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Bar/Bat Mitzvah: More Than a Service

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Some humorous soul once wrote this “traditional Jewish Haiku” to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah:      

Now I am a man.
Tomorrow I will go back
To the seventh grade.

It’s a funny age, 13. Certainly not an adult yet, but not really a kid anymore. Maybe that is why 13 is the age that Judaism has chosen to mark as a transition from childhood into adulthood: the moment in which one becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

In everyday speech, we tend to say “I had a Bar Mitzvah,” or “I got Bat Mitzvahed,” as though it is something you can put in your pocket, or something that someone else does to you. But it is neither. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a person: a responsible Jewish adult; a son or daughter of the commandments. In the traditional understanding, every Jew over the age of 13 is automatically a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. You don’t have to read from the Torah; you don’t have to lead a service; you don’t have be lifted in a chair or have your voice crack embarrassingly in front of your relatives. Simply by virtue of reaching the age of majority, you are understood to take on responsibility for your Jewish actions, and you are eligible to be called to the Torah and be counted in a minyan.

Which begs the question: If you are automatically counted as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah regardless, why do you need to do all that stuff? The answer is that technically, you don’t. But when kids reach the age at which they are empowered to participate as a leader in services, we want to celebrate with them by inviting them to do so. The “B’nai Mitzvah Service” is a relatively recent invention – an opportunity for young people to be surrounded by their community, and to conspicuously participate in congregational services for the first time in their new adult role.

That’s why I love Kol Ami’s congregational model of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Because we are such an active Shabbat morning community, our B’nai Mitzvah students stand on the bima surrounded by their family and friends, their Grade 7 classmates, amd by the congregational community that comes regularly to pray. By leading services in our sanctuary, they affirm that they are part of a Kehilah Kedoshah – a holy congregation built around prayer, study, community, and Tikkun Olam.

In the past two years, two of my own kids have become B’nai Mitzvah in our sanctuary, and both times I have been deeply moved not only by their own “performance” on the bima, but also by the outpouring of kindness and support from Kol Ami members. Our congregational kids all tend to feel that. Even when they feel a little overwhelmed by it (“Dad, who ARE all these people??”), they have a sense of being loved, and of being part of something special. We can be proud of that as a community.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah is so much more than a service. It is a moment of transition, of taking responsibility, and of community engagement. We are all B’nai Mitzvah (at least, those of us over the age of 13), and perhaps the most important mitzvah for which we are responsible is building a supportive, welcoming Jewish community.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

Fri, July 19 2019 16 Tammuz 5779