The Jewish Rite of Passage: A Guide to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah For Abington Friends School Families
Created by the Jewish Families Affinity Group and Allies 2011
Thank you for reading The Jewish Rite of Passage: A Guide To The Bar or Bat Mitzvah For AFS Families. The Jewish Family Affinity Group and Allies (JFA) was founded in 2009 at the Abington Friends School (AFS). Its goals include: building community among families of Jewish students attending AFS; connecting to the larger AFS community; and informing the AFS community about Jewish customs and traditions. Whether your son or daughter is becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah or attending a celebration of one of his/her classmates, we hope this guide will help to make the experience more understandable and meaningful for all involved. At AFS, we are fortunate to have a diverse Jewish community, consisting of several different denominations of Judaism. We have endeavored to share with you some of the richness that is part of this diversity.
The Meaning and Significance of Bar/Bat Mitzvah Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a Jewish life cycle ritual that takes place when a boy is 13 and a girl is 12 or 13. Bar/Bat Mitzvah literally means a “son or a daughter of the commandments.” Bar/Bat Mitzvah, as we know it today, is a milestone moment in which Jewish adolescents affirm their Jewish identity and commitment to a Jewish path in a public ritual. Dating back from the Middle Ages when it was customary for a boy of thirteen to be called to read from the Torah scroll (containing the Five Books of Moses) during Jewish worship, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony has evolved today into an opportunity for boys and girls, at around age thirteen, to read from the Torah, share what they have learned about their Torah portion, read a selection from the Haftarah (book of the Prophets) and, often, to help to lead part of the morning service. At many congregations, Bar/Bat Mitzvah students also participate in a service-learning project. Preparing to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah - for both the student and his/her parents - takes a lot of work, dedication, and commitment. In the midst of busy lives, the hope is that the experience of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a true rite of passage - a spiritual and religious awakening for the young person, and a celebration for the whole family. Bar/Bat Mitzvah is also a moment for the child and the family to invite non-Jewish friends to participate in this sacred experience. Bar/Bat Mitzvah in Various Denominations In the contemporary Jewish community, there are many different types of synagogues, and these communities vary in their customs in terms of worship and ritual. We have included descriptions of the different Jewish denominations that are represented at AFS. When your child is invited to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, you may want to ask the parents with which denomination their synagogue is affiliated, as it might give you a better idea of what to expect.
Reform Reform Judaism affirms the central tenets of Judaism – G-d, Torah and Israel - even as it acknowledges the diversity of Reform Jewish beliefs and practices. The Reform movement believes that all human beings are created in the image of G-d, and that we are G-d’s partners in improving the world. Tikkun olam - repairing the world - is a hallmark of Reform Judaism as humanity strives to bring peace, freedom, and justice to all people. Rabbi Elliott Holin is the rabbi of Kol Ami, a Reform Temple in Elkins Park, and is the father of three sons. His son Joshua recently graduated from AFS. As a father, Rabbi Holin notes what a meaningful experience it was for him and his family to celebrate each of his sons’ B’nai Mitzvah. “Each one was a unique and powerful experience. I had always been part of B’nai Mitzvah as a rabbi, but to be a father showed me the power of this ritual for not only the child, but also for the parents,” he says. At Kol Ami, students spend an intensive year working towards Bar/Bat Mitzvah, which includes weekly meetings with the rabbi in which students learn how to read a text from the Torah and ask questions about it. For Rabbi Holin, this important skill of analyzing and relating to this Jewish sacred text is one that students will use for the rest of their life beyond the Bar/Bat Mitzvah day. Students also learn a Haftarah portion, prayers, write a D’var Torah (speech) and read or chant from the Torah. Like the other congregations, Bar/Bat Mitzvah students engage in a service project. Rabbi Holin encourages students coming to Kol Ami to feel very welcome and to participate in the service. Dress is respectful - what a student might wear at his/her own community of worship. He encourages friends to enter the sanctuary with an intention of support for their friend who is becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Reconstructionist The Reconstructionist movement began in the 1920s, based on the teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. Rabbi Kaplan believed that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. Judaism, he argued, must change and grow in relationship with evolving cultural and social realities. Kaplan emphasized the importance of belonging over belief and he struggled to define a G-d that is not supernatural. G-d, he taught, is that force within the Universe and within us that makes for salvation. G-d is also the force that brings healing and peace. Reconstructionism places a high value on both traditional Jewish practices and the adaptation of these practices to new circumstances and new understandings of the world around us. Some of these adaptations include gender-neutral language in prayer liturgy and referring to the Jewish people in the context of a diverse world community.
Mishkan Shalom is a Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia where AFS student Shoshi Greenberg became Bat Mitzvah in 2011. To prepare to become a Bat Mitzvah, Shoshi needed to learn how to read from the Torah and chant the trope (musical notation that sets the words in the Torah to a musical system for chanting). Shoshi learned to lead some of the important prayers in the Shabbat service. At Mishkan Shalom, it is also required for students to share a d'var Torah - or talk about the Torah - and so Shoshi spent time learning about the meaning of her portion. "For over a year, Shoshi spent time studying the Torah portion and talking with us about it as well as studying with a tutor," her mother D'vorah Horn-Greenberg explains. “Shoshi also did a tikkun olam ("repair of the world") project as part of her Bat Mitzvah preparation. Shoshi made meals and served them to families who are homeless and part of the Intefaith Hospitality Network. As part of that program, Shoshi not only cooked and served the meals but took time to join the families and eat and get to know them.” For the Greenberg family, the most meaningful part of the Bat Mitzvah experience was drawing together their family and friends to participate in the celebration. Shoshi was able to sew her own Tallit (Ritual Prayer Shawl) with the help of Robin Shane (pictured here), a new family friend met through the JFA!
Jewish Renewal Jewish Renewal is a movement within Judaism that focuses on a spiritual approach to Jewish tradition and a focus on personal and spiritual growth leading to acts of repairing the planet. AFS student Lev Barbarash became Bar Mitzvah at P'nai Or, a Jewish Renewal community in Philadelphia. For his preparation, Lev met at the rabbi's home and also studied with a Jewish educator over Skype. In addition to learning trope and preparing his Torah portion, Lev's studies included learning about Jewish ethics and history. Lev's mom, Ellie Barbarash, notes how their Jewish renewal community is different from other congregations when it comes to dress. "Our congregation is much less formal than many. If it is hot then one can wear comfortable, festive clothing. Suits and jackets are not required, nor is formal attire. It is always acceptable, and encouraged, for people to wear white in honor of Shabbat. Bright colors and festive clothing are welcomed. However there is a modesty standard. Sleeveless shirts for women, and pants or skirts/dresses, are fine, but in general the ambiance is not to expose so much- clothing for men and women is respectful and boundaried. It is not unusual to see people go barefoot or get up and dance in the middle of the service," she explains. Ellie would like friends and guests to know that to their family the Bar/Bat Mitzvah "is very meaningful to us, and full of learning and exploration - it is not a show or a spectator sport or a contest. We are so proud of our children, and we are beaming about their hard work - but the child's experience is spiritual, and about Jewish experience, community, family, and G-d. The core of the experience will have the child really thinking about what G-d means to him/her, and how he/she wants to be part of the larger community, what the legacy of Torah and sacred text means. We look forward to you being present with us and witnessing our child take on the responsibilities of being a full member of the larger Jewish community. We look forward to celebrating together this transitional milestone of great joy."
Conservative The Conservative Movement of Judaism emphasizes tradition in terms of Jewish practice and observance. For example, in Conservative synagogues, most people worship with their head covered. AFS student Eli Russell became Bar Mitzvah at Conservative synagogue Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park. His mother, Amy Russell, explains about becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah in their community, "Bar/Bat Mitzvah does not occur in a vacuum. In the religious school, students begin to learn to read Torah in 5th grade, which will assist them as they approach their bar/bat mitzvah preparations. Students learn to chant Haftarah for the first time in preparation for their Bar/Bat mitzvah. They also learn about the mechanics of a Shabbat morning service and Torah reading in a very first-hand way, it is no longer a "spectator sport." For the d'var Torah (speech), the student learns to read the original Biblical text and to interpret it with the help of different commentaries." Amy also notes "Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not just a 'party.' It is a very meaningful culmination of lots of hard work for the Bar/Bat mitzvah child and a major milestone for the family. As such, invited guests (particularly kids) should make every effort to attend the service, not just the party." At AJ, recommended attire for the boys is a suit, although nice trousers, shirt, and tie are fine. Girls can wear a dress, skirt, or nice trousers. It is preferred that girls have covered shoulders, plus it is usually chilly in the sanctuary, so please bring along a sweater, shrug, etc. It is customary for boys to wear a kippah, or head covering, during the service (and optional for girls). A kippah will be available in baskets by the entrance to the sanctuary.
Folk Shul The Jewish Children’s Folkshul is a parent-run cooperative committed to providing a secular, humanist Jewish educational experience for children in the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area. The Folkshul’s mission is to transmit the values of social justice and human responsibility in an environment, which nourishes critical thinking and provides a strong sense of Jewish identity. At the Jewish Children's Folkshul, Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a time for the child to affirm the family’s and community's moral code of values and beliefs. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony includes a presentation by the child where he/she explains some aspect of Jewish history or culture. It may or
may not include reading from the Torah. It is a secular ceremony and includes music, readings, poetry and the child's presentation. The presentation is the heart of the ceremony and requires an investment of time and study on the child's part. The family selects an adult mentor from the community who is knowledgeable about the content area of the presentation and the mentor studies with the child leading up to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah to help him/her learn about the topic. Students at the Folkshul also do a Tikkun Olam/service learning project.
Frequently Asked Questions When a Bar/Bat Mitzvah invitation arrives for your teen, you may have a number of questions about the etiquette for the event. Here are a few common questions that often arise: When should guests arrive? The appropriate time to arrive at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service varies, depending upon the community, length of service, and the family’s wishes. The invitation will list the time that the Shabbat (Sabbath) service begins. Don’t hesitate to call the family and ask what time they would like guests to arrive. How long with the service last? In some communities, services last about 90 minutes, while, in others, services may be closer to three hours. In some synagogues, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah begins his/her participation right at the beginning of the service; in others, it might not start until later. If the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is going to be reading from the Torah, this is often felt to be the most important part of the service for guests to witness. This is another instance where the family will be glad to answer any question you have. What should guests wear? Guests at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration generally wear dressy clothes--for boys, either a suit or slacks, tie and jacket, and for girls, a dress or dress pants and a nice blouse. Different communities have different dress codes. Once again, do not hesitate to call the parents of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child to ask about appropriate attire for their synagogue. How can guests participate in the service? All guests at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah are expected to respect the sanctity of the prayer service and Shabbat by behaving in an appropriate manner. This means that teens should not be talking or texting while the service is taking place. Cell phones should be turned to silent. In many congregations, guests are invited to participate in singing, reading prayers and even coming forward to see the Torah
portion that is being read. It can be distressing for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah student to look at the congregation and see his/her friends talking and laughing, so friends should be reminded that they are attending the Bar/Bat Mitzvah to support a friend - even if it means listening and not chatting during services! It is very helpful for parents to take a moment before the Bar/Bat Mitzvah to remind their sons/daughters that he/she is going to the service to support his/her friend and to act accordingly.
What can you tell me about the party? Celebrations for Bar/Bat Mitzvah can vary quite a bit depending on the family. Different types of celebrations include: • The Kiddush, a light snack with blessings over the food and wine, comes immediately after the service and is one form of celebration that follows every Bar/Bar Mitzvah. Usually the entire congregation is invited to participate. • Luncheon directly after the service, which may occur at the synagogue or at another location. Typically includes both adults and kids, by invitation.
• Dinner dance on Saturday night. This may be held at the synagogue social hall, a country club, restaurant or other venue. Typically includes both adults and kids, by invitation. • Kids only party (a.k.a. record hop), which usually occurs on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon and is more of a casual event. Kids may be invited to any combination of celebration and this is usually made clear in an invitation. What should I give as a gift? It is customary to give a gift to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah boy/girl. This does not need to be an extravagant gift. It is perfectly appropriate to give a donation to an organization important to the child in his/her honor instead of giving a monetary or material gift. Or, your son/daughter can pick out a special gift for his/her friend just as one would do for any birthday. If you are going to give money or a gift card, it is customary in the Jewish tradition to give checks in the amount equaling a multiple of 18, such as $18, $36, $72, etc. (in Jewish numerology the letters that spell the word Chai (translated as “life”) are the same as the number 18.)
Perspectives from the AFS community For AFS students who are not Jewish, attending Bar/Bat Mitzvah can give a window into experiencing their friends’ and classmates’ spiritual and cultural lives in a way they might not otherwise have seen. Likewise, students becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah often view the experience as an opportunity to share their Jewish traditions with their non-Jewish friends. For AFS sophomore Jessica Williams, this sharing was a significant part of her Bat Mitzvah experience. “The most meaningful part of my Bat Mitzvah was connecting to my Judaism and deepening my thoughts about it,” says Jessica. “My Bat Mitzvah helped me to take pride in Judaism, and I really liked sharing what I had learned with others.” Jessica remembers being concerned and telling her non-Jewish friends that the service would be really long so that they would be prepared, but she remembers they really enjoyed the experience instead. David Frebowitz, a junior at AFS, was attending school in Upper Dublin when he became Bar Mitzvah and invited many non-Jewish friends to his ceremony and party. Like Jessica, he remembers the coming together of community as one of the best parts of his Bar Mitzvah. “It was cool to see my family and all of my friends come together,” David says.
Rich Nourie, AFS Head of School, remembers when his son Michael, now a college graduate, attended a friend's Bar Mitzvah when he was a 7th grade student at GFS. When Rich picked him up and asked Michael what he thought of the Bar Mitzvah, Rich was afraid Michael would say how long and boring the service was. But instead, Michael surprised him by saying, "It was really meaningful for (the friend) and his family. I could see how much his family loves him!"
"As a Quaker school, we have room to get to know one another's spiritual lives and Bar/Bat Mitzvah is an opportunity to do that," Rich explains. "It makes our AFS community stronger when we know each other in a deep way."
Credits: Many involved families compiled this guide over the course of a year and for that we are eternally grateful. We especially thank the families who contributed their thoughts and personal experiences to this guide, as well as the families who contributed photographs. Thank you also to Rich Nourie for his inspiration and support, and Lisa Dougherty for always being there. Additional credits to Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, author of “The Kitchen Classroom,” whose professional assistance brought this to its completion. - With Gratitude, D’vorah Horn-Greenberg and Robin Shane, 2011, Co-Clerks of JFA Photographs in order of appearance: Eli Russell and parents class of 2016, Shoshana Greenberg class of 2016, Shoshana Greenberg and Robin Shane, Lev Greenstein class of 2016, Anya Hutter class of 2012.