Judaism Your Way’s Open Tent B’nai Mitzvah program offers five different ways to celebrate a Bar/Bat Mitzvah: Traditional Service, Four Worlds/Service from the Inside Out, 13 Challenges, Research Project, and Storahtelling. Please read on to learn more!
In the context of a worship service, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah recites blessings over the reading of the Torah, reads/chants a part of the Torah, gives a teaching talk based on the part of the Torah that was just read, and may also lead parts of the service.
Here’s why: The core narrative of Jewish spiritual identity is the story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt that is celebrated at Passover. The story does not end with the attainment of freedom, but continues as the people figure out how to live and thrive in freedom in the wilderness. That’s why, barely two months after crossing the Reed Sea, the people journeyed to Mount Sinai. Moses climbed to the top of the mountain and came down with the Torah, which he read and interpreted for the people. The Torah that Moses received and taught were our people’s first guidelines on how to live in freedom.
Every time a Jewish community has a Torah reading during a worship service, it is re-enacting that ancient narrative. And when a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is reading the Torah, she or he is participating in that narrative for the first time. In fact, in the communal re- enactment of the giving of the Torah through Moses at Mt. Sinai, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is playing the role of Moses!
In a sense, the Exodus to Sinai narrative parallels the coming-of-age experience for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. When our ancestors came out of Egypt, none of them, except for Moses, had any experience of being free. All they had known was slavery, where they were told what to do and when to do it. Now, in the wilderness, they needed to learn to make decisions for themselves.
Similarly, when a young person comes of age, they are emerging from a stage of life when their parents determined most of what they were to do. But now, as adolescents, they will be dealing with more and more freedom to choose and more and more responsibility for their choices. Just as receiving the Torah helped our ancestors move into this new experience of freedom, so too is the process of preparing for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony an opportunity for the young person to practice their new found responsibilities and freedoms.
Note: To accomplish this, a student will need to master sufficient Hebrew to be able to read a selected number of prayers and blessings as well as read from the Torah scroll. This generally involves working intensively with a private tutor. We are happy to recommend several tutors.
Four Worlds/ Service from the Inside Out
In the first chapter of the first book of the Torah, as the story of the creation of the universe unfolds, we are told that the human being was created in the Divine image. Many interpretations have been given about what it could possibly mean for people to have been created in the image of that which has no image. One teaching takes the Hebrew letters that make up the divine name – י ה ו ה – and writes them vertically, like this
so that the four letters of the Divine name look like a human being (head, shoulders & arms, spine, hips and legs). The ancient rabbis inferred from this that if the divine name had fours letters, and if the human being was created in the divine image, then the human being should have four dimensions, which the ancient rabbis identified as (from the bottom up): physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
In this option, the young person begins by pursuing an in-depth exploration of themselves in all four dimensions:
- Physical – What do they like to do? What are they physically good at? What are their physical challenges?
- Emotional – What’s their emotional temperament? What kind of people attract them and are attracted to them? What makes them sad or upset? If they are sad or upset, how do they take care of themselves?
- Intellectual – What do they like to think about? What do they know is true? And why? What do they believe about the big questions?
- Intuitive/Spiritual – In what ways do they get beyond themselves? How do they make the world a better place? In what ways are they part of something that’s bigger than themselves?
We then take what the student has developed and find Jewish stories, teaching texts, and prayers that in some way correspond to the themes the student has named. These become the texts for the service that the student will lead.
The result is a service that may or may not correspond to the components of a traditional service. But in either case, instead of something external that is handed to the student to learn, this service is something that grows out of the individuality of the student. We refer to it as Jewish tradition “from the inside out.” Accordingly, the student’s experience of Jewish spirituality is of something that corresponds to who the student is, not just something that’s handed down as a tradition.
Many years ago, when Rabbi Brian was visiting a kibbutz in Israel, he witnessed a secular model for Jewishly celebrating the coming of age of a young person. Because most kibbutzim were founded on an idealist combination of socialism and Zionsim, the inhabitants held a secular orientation to Judaism.
The ceremony consisted of the community gathering to celebrate 13 separate challenges that the young person had accomplished over the previous year. These challenges ranged from demonstrations of caring for other people and animals, tasks that demonstrated the young person’s maturity and ability to accept responsibility, projects that showed the young person’s unique talents and abilities, and opportunities for the young person to share their own perspectives on a subject of interest. Together with parents and teachers, the young person shared what they had accomplished. The different presentations were tied together with communal readings and songs.
Imagine a young person looking back over the course of the previous year and reflecting on all the things he or she had learned, the skills she or he had mastered, the challenges he or she had overcome, the fears she or he had conquered. What a concrete demonstration of coming of age that would be!
If a student chooses this option, they need to propose thirteen challenges to accomplish and a timeline for completing them. There is no limit to the kind of activities and projects that they can take on, but at least some have to have some explicit Jewish connection.
In addition to the challenges themselves, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah needs to create some kind of oral or written reflection on the experience of choosing and accomplishing what they set out to do. Here are some possible questions: What was it like? Logistically, what did it take? What did you learn about the challenges ? What did you learn about yourself?
During most of the twentieth century, the American Jewish community was filled with secular Jewish schools in addition to the religious and Hebrew schools associated with synagogues. In lieu of learning to read from the Torah, these communities celebrated the coming of age of their young people by assigning them a research project on some aspect of the Jewish experience – history, poetry, the arts, cultural diversity, Israel.
Although most of the secular Jewish schools have disappeared, there are still many Jewish families with a secular approach to Jewishness. Accordingly, we’re happy to offer the option to students of taking on a research project as a part of their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The project needs to be a significant piece of work, equivalent in scope to learning to read from the Torah. It does not need to be in written form but it needs to be presented as the focus of the ceremony and celebration.
In this option, the student learns an engaging way to think about and translate Torah verses. Students can create their own contemporary translation of Torah verses and incorporate elements of stagecraft that prompt a meaningful and lively conversation with participants at their B’nai Mitzvah.
All of the above!
Each of these five options have been presented as separate. However, there is no reason why elements of each of them can’t be combined in some way. For example, one of the 13 Challenges could be to learn to read the Torah. A research project could involve religious themes. A traditional service could incorporate alternative activities.
B’nai Mitzvah ceremony fees:
The fee for the planning and officiation of a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony is between $2,000-$3,500 depending upon which mentoring option is selected*. Ceremonies outside of the Denver metro area (ranging from Parker to Boulder) will also include the following fees based on location:
- An additional $50 charge per hour of travel time
- Mountains: $200
- Out of state: $1500 + family pays for air fare, car rental, meals, hotel for a minimum of 3 days
- Israel and other locations outside the US: $5000 + family pays for air fare, car rental, meals, hotel for a minimum of 3 days. After three days, the family and rabbi can agree to additional meals/transportation costs on an individual basis.
*No one will be turned away for lack of funds. Payment plans or reduced rates can be arranged. Please contact Sierra Shaffer at email@example.com or 303-320-6185 for more information.