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.

  • b s

    I smell the next hit on the History Channel! (or weather channel, or science channel, or any other completely unrelated channel).

  • cipher

    It’s called “tikkun olam” – “repairing the world” – and it’s become an important facet of liberal Judaism over the past few decades. In recent years, some of the Modern Orthodox have adopted the outlook as well.

    Naturally, the ultra-Orthodox think it’s a lot of nonsense.

    • Spuddie

      Naturally, the ultra-Orthodox think it’s a lot of nonsense

      Because there would be an obligation to give to others outside their communities instead of being on the receiving end.

  • Cyanmoon1

    This was totally me: I had several years of admittedly very relaxed Reform Hebrew school culminating in a bat mitzvah; I literally never went back after the day of the ceremony. Honestly, if there had been more class cohesion through things like volunteer projects I might have kept going out of a sense of community and belonging. But I can’t say I’m sorry how things turned out.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Mainline Christians have the same phenomenon in which parents have their children confirmed at about the same age as a bar-mitzvah and then they don’t go to church again until their wedding day. Of course the Jewish tradition includes a far better party and much bigger presents so who would pass that up?

  • Michael Harrison

    I watched a movie once, Keeping Up with the Steins, about a kid’s bar mitzvah; I was struck with how beautiful the reading of the Torah was, to the point that I felt a little angry about how the poetry was translated out of it in the making of the Bible. But, as the practice of sati in Hinduism made me realize, the beauty of a religion cannot be separated from dogmatized horrors.

    • Malcolm McLean

      Poetry is what gets lost in translation.

  • AskAnAtheistBecky

    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.

    . The International Baccalaureate program has the 10th grade personal project and the Diploma Program’s CAS requirement (Creativity, Action, and Service) that are kind of reflective of this, and our students *definitely* see completion as a rite of passage. Part of the curriculum also involves a semester course on epistemology. The program is rigorous as all hell, but pretty amazing when done well.

    • Liam

      I concur; I received the IB Diploma in 2003. Last year, the school board back home tried to axe the program from my alma mater. The alumni reaction was legendary, and the vote went from about 10-6 to cut the program to 15-1 to keep it.

  • Amor DeCosmos

    I remember my Communion classes at the Lutheran church. Boooooring, but there were some cute girls from my high school who went so… I learned to repeat by rote and tell the pastor what I thought he wanted to hear, and I took my first communion, and I never went back… but I did end up going out with half of the girls I met in the class ;)

    • katiehippie

      I wish there had been cute guys in my Lutheran communion classes. I had the one guy who was related to me and the other guy that has now been in jail for drugs.

  • EvolutionKills

    Tradition: A terrible reason to continue moving through the motions.

    • Intelligent Donkey

      Tradition: Doing weird shit for no apparent good reason.

      You’d think that if there was a good reason for doing it, they’d do it for that reason, and not just call it tradition.

      “We’ve always done it that way.”

      “Why?”

      Relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFhSAcnXjFY

  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

    I think its great what they have done in L.A., but it still is going through the motions and with that I have a problem. The kids should choose to do it in the first place and not to please mum and dad.

  • Robster

    My mother told me in 1967 that bar mitzvah was the place jewish people went to get drunk and have a dance. I really believed her. I think I prefer that to the ritual’s real meaning.

    • Agni Ashwin

      And a bat mitzvah is that most rare species of bat that is actually kosher.

  • DavidMHart

    I am curious how it comes about that the religion that has the best hats (see: homburg, shtreimel) also has the worst hats (see: yarmulke, tefillin). I suspect that they could at least retain a few more youngsters by not making them wear those tefillin at the bar mitzvah.

    I know I’d go a long way to avoid having to wear a leather box on my forehead that contains a piece of parchment that instructs me to wear a leather box on my forehead that contains a piece of parchment that instructs me to wear a leather box on my forehead that contains a piece of parchment that instructs me to…

  • Anna

    I read the article when it was the newspaper the other day, and it just struck me as the typical promotion of faith that you see everywhere in the mainstream media. The point seemed to be that not only is the ritual important, but that kids should participate in it on a more “meaningful” level, which is of course, code for spiritual or religious.

    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.

    Maybe there’s value in the identity (or maybe not), but is there is any value to the accompanying rituals? We don’t encourage non-religious parents from Christian backgrounds to baptize their children or make them go through confirmation. If you don’t believe in a religion, participating in a religious ritual is dodgy at best.

    Also don’t forget that Jewish people are susceptible to conversion into more extreme forms of religion, too. Teaching your kids to find value in a Jewish religious identity (as opposed to a cultural one) leaves them easy prey for those who seek to convert secular Jews to orthodoxy.

  • C.Dude

    I’ve always liked how Humanistic Judaism handles this. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is done as research project. Much more relevant.

  • Tyler

    “It just perpetuates an awful aspect of faith — doing things because others have always done it that way, regardless of how we feel personally.” I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to faith, nor is it so much of a problem as we might think. We send our kids to school to learn even though they may not personally feel like the subject matter has any value. We do so because we as parents — and we as a society as a whole — believe that it is important for children to know these subjects in order to be well-rounded human beings who can positively contribute to their communities. I know plenty of children who would gladly skip algebra through calculus because they don’t personally feel connected to the subject matter or because they don’t believe that these levels of math have much value in their everyday lives. I know several kids who would rather play video games or spend hours texting than read Hamlet or To Kill a Mockingbird and write essays about them. To them we say, “These are valuable stories that you may not like now, but we know through experience that learning them and interacting with them will make you a better person. So get reading, and give me 500 words by Friday.” I’m against a type of tradition that simply says one has to do something just because others have done it. We need to take the time to explain the meaning, wisdom, and value behind our traditions, whether it’s learning Torah, stocking soup kitchen shelves, or learning how to write an essay.

    • Guest

      I don’t agree that reading Hamlet or To Kill A Mockingbird makes you a better person than texting or video games. It’s just snobbery. Hamlet was cheap entertainment for the masses in Shakespeare’s day, just as video games are now. If I ever have children, I’ll let them slack off in Literature class. It never taught me anything valuable, even though I got an A. At least if they’re texting, they’re learning how to interact with real people.

      • Vicq_Ruiz

        It never taught me anything valuable

        I suspect it taught you by example how to write a reasonably clear, reasonably grammatical paragraph, which, although wrong, is comprehensible.

        I dnt thnk d txtNg gNR8N wl B abL 2 do as wel.

  • Malcolm McLean

    A lot of people are very unsure about faith for themselves, but happy about it as something to impose on children.

  • Bob

    A ridiculous number of jews are also atheists, more than any other religion except maybe buddhists, at least in America. Many only stick with judaism out of a sense of obligation to their ancestors.
    I’d like to see an humanist version of a Bar Mitzvah, but people are inevitably going to disagree about what to do. What age would you do it, for example? 13? 16? 21? Research suggests the human brain doesn’t completely finish it’s development until 25, but most people would think that was too late for ‘becoming a man’. And should atheists be focusing on poverty relief? Why? Aren’t libertarian atheists going to feel left out? Atheists don’t really have a shared system of values or ethics. We just disbelieve in god. I guess the young people could do a project on that.

  • Guest

    “It would teach the kids something much more valuable than faith”

    Can you demonstrate what that is?

  • quickshot

    In my opinion, if atheists adopt their own rituals, they will will be further blurring the line with organized religion. People might use this to critique those who say they are anti-religious but still have rituals.

    I say “So what?” Who cares if the line is blurred? Are we avoiding rituals because we are afraid of criticism? I think a lot of atheists won’t admit that the answer is a resounding “YES”


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