’s the Point?

We’ve all been privy to the articles and videos that illustrate the utter emptiness of the typical American bar and bat mitzvah. The extravagant parties (check out this $1 million dollar soiree at the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel with Cirque du Soleil), the lavish celebration and adulation of the ignorant and puffed-up pre-teen…makes you want to run away from the whole business called “being Jewish.” Yuck!

Of course those parties are on the extreme end, and most of us who exist in the middle somewhere don’t even know people who lavish bat mitzvahconduct themselves in this way, but the whole phenomenon is still worth our attention. We are indeed watching a running away of sorts. The Pew Report published last October states clearly that the retention rate of young Jews is dismally low. They’re just not interested, and would rather put their passions into almost anything except their Jewish identity. Young American Jewish students are even offered free trips to Israel and often don’t take the opportunity.

Something is off, and something has to change.

I believe that change begins with the recognition that in every single Jewish person there exists a pintele Yid, a pilot light inside of every one of us that craves meaning, purpose and a connection to a Judaism that has depth, relevance to our lives and absolute integrity.

If you light that pilot light with exposure to meaningful and authentic Judaism, you will discover unbelievable passion and commitment. If you don’t light it, either through inaction or exposure to a Judaism that is filled with holes and hypocrisy, that light will become buried with layers of apathy, disinterest and even disdain.

We’re at a crossroads. If we choose substance and meaning, we will prosper. If we choose the superficial veneer, we will die on the vine.

Even more grounded and well-meaning parents with a solid Jewish identity must be honest with themselves. They too fall into the trap of focusing on externals. If we praise a child for standing at the bimah and chanting the Torah and Haftorah (after all, they’ve worked so hard!), but they don’t understand or attempt to live according to the words they’ve just chanted, what message are we sending them? How would you feel if your spouse read you a love poem in a language he doesn’t know? Would you take his words seriously? Would you praise him for taking hours to memorize the meaningless poem, or would you gently let him know that his sincerity is what you really crave?

Taking the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Experience a Step Further:

The bar and bat mitzvah is an incredible opportunity to shape a love and appreciation for Judaism as our children enter into Jewish adulthood. But that opportunity will only exist if we are modelling it in our own lives. If we prioritize a Judaism that is authentic, if we ourselves make learning and personal growth a priority, if we show our children that we are capable of choosing meaning and commitment over personal comfort and ease, we will send the message that living Jewish is the most meaningful choice we could make.

Next Sunday, we are celebrating the first graduating class of the Bat Mitzvah Experience, a program I started with two good friends that empowers bat mitzvah age girls with a deep sense of what it means to embrace Jewish adulthood (to find out more information about the BME, click here).

I have been so amazed by these girls. They’re cute and fun and always walk in giggling with their friends, like typical twelve-year-old girls. But the minute we start talking about what Judaism has to say about the most important issues they face in their lives, they connect in a totally different way. I suppose it’s that pilot light I talked about. They are deep, they have so many thoughts and insights, they are curious and thoughtful. These girls understand that a bat mitzvah isn’t something they have, it’s something they become for the rest of their lives, and that comes with tremendous responsibility and commitment.

Self-esteem. Body and soul. Making choices. Beauty and the pressure to look good. Real friendship. Being your own person. Navigating social media and peer pressure. Respecting other people. Living with gratitude. The power of our words. These are all topics we’ve discussed from the lens of our amazing Jewish tradition. I know that as these girls receive their certificates next week they are entering their twelfth year of life with the understanding that Judaism is alive, relevant and can inform their most important life choices.

The results of the Pew Report won’t disappear in a day. But committing ourselves to prioritizing our Judaism and living our Jewish lives with integrity, joy and authenticity allows us to model something sustainable to our children. Although it doesn’t always seem this way, we can be confident that living truthfully and meaningfully is what our children will ultimately respond to, and there’s no need for Cirque du Soleil at the Plaza Hotel.

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Posted on: Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Author: Ali Begoun
About: Ali is a longtime Jewish educator and popular life and relationships coach. Anyone who has learned with Ali will testify to her warm and connective style and her ability to make Judaism relatable and relevant to our personal lives. Ali teaches a wide array of Jewish topics, but her primary focus is on the Jewish approach to self esteem, personal growth, women’s issues and relationships. In addition to her popular classes, Ali also offers private life coaching sessions, personal growth groups for Jewish women, a Bat Mitzvah club for girls and an upcoming fully subsidized trip to Israel in October, 2014. Ali and Rabbi David are the proud parents of Chana, Talia, Aryeh Leib, Eliezer and Yosef.

2 Responses

  1. Uncle Arthur says:

    There is an old Bronx saying: spend your money on a Bar Mitzvah. Unlike a wedding, a Bar Mitzvah is forever.

    • Rabbi David says:

      Unfortunately, your words have an ironic truth to them. This is why we need to learn the Jewish views on marriage and incorporate them into our lives as much as possible. Too bad you don’t live in Chicago or I would make you come to my marriage workshops…

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