Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a Beginning not an End

At JOI, we have long been looking for ways to provide access to Jewish rituals like bar and bat mitzvah to those who may not be on the traditional “track” of Jewish education and affiliation. A recent article in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, “Congregations, Rabbis Try to Stop the ‘Big Day’ from Becoming the Last Day,” discusses different approaches to attracting and retaining children both before and after bar/bat mitzvah. Our joint initiative with STAR is discussed:

Nationally, the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), in partnership with STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), is conducting a pilot program, “Call Synagogue Home,” in the West San Fernando Valley. Participating synagogues take part in a one-day seminar, which focuses on creating a connection with interfaith families around life-cycle events, including b’nai mitzvah.

“We are using life-cycle events, both traditional and nontraditional, to nurture and develop relationships with interfaith families and children,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the institute’s executive director. “We help congregations to see where they can say yes, as opposed to focusing on where they have to say no.” … JOI has prepared a manual about b’nai mitzvah that explains how rabbis might tackle typical problems that come up for interfaith or unaffiliated families.

One of JOI’s recommendations is a more flexible residency requirement. “We help congregations recognize that there are going to be families who don’t approach a synagogue until close to the bar or bat mitzvah,” Olitzky said. “They don’t recognize that many synagogues have a schedule that chooses dates three years in advance and religious schools that require several years of preparation and commitment.”

If a three-year commitment is what the synagogue is looking for, he suggested, then perhaps the clergy should ask people to commit for the three years after the ceremony, rather than before.

The program helps rabbis separate issues of Jewish law from those of synagogue culture, for example, where a non-Jewish parent can stand on the bimah, who can handle the Torah, who can be involved in a ceremony to pass the Torah across generations or parental blessings that do not include formulas about chosenness. “We don’t want to force synagogues to do things that are beyond their set of principles or guidelines, but we want to stretch them to their comfort level,” Olitzky said.

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