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Bnei Mitzvah We're So Proud Of!

Participatory services are a vital part of our ethos at Beth Israel. As such, we are excited to invite each bar/t mitzvah teen to lead as much of the service as they can. Relatives who wish to chant Torah are also invited to do so. Also, rather than writing a speech, each teen goes through the experience of individually studying Torah as an adult with Rabbi Caine, which leads to Divrei Torah that reflect adult understandings of Torah in ways that apply directly to their lives.

There are a lot of moving parts to this beautiful life celebrating affirmation. The FAQ below details the process.  In addition, a google-doc Honors form customized to your service will be shared with you (and you can request it any time after choosing a date), a generic example of which can be found here. If you are still choosing a date, there is a link to see available dates at the bottom of the FAQ.

Your family, your choices

We know there are lots of questions about requirements.  Some that come to mind include:

Does my child have to attend the Religious School for several years to be allowed to have a bar/t mitzvah?  Does my child have to do a certain amount of the service? Do we have to come to services a certain number of times? Can we do an afternoon bar/t mitzvah? Do they have to do a mitzvah project? 

Our ethos is that it's your family, and your choices. The bar/t mitzvah service is a reflection of the family's choices more than it is a reflection of the teen's achievements. 

We have solid recommendations for all of the above, recommendations that come from the benefit of years of the experiences of families like yours, but these are your decisions to make. If the teen attends multiple years of religious school, they will have an easier time reading Hebrew and learning prayers, and they'll have a Jewish friendship group to support them. If the family engages in a family mitzvah project, memories are made and values instilled. If the family attends a dozen Saturday morning services in the year leading up to the bar/t mitzvah, this will show dramatically when the day arrives. The teen will feel comfortable on the bimah rather than anxious; the choreography and the melodies will be second nature so the teen doesn't carry the Torah in the wrong direction; rather than a sanctuary full of scary strangers, the teen's family will know these loving, supportive people from chatting over delicious kiddush luncheons.  Community is a choice. Instead of spending their meetings with the rabbi asking basic questions about the service they would know by attending services, the family and the rabbi can bond over the stories of the relatives and the history of the family to make this a deep and personal experience. There are good reasons for our recommendations, but these are your choices to make.  We are not an institution; we're partners in forming character and community.

Parent Checklist

1 to 3 years before

  • Get to know Lynne Caine, our Director of Youth Education, Meg Bernstein, our Ritual Assistant, and Rabbi Caine. They're our team.
  • We attended the fall Bar/t Mitzvah Orientation session to cover the process.
  • We submitted our first and second choices for the bar/t mitzvah date to Rabbi Caine. We saw that the date(s) was/were available by clicking here to examine list of taken dates.

12 months before

  • We hired a tutor and began the lessons. (Please make financial arrangements directly with the tutor.)  Click here for a list of recommended tutors. If you are not using a pre-approved tutor, contact the ritual assistant and Rav Nadav to have yours approved.
  • We attended a minimum of 10 Saturday morning services as a family in the year before the b' mitzvah. We acknowledge that no amount of rehearsals prepares our child to lead their part in a service, just as no amount of violin or soccer lessons prepares a child to play in an orchestra or game they've not regularly attended.  (If one cannot attend 10 Saturday morning services in the year leading up to the bat/r mitzvah, please speak with the rabbi proactively.) 
  • We attended all Family Sessions with Rav Nadav.
  • We returned this "Social Hall Usage and Rental Intent" form with a deposit to hold a Friday night, Saturday night, or Sunday night event, if any.
  • If we are not using the Beth Israel kitchen staff for our lunch needs, then we hired the caterer and reserved the date with them.

    6 months before
  •  Talk with Beth Jarvis in the office to confirm your catering needs.
  •  We continued to attend Saturday morning services while following along in the prayer book and participating to reach the required seven Saturday morning services.
  •  We contacted the office and scheduled for three months ahead of time three one-hour meetings for the teen and the rabbi to talk Torah and write the speech. The rabbi and your teen will study the meanings of the Torah and haftarah portions together, and prepare notes for a rough draft of the Dvar Torah. (Parents may attend these meetings if they wish.) At the same time, we booked one one hour meeting of parent(s) and the rabbi for the week before the bar/t mitzvah to go over the shared Honors Document.

3 months before (or earlier)

  • We contacted the Ritual Assistant directly and scheduled two rehearsals with the Ritual Assistant and our teen for her to help our teen get comfortable on the bimah. (If we want more rehearsals on the bimah, we booked our tutor to do some tutoring sessions in the sanctuary, and cleared those times with the office.)
  • We spoke with the Ritual Assistant if we are having other family members read Torah or lead service parts.
  • We submitted a copy of our announcement for the Hashaliach, if there is one upcoming.
  • We started on a family mitzvah project (if we are doing one).

1 month before

  • We paid all or half of the event fees to the office. We cleared the menu with the synagogue caterer.
  • We ordered flowers or other arrangements for the bimah if we are having one.
  • We made a program, if we want one.  (Links to samples below.)
  • We determined aliyot and other service participants and shared the completed Honors Form Google Doc [clicking here will take you to a sample honors form, but for your child/family Rav Nadav will prepare a custom honors form with all elements of the honors and service therein].
  • We notified our honorees and ensured they were prepared for their honor.
  • We listened to our child deliver their Dvar Torah, and we worked with them on its delivery (use the microphone, take pauseswhich you can write into the document, speak slowly and speak loudly) and its thank-you section.
  • If a parent is speaking during a Saturday morning service, the one-page only charge is submitted to Rav Nadav for approval. 

The Big FAQ!

Why have a bar/t mitzvah?  Are these skills really relevant to a teenager's life?

Spending six months to a year on one project that most adults cannot do [reading from the Torah and leading parts of the service] has four purposes: 1) It ingrains the life-long skill that one can accomplish great things through the discipline of sustained effort over time;  2)  It teaches, like all cross-cultural initiation rites, that one grows up by seeking mentors outside of the familiarity of the family; 3) It gives a child a rare opportunity to have an adult interaction with Torah; and 4) It provides a year in which parents and children consciously practice hearing adult notes coming out of a child. In addition, it teaches a child how to overcome anxiety through preparation, practice, desensitization, and supported success: we manage anxiety not by avoiding difficult situations but by acquiring the skills and familiarity through practice that let us manage difficult situations we find ourselves in. Are service leading skills relevant to them? All initiation rites involve the acquisition of a challenging skill to facilitate an interaction with the Transcendent in this growth transition for child and family.This is not an apprenticeship: it's a rite of passage.

Who picks the date?  Are there rules about that?

Families choose their own dates.  We recommend you choose the date prior to the child entering 6th grade. The teen has to be at least 13 years oldby Hebrew birthdayby the chosen date, though we recommend you pick a Shabbat that best suits your family rather than trying to time the birthday. If you have family or guests coming from out of town, you'll likely wish to avoid Michigan football home games as well as special U of M weekends (like move-in, graduation, alumni weekend). Due to High Holidays, we do not celebrate bnei mitzvah during the four Shabbatot leading up to Rosh Hashanah, nor during the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Here are some helpful resources in your decision making:

  • At the bottom of this webpage, there is a date converter that will help you calculate the Hebrew birthday. Or you can go to HebCal to calculate the Hebrew birthday, and show you the High Holiday period.
  • Count back four weekends from Rosh Hashanah: these are unavailable.
  • The Michigan Football schedule will tell you about home games.
  • The U of M academic calendar can tell you about Graduation weekend etc.

What are available dates?

Click here to view available dates, please contact the office (szielinski@bethisrael-aa.org) when you choose a date. 

Please note that dates around the High Holidays (including weeks leading up to them) are not available. Nor are Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends available, in order to ensure staff, who normally work all the Jewish holidays, have these weekends off.

Can we choose a Saturday afternoon bar/t mitzvah?

An afternoon affirmation tends to be a personal family and friends event more than a community event.  We encourage Saturday morning affirmations, but it's up to you. In cases where you cannot commit to attending ten Saturday morning services leading up to bar/t mitzvah date, an afternoon service makes good sense, because it is strange to have the teen lead a congregation they do not know.  Please note that if you choose a Saturday afternoon event there will be no food/reception before or afterwards. Minchah service time begins at 3pm or later.  If you wish to end the service with havdalah, then you must begin the service one hour before the havdalah time for that Saturday night.  Havdalah times for Ann Arbor are readily available on the internet, or just ask Rabbi Caine.

Are girls allowed to become Bar/t Mitzvah at age 12?

We allow this under special circumstances. We know that girls are allowed to become bat mitzvah in Israel at 12 but this tradition stems from a non-egalitarian paradigm that is not associated with the egalitarian affirmation pioneered in America and of which we are so proud. Separating the girls and the boys also unnecessarily divides our community so our children are not building bonds by going through the experience in the same year, usually in 7th grade. Still, we are happy to have a conversation, and we support this when the girl is only a few weeks away from her 13th Hebrew birthday and when it keeps her together with her grade class. In addition, our custom is that girls wear a tallit and kippah (cloth or metalwork) at the bat mitzvah service.

Is there less gendered language than "bar" and "bat?"

Hebrew lacks a neuter form for nouns, and this can create negative feelings for those who do not choose to identify with one or another gender. It can be frustrating to choose whether this is a "Bar" or "Bat" Mitzvah and how to word a Hebrew name. If your child would prefer a gender-neutral identification, we recommend calling the ceremony a "Brit Mitzvah" since brit refers to covenantal obligations that the teen is now committed to. Alternatively, some use the term "B-Mitzvah." The Conservative Movement has standardized non-binary Hebrew names by using "mi-beit" ["from the house of"] to replace "bar/bat [son/daughter of]" so the given Hebrew name "Noa ben Avraham v'Sarah" becomes "Noa mi-beit Avraham v'Sarah." We can also call up guests and family with non-gendered Hebrew, should you request it. We'll work with you to make things comfortable and appropriate.

Are there requirements for attending services?

Yes.  As listed at the top of this page, your child must attend ten Saturday morning shabbat services at Beth Israel during the year prior to their bat/bar/brit mitzvah.  Attending a service at another synagogue does not count toward the ten as it will have no impact on familiarizing the child with the service at Beth Israel they will be leading parts of.  During these services, the child should be getting to know regular service attendees, so they have a sense of community and connection when their day to lead arrives.  Ten services over twelve months is not too much to ask.  If this is not practical, you might want to consider an afternoon b' mitzvah.  

How do we know our service options and express our preferences?

We will make a Honors and Service Google Doc [clicking here will take you to a sample honors form, but for your child/family Rav Nadav will prepare a custom honors form with all elements of the honors and service therein] and share it with you and your tutor.  You and your tutor edit this document to express your choices.  Rav Nadav prints out the doc on Friday and uses it as the final word on all choices at the service.

Can non-Jewish relatives participate in the service?

Non-Jewish relatives are welcome on the bimah. There are several honors they may participate in and lead: opening/closing the ark, English prayers for Country and for Peace, and other readings or a psalm. A non-Jewish parent is welcome to share the "Parental Aliyah" by standing with their Jewish spouse as the latter chants the Hebrew blessing.

Do we have to attend Friday Night services the weekend of the bar/t/brit mitzvah?

It's up to you. We encourage all Bar/Bat Mitzvah families to actively participate in Friday evening services on the night before the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It sets the tone of Shabbat for family and guests that the child is participating in a larger cosmic drama of family and community time, not a morning performance at a podium. Another great benefit is that parents are welcome to do a parental charge from the bimah; and grandparents are welcome to offer some personal words of blessing to the child before the Kiddush.

If the family will not be present at the service, we urge you to make Friday night a time of candle-lighting and blessings and Shabbat dinner wherever you choose to celebrate it. A Shabbat dinner/atmosphere is essential to the success of the weekend, spiritually and practically.

Please note that Beth Israel often schedules special services on Friday night, such as musically themed services. These innovative services do not change at a family's request. A part for the teen and family, if requested, will be incorporated.

If the teen wishes to lead some of the Friday night prayers, they can be found here.

What are some features of the service that we may not have experienced elsewhere?

Though completely optional, the family is welcome to have a Chain of Passing Down the Torah Through The Generations at the beginning of the Torah Service. Parents and grandparents embrace the Torah momentarily though the rabbi physically holds it.

Are parents allowed to do a short charge addressing their child on the bimah?

It is Beth Israel's policy that parents do their parental charge(s) on Friday night, or at the party, or at a minchah afternoon service.  Nevertheless, you may request an exception for a brief charge during the Saturday morning service of each parent reading one side of a page in 12 point font.  The parental words must be submitted, preapproved and in some cases revised by the rabbi. The charge must focus on the religious perspective since it is part of the religious service.  Parents should speak about what has been like to get to know this soul put in their care by God, and they should address the connection of the child to Judaism.  References to sports and extracurricular activities, or to family members the congregation does not know, or to "you did a great job," should be reserved for the longer speech at the party.  A brief charge during the service is part of the flow of the service, not stepping outside of it.  If this were the school play, you wouldn't stand up during a scene and talk about how hard your child worked on it, how great a job they're doing, and what a great part they got.  Similarly, these should all be avoided at the service. A charge focusing on the child in the context of Jewish tradition fits. 
For example, "Ever since you were little, you've shown the Jewish value of... [curiosity, compassion, community, debate, helping others, etc.]  As you've grown up in the Jewish tradition, we've watched you flourish when...    On this day of honoring family, tradition, and Torah, we are proud of you, and look forward to you passing these traditions on l'dor vador, generation to next generation."
The service charge should refer to "today's parashah" and not "your parashah," overpraise should be avoided, and should reflect the role as Jewish parents during the communal rite of passage.

Final drafts of proposed charges must be submitted to the rabbi two weeks before the day of the bar/t mitzvah.

Should we tell our guests about the anti-Semitic hate-speech outside our doors?

When you write a letter to your guests informing them of some of the traditions re­garding the service (suggested arrival time, etc.), you may choose to inform them about the situation involving the anti-Israel "protests" which have been taking place outside the synagogue, using language such as:

"During the past several years, a group has staged a "protest"against the State of Israel and Jewish "Control" of American politics on the public sidewalk in front of our synagogue on Shabbat morning. The signs contain hate-speech demanding resistance against the global conspiracy of "Jewish power." While we feel the positions expressed morally detestable, the action has been ruled as legal. For that reason, and in keeping with the spirit of the day, we ask you not to confront them as you enter the building."

Do you allow the shortening of a haftarah? Can you tell me how many verses the haftarah and the Torah readings are for the date we're considering?

YesThe haftarot (prophetic readings commonly chanted by the bar/t mitzvah)  vary in length quite dramatically but it is permissible to shorten longer ones on occasion. This can be done on a custom basis in consultation with the tutor and the rabbi, or it can be done by selecting the one done according to Sephardic custom when there is an option for that.  The Conservative Movement issues recommendations for shortening each haftarah:  Rav Nadav has access to this document and can advise when asked.

The standard number of verses of Torah and haftarah readings is available by scrolling down to the date you're considering on our online google sheet which can be found here.

Is there any way I can get my child more comfortable on the bimah?  How do rehearsals work?

Yes. Coming to services regularly (at least ten times) on Saturday mornings will dramatically increase your child's comfort level. If they can do the Ashrei when they come, or Ein Keloheinu, so much the better. In addition our Ritual Assistant will conduct one or two rehearsals on the bimah before the big day. If you prefer more rehearsals, you can ask your tutor to conduct tutoring sessions any time in our sanctuary:  just coordinate with the office to make sure the sanctuary is available. (The ritual assistant does not have to be there when the tutor is there.)  Click here to learn more about our tutors.

Do you have a packet of resources for the honors I'm giving people, like the Torah blessings and English readings? Also, in the event I need one more honor, do you have any suggested readings, and may I use an English reading not found in the prayerbook?

Yes. You'll find the Torah blessings and the readings in the packet here. You'll notice some extra readings-options there should you need an extra honor. If you have a reading from elsewhere, just run it by the rabbi.

Do you have a sample program I could use to make a handout for the service?

It is optional to make a program handout for the service. Here are samples you could use to make your own. 

Bifold samples: one for Bat Mitzvah, one for Bar Mitzvah, one for non-binary Brit Mitzvah.Another Sample. Yet another sample for Bat Mitzvah and for Bar Mitzvah.
Here is a Longer program.
Some sample content in paragraph form.
AFTERNOON ceremony Bat Mitzvah. AFTERNOON ceremony Bar Mitzvah.

How many rehearsals in the sanctuary will there be? Who needs to be there?

Tutors may teach the child in the sanctuary any time the sanctuary is availablejust contact the office to book those timesand to practice from the scroll on those occasions. In addition, the Ritual Assistant holds two rehearsals. The first should take place 4-6 weeks ahead of time.  (The tutor does not need to be there, but should inform our Ritual Assistant what parts will be done.)  This rehearsal is primarily directed at having the teen do their parts and making them comfortable on the bimah. Around a week before the ceremony itself, there is another rehearsal with the Ritual Assistant that is primarily directed at the entire family: service parts, choreography, and a run through.  If there are questions about filling out the Honors sheets, please contact the office to make an appointment (by Zoom or otherwise) to get the Rabbi's help.

What are the links to give my guests who are accessing the service electronically?

The link is the same link we always use for Saturday morning services. Ask the office to email you the link that embeds the passcode. That passcode embedded link can be shared in emails and texts, but should not be posted on Facebook, a website, or Social Media. It incorporates the passcode and can lead to anti-Semitic intrusion.

On social media and websites, use https://us02web.zoom.us/j/359791284
and ask people to contact you for the passcode, which you will tell them. Remind people that the live feed is always streaming on YouTube at our channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSO6HcrVQfdlbTV7DH6gioA

What is my child expected to do vis a vis the Dvar Torah?

Parents should schedule 3 one-hour meetings with the rabbi for the teen to work on the Dvar Torah, a 5 minute (two sides of a page double-spaced) speech based on the Torah portion.  No preparation is necessary, and parent(s) are welcome at these meetings should they wish to join in.  Rav Nadav creates a google doc shared with the teen and parents, and Rav Nadav takes notes into the google doc of his conversation with the teen.  They read the parashah together in English, Rav Nadav presents to them the traditional debates and questions we pass from generation to generation, and notes down answers from the teen.  Eventually they together construct the Dvar.  Teens are welcome to work on the speech at home, and sometimes are assigned to do so.
"Dvar Torah" is a genre, and follows the following formula:
1) Shabbat Shalom and one paragraph summary of parashah.
2) A second paragraph of some questions/misunderstandings that arise when reading it, and clarifying those so people are better informed.
3)  One question/perspective/answer that you would like to speak more about.  If possible, relate it to your life and/or the life of your family.
4)  Give people a take-home “lesson about life” in a final sentence drawn from the previous paragraph.  5) Do thank you’s.
In some cases, the teen wants to veer from this approach.  Don't be afraid to have this discussion with Rav Nadav:  he can be flexible.  

Does my child have to do a Mitzvah Project? Who's in charge of that?

The undertaking of a tzedakah/mitzvah project adds to the meaning of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. There are so many options:

  • A one-time experience, such as a visit to a facility serving the hungry, or the (always important) tidying up the Beth Israel burial section at Arborcrest. Judaism considers the latter to be among the most meritorious and charitable acts of love, since one is serving those who cannot thank you.
  • An ongoing experience, such as committing to attend every Thursday evening minyan for six months. (Thursdays and Sundays can be especially challenging to make minyanim for those who need to say Kaddish.)
  • A community service experience, such as tutoring younger kids (in our religious school or in secular studies) or raising funds or awareness in sup­port of a particular cause.
  • A cause connected to the bar/t mitzvah, such as educating guests about the difficulties faced by a particular Jewish or other community in the world through a display of centerpieces at the party, or through making a donation to a favorite charity (such as Mazon to alleviate hunger, IDF disabled veterans charities, Kulanu for POC Jews around the world, etc) in lieu of a party expense (such as centerpieces).

A mitzvah project is facilitated by the family, and parent(s) and/or grandparent(s) should take a lead on working with the teen as an equal partner: it should not be delivered to the teen as an assignment. It is hard enough to accomplish a community service project as an adult: we should not expect a teen to add to their plate something we'd be hard pressed to do ourselves. For that reason, we recommend that the project become a family project. Make tikkun olam a topic of dinner conversation, brainstorm together, explore possibilities, and do the service together as a family. Our Engagement Director is available to assist you in this process. Our hope is that among the many ways to personalize this experience, you will consider the "tzedakah/mitzvah project" as a way to actualize the values your family embraces. It is often the focus of a Saturday morning hand-out program for the service, should you choose to make one.

Family and Teen Sessions Leading to B' Mitzvah

One of the four primary goals of Beth Israel Religious School is "Confident participation in Jewish ritual."  The B' Mitzvah is a parade example. To that end, Rabbi Caine personally teaches 6th and 7th grade in the religious school in ways that prepare each teen for their bar/t mitzvah.  This is a combination of dimensions:  practicing what adult interaction of Torah is (and very different from Bible stories), developing one's own adult theology (without the false binaries of atheism or literalism), learning to lead Musaf and other prayers, and becoming knowledgeable ambassadors of the Jewish people on the history of Israel and of the Jewish people (including antisemitism).  

In addition to these weekly class sessions, Rabbi Caine holds family education sessions for parents and their child which focus on the process. We do some practical “how to,” some best practices by learning from the wisdom of those who have gone through it before, and  reflection and bonding over the meaning of holding, and celebrating, this remarkable transitional space, made holy through ritual. It's an opportunity to reflect on rites of passage, to study text in hevruta pairs or groups, to delve into the why's and how's of divrei Torah and of the prayer service, and to bring kavanah (intentionality) to the journey. There is one family session at the end of 5th grade, 1 in 6th grade, and 2 in 7th grade. 

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Sun, April 14 2024 6 Nisan 5784