The answer is A! Honest to God, with a little extra effort and a rabbi with some creativity, it’s not that hard to make a Bar/Bat Mitzvah a meaningful milestone that isn’t a gaudy mess. It always makes us sad when we hear 30-year-olds say that the last Jewish thing they did was at their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Clearly, those experiences were not very meaningful because if they were, they wouldn’t have been the last Jewish thing the person ever did. First, let’s get the terms straight. Bar Mitzvahs are for boys and Bat Mitzvahs are for girls. (In Hebrew, bar means son, bat means daughter, and mitzvah means commandment.) A Bar/Bat Mitzvah marks the transition from childhood to adulthood in the Jewish community, meaning they can fast on the High Holidays, become part of a minyan, etc. This actually happens automatically when a boy becomes 13 and a girl becomes 12, which is kind of ridiculous when you look at the maturity of most kids that age. But what can you do? Tradition. Fun fact: Girls only started having Bat Mitzvahs in the 1960s. And for many years, their Bat Mitzvahs were held on Friday nights, when the Torah wasn’t read. This letter was written by Paula Gottesman (Archie’s mom) when she wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah for her daughter, Sally. Way to go, Paula!
We're not The People of the Book for nothing.
Today’s Bar/Bat Mitzvahs have a not-altogether-undeserved bad rap, especially in the U.S., because in many cases, so much focus is placed on the party, the clothes, the food, the entertainment, the theme, and all of that, that the spiritual side gets eclipsed. We get it. A lot of our kids don’t feel connected to Judaism, and a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is indeed something to be celebrated. But arriving at the party in a helicopter, or booking Bruno Mars? Hell no. It wasn’t all that long ago that a typical Bar/Bat Mitzvah was celebrated by the rabbi calling the kid up to the Torah to do an Aliyah during services on a Saturday morning, or sometimes on a weekday. (The Torah is read on Mondays and Thursdays too in some congregations.) This was generally followed by sponge cake and herring. No one knows, or will admit to knowing when it began, but some people say the bigger Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties date back to the 1930s. At some point the celebration and price tag began to snowball. (Not all Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties are over the top, but don’t pretend like you don’t know what we mean.) You may still hire a DJ who is too loud and a dance team that’s too perky, because sometimes it’s hard to stop a tsunami (aka your daughter), but you can still have a service that is meaningful.
Does the laser light show entrance really set the right tone? Um, we're gonna go with nope.
If your kids are young, and you’re considering joining a synagogue, try to attend a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service at a few places before you decide. If three kids are having a Bar/Bat Mitzvah on the same day at one synagogue, it probably has a vibrant and healthy Jewish community, which is good, but also don’t expect your child to have an intimate, personal Bar/Bat Mitzvah when the time comes. Unless it’s already too late, try not to wait until your child is in fifth or sixth grade to join a synagogue. For one thing, when your kid is a third grader, he or she will admire the big kids in seventh grade having their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and get excited about their turn. Also, all the kids in the class will likely have Bar/Bat Mitzvahs the same year, which means a lot of parties and in general, a fun year, especially if you know the kids. Plus, on the more practical side, almost all Bar/Bat Mitzvahs in the U.S. require at least some Hebrew, which takes time and practice, so it’s good for your kid to get an early start. Either way, your kid is probably going to need to work with a Hebrew tutor, just so you know. If your family belongs to a synagogue, you’re likely to get your child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah date a year or more in advance. Although a rabbi from a synagogue is the most common ceremony leader, there are other options, such as summer camp rabbis and professional celebrants, who focus on doing both the tutoring and the service. In that case, the ceremony might take place outside the synagogue.
Synagogue or no, your kid is going to need a tutor for the Hebrew. Trust us on this one.
If you’re having the Bar/Bat Mitzvah in a synagogue, it’s a lot like a regular Saturday morning service with some extra. At most synagogues, there is a service held every Shabbat (Saturday) morning, usually at 9:30 or 10 in the morning. The service is about two hours long, but depending on the denomination and synagogue, it could be a little shorter or longer. If you’ve never been to a Saturday morning service, we have a whole section on that. Below are the extra parts that usually take place during a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
The service is always more special when loved ones play a role. For instance, many families honor relatives by calling them up to read or chant an Aliyah (more on that here), or lift or “dress” the Torah. Lots of people also add readings or blessings (like the ones found in the reading section below). Many rabbis are particular about how many readings can get added to the basic Shabbat service, so be sure to discuss it in advance.
OK, let's memorize a paragraph in a language we don't speak. Sound like fun?
Teaching philanthropy and social justice to a teen, can be a lifelong lesson that frankly makes this whole Bar/Bat Mitzvah thing worth the effort. Teens who do a mitzvah project commit to doing good work in the world, and when they’re successful, it’s a BFD that can set the course for a lifetime. These projects are considered an act of tzedakah or tikkun olam and can include organizing a fundraising event or taking on a long-term community service project. They can also be done more simply, such as collecting supplies for a local shelter or food pantry. JewBelong opinion alert: Since Jews make up less than half a percent of the world’s population, and we’re pretty much the only ones supporting Jewish causes, we suggest choosing a Jewish organization to support. Sometimes kids choose two causes, like a local animal shelter and a dog shelter in Israel.
We like tigers and elephants. But Holocaust survivors could use a little help too.
This is the case for most families anyway. This includes everything from God, to budget, to how to include a non-Jewish parent or family member. Our advice is to be aware of these potential landmines and work your way through them the best that you can. Sometimes these conversations air pent-up feelings, which isn’t easy but can be a good thing! Three biggies that might come up (if they haven’t already):
The good thing about Bar/Bat mitzvahs is that they bring family together. That's also THE BAD NEWS.
One alternative that’s increasingly popular among secular families is for the teen to focus on a social action effort or mitzvah project rather than on the Torah reading. The teen presents the work during or in lieu of a religious ceremony. This can be just as meaningful for families who want to integrate their children into the Jewish community in a meaningful and memorable way (see JB opinion alert above) but aren’t so big on the services part. Other families choose to go to Israel to celebrate, taking part in a group Bar/Bat Mitzvah with other teens and their families. Bottom line is that you don’t need to believe in God to create a meaningful and memorable rite of passage for your child.
Maybe your God is just great knishes and funny stories from your grandmother.
During this moving ritual, family members and loved ones stand side-by-side and pass the Torah down to the Bat Mitzvah to welcome them into the chain of Jewish tradition. The Torah is typically passed from one generation to the next and ends up in the arms of the child who is having the Bat Mitzvah. And then everyone reaches for a tissue because it was so sweet to watch.
First line: The Torah and our Jewish traditions have been stewarded for thousands of years. Last line: Feel the love that we give you now and draw strength that you will someday pass to those who will come after you. Amen…
During this moving ritual, family members and loved ones stand side-by-side and pass the Torah down to the Bar Mitzvah to welcome them into the chain of Jewish tradition. The Torah is typically passed from one generation to the next and ends up in the arms of the child who is having the Bar Mitzvah. And then everyone reaches for a tissue because it was so sweet to watch.
First line: Rabbi will read as the generations take the Torah and pass it to each other – Grandparents, Parents, Bar Mitzvah. Last line: (Name of Bar Mitzvah here) revere the Torah and cherish its teachings and one day you will have the privilege and honor of handing it down to a new generation…
The blessing recited over wine or grape juice. Some families just do the first line (up to “Amen”) and others do the full blessing. As always, do whatever feels right to you!
First line: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei p’ree hagafen. Amen. Last line: Blessed are You, God, Spirit of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. Amen…
Your whole family is coming for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Every damn one of them.
So here is the thing, half of the Jewish families that we know are headed by a couple where one of them is not Jewish. And we think eureka! That is great! Why isn’t there a blessing for that person who is not Jewish but participating in a Jewish home/life! And… there is! And we love it and hope you do too!
First line: May everyone who shares in a Jewish life feel welcome and integrated. Last line: With all our hearts, we want to thank you for your love and willingness in giving the ultimate gift to the Jewish people. Amen…
So much of Jewish practice revolves around having a strong, loving community. So, we decided we needed to have a blessing for our friends and community. If you think the part asking people to hold hands won’t fly with your group, just edit out the second line. But you should push yourself to leave it in. People love that stuff.
First line: Here with you our friends, we feel so greatly blessed. Last line: May we always remember the exquisite value of friendship and community and be good friends in return. Amen…
Shel Silverstein is the guy who wrote The Giving Tree and other perfection. This is one of his beauties for sure.
First line: Listen to the mustn’ts, child, listen to the don’ts. Last line: Anything can happen child, anything can be…
Our Jewish foremothers are each known for their unique strengths – Eve’s fortitude, Rachel’s compassion and Deborah’s self-esteem – to name a few. This reading calls on each Jewish daughter to look to her foremothers for inspiration and wisdom.
First line: We hope that this child draws inspiration from the examples of her foremothers. Last line: And from Ya’el the courage to do what she knows she must do…
Don't miss JewBelong's blessing for non-Jews . It's beautiful and important!
This song is the perfect tearjerker to share at any happy Jewish occasion. L’chi Lach essentially means “go into yourself” in Hebrew. The lyrics tell those that are being celebrated to go begin the life journey they are meant to have, and to be a blessing in the world, which is essentially the journey all Jewish people are meant to have.
First line: L’chi lach, to a land that I will show you. Last line: L’chi lach…
Don't miss this song! Some synagogues don't include musical instruments but honestly, you don't need them.
Why make an account and save your favorite JewBelong stuff? Because someday Jack is going to get off his ass and pop the question and you’re going to get to plan that wedding you've been thinking about since third grade.
It makes us happy to know that you’re back. Have a great day!
Because why use any of your precious brain cells to remember where you kept those great readings that you’ll use someday at Jeffrey’s B Mitzvah? Make an account, keep the readings there. Easy peasy. The only thing you’ll need to remember is your password, and from personal experience that’s hard enough.
Hey, can you watch the phones on Friday? We have a thing.