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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, not childhood, understandings of Torah, in ways that apply directly their lives.

There are a lot of moving parts to this beautiful life celebrating affirmation.  Click here to read our Bar/t Mitzvah Manual for Beth Israel families.

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 stage fright; 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, 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.

Recommended Timeline

1 to 3 years before

  • Parents attend the fall Bar/t Mitzvah Orientation session to cover the process.
  • Parents submit first and second choices for the bar/t mitzvah date.
  • Parents and their child attend the three Journeys" Sessions with Rav Nadav.

12 months before

  • Begin attending Saturday morning services as a family.  Our strong recommendation is that you attend a minimum of 12 Saturday morning services together in the year before the bar/t mitzvah.
  • Return "Social Hall Usage and Rental Intent" form. Return contract as soon as possible with a deposit to hold a Friday night, Saturday night, or Sunday night event, if any.
  • Decide how you are doing the Kiddush. If you are hiring a caterer, he or she should be contacted now to reserve the date.
  • Arrange for a tutor with Ron Sussman and begin the tutoring thereafter. Please do not make any tutoring arrangements until you have spoken with Ron.  We have a list of recommended tutors:  email the office to receive a copy or pick one up in person.

6 months before

  •  The Kitchen Coordinator will contact you at this time to confirm your catering needs.
  •  Child and parent attend Saturday morning services (following along in the prayer book and participating) to reach the required seven Saturday morning services.

3 months before (or earlier)

  • Contact the office to schedule two 75-minute meetings with the rabbi and your child  to study the meanings of the Torah and haftarah portions together, and to prepare notes for a rough draft of the Dvar Torah. (Parents may attend these meetings if they wish.) Also schedule a final 45-minute family meeting with the rabbi to go over the honors --with your completed Honors Form-- and choreography of the service.
  • Ron Sussman will schedule times for rehearsals on the bimah. Speak with Ron if you plan to have other family members read Torah or lead services.
  • Submit copy of your announcement for the Hashaliach.

1 month before

  • Payment of half of event fees is due. If using synagogue caterer, decide on the menu.
  • Determine aliyot and other service participants and share the completed Honors Form Google Doc with Rav Nadav

The Big FAQ!

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

The age of 13 marks the  transition from  childhood--  in  which our rearing focuses on their intentions -- to adulthood,  in which our rearing trains them that their character is defined not by meaning well, but by willingness to take responsibility for their actions. 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.
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?

We're experimenting with having families choose their own dates.  The teen has to be at least 13 years old --by Hebrew birthday-- by that 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 from the Saturday of Selichot through Yom Kippur.  Here are some helpful resources in your decision making:

Can we choose a Saturday afternoon bar/t mitzvah?

An afternoon affirmation tends to be a personal family event more than a community event and rite of passage.  We encourage Saturday morning affirmations, but it's up to you. 

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

We only allow this under special circumstances.  Yes, we know that "girls are allowed to become bat mitzvah in Israel at 12" but this tradition stems from a non-egalitarian paradigm that may sound flattering about girls' maturity but is rooted in distinctions (and betrothals) that are not our custom, and is not 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.  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 or when it keeps her together with her grade class.

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, Rabbi Caine suggests that the ceremony be called a Chiyuv Mitzvah ceremony, using the traditional language of "obligation to the command­ments;" and for Hebrew names, the preposition "shel" [of] may replace "bar/bat [son/daughter]" so the given Hebrew name "Noa ben Avraham v'Sarah" becomes "Noa shel Avraham v'Sarah."  We'll work with you to make things comfortable and appropriate.

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.  Also, a non-Jewish parent is welcome to share the "Parental Aliyah" as the Jewish spouse chants the Hebrew blessing.

Do we have to attend Friday Night services the weekend of the bar/t 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. This is essential to the success of the weekend, spiritually and practically.

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 though the rabbi physically holds it.] Another option is to present the tallit to the teen on the bimah and share why the tallit is important.  You can use your own words, or Rabbi Caine's:

The tallit signifies your ascent to adulthood through its fringes which represent the hundreds of responsibilities you bear as an adult in this world.  The tallit serves two functions.   First,  it is your statement that you know you are no longer a child.  A true adult is someone who  walks in the world willing to be viewed and held accountable for her actions rather than her best intentions. May you embrace adulthood, responsibility, and walking in God's ways.
Second, the fringes are reminders to you of us, your parents, your family, your community, and your Jewish tradition. When you look at them, you are not only to be reminded of all the ways you need to conduct yourself in this world -- all of the mitzvot-- but you are to be reminded of where you learned them. When we are not around, and you look at  them, may you be reminded of our voices, our stories, the memories of your childhood, our gentle guidance to you in love.
Whenever you wear this tallit, may you feel our arms around you.

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?

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.

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.

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 tidying up the Beth Israel burial section at Arborcrest.
  • 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).

Most importantly, it should not be an "assignment" to be "checked off a list."  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.

"Journeys" and "Orientation" Sessions

Each year, Rabbi Caine holds 3 in-person sessions for parents and their child called "Journeys to the Bar/t Mitzvah" which focus on the meaning of the process.  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.  The 3 Journeys sessions take place between October and December each year.  These sessions are for families with a bar/t mitzvah in the following calendar year.  (For example, if Devorah's bat mitzvah is sometime during 2023, she and her parent(s) attend the Journeys sessions from October through December of 2022.) 

For any families, from 7th grade to 6th grade to 5th grade (or even before!), each fall there is also a separate Orientation session for any parents who wish to attend.  The Orientation session is mostly to review what's on this webpage and to answer questions, so the process is clear and transparent.  It's also a good time for families to submit first and second choices for the bar/t mitzvah date. 

Tue, June 22 2021 12 Tammuz 5781