Bar Mitzvahs Could Use a Makeover

In yesterday’s New York Times, Laurie Goodstein had an interesting article about how bar/bat mitzvahs were getting a “new look” of sorts because — can you believe it?! — a lot of young Jews would just go through the motions without really caring much about the teachings of the faith:

Children and their families go through what some rabbis call an “assembly line” that produces Jews schooled in little more than “pediatric Judaism,” an immature understanding of the faith, its values and spirituality. Most students deliver a short speech about the meaning of the Torah passage they were assigned to read, but they never really learn to understand or speak Hebrew, only to decode the text.

“I learned the tune and I had the phonetics in front of me, all in a laminated binder,” said [atheist] Jeff Berman, recalling his bar mitzvah years ago on Staten Island, “but honestly I could not tell you what it meant. I just knew it was important to my parents and grandparents for me to do.”

A study by Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, showed that more than a third of religious school students dropped out after the seventh grade, and 85 percent by the 12th grade.

The article didn’t surprise me because it fits perfectly into the narrative we’ve been hearing for so long — younger people are losing their faith in faith. They want to please their parents, so they’ll attend church or recite the memorized mantras or take the Communion wafer, all without ever really believing any of it. Bar/bat mitzvahs are no different. And once you’re done with it, the article notes, you often leave the synagogue for good… or, at least, until you have kids of your own.

The solution some Jewish leaders are proposing, though, makes a lot of sense:

… They want the children to spend less time learning Hebrew and memorizing prayers, and more time working as a group on sustained “social action” projects.

Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles has already been experimenting. Jordan Sachs-Amrami and his seventh-grade class voted to spend their b’nai mitzvah year working on the issue of hunger. They stocked shelves at a food pantry, cooked meals at a homeless shelter and interviewed experts about why hunger persists in a nation of plenty. During his bar mitzvah ceremony in 2012, Jordan dimmed the lights in the sanctuary and showed a video he made about what his group learned. Eight of the 10 students in his group are still in the temple’s religious school program.

I love this idea. Seriously. What’s important to realize is that you don’t have to be Jewish to go through this unique rite of passage. Any community — including atheist ones — can make it a tradition of their own, and it would be much more useful to society than memorizing a bunch of archaic verses from a holy book. It would teach the kids something much more valuable than faith and maybe even encourage them to pursue such projects in the future on a grander scale.

This whole idea could be implemented a lot more quickly, of course, if parents who didn’t really care much about their faith didn’t force their kids go through the same rituals. It just perpetuates an awful aspect of faith — doing things because others have always done it that way, regardless of how we feel personally.

Sure, there’s value in holding close to one’s Jewish identity, but as any Jew will tell you, there’s so much more to the faith than what happens on one special day when you turn 12 or 13.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.