Social Justice

Putting the Mitzvah Back into B’nai Mitzvah

About two years ago, my friend and teacher Rabbi Peter Levi described his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah service. Instead of doing the early part of the morning blessings, they would sing a couple of introductory songs, leave the sanctuary, and enter the social hall for a social action project where they would pack boxes of grains and canned goods for the homeless. I admit that when I heard the idea, I was nonplussed. Seeing the look on my face, Rabbi Levi put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s called a Bat Mitzvah, not a Bat T’filah.”

My mind was opened.

He made me realize the whole issue I have with our B’nai Mitzvah rubric as it has been for years. We want to create engaged Jewish adults, and we are creating cookie-cutter kids who will be able to their their kids, “You’ll do it because I suffered through it, too,” just like we are telling ours. So after hearing Rabbi Levi’s simple sentence, I began to plan.

At Congregation B’nai Tzedek, we hold a semi-annual “B’nai Mitzvah Boot Camp,” where I gather the students who will become B’nai Mitzvah within the following nine to sixteen months. We discuss the four things a child has to accomplish before they can receive the title of Jewish Adult: Lead services, Teach through a D’var Torah, Commit to a Mitzvah, and Give Tzedakah. Lead, Teach, Mitzvah, Tzedakah. As much as this talk may inspire them, which I hope it does, it still leads to the same thing. The children lead a service, have a party, give tzedakah, and maybe remember to keep doing their mitzvah.

Some kids have an easy time with this they enjoy it, they love performing and they thrive on the bimah. Others struggle.

In thinking about Rabbi Levi’s words, I wanted to encourage our emerging Jewish adults to make their B’nai Mitzvah experience more personally meaningful. But first I needed a guinea pig.

I had known Jonas Holdaway for nearly four years when he and his parents sat in my office to discuss his upcoming Bar Mitzvah experience. I knew he was already a passionate giver of his time and resources, and I asked him a question. Knowing that the requirements of becoming a Bar Mitzvah are still Leading, Teaching, Mitzvah, and Tzedakah, is there one he would like to highlight over the others? Jonas chose Mitzvah. He wanted to make sandwiches for the hungry, and he already had an idea for his guests to participate with him. I asked him if he would like to cut out some of the prayers from the morning service and do that as a part of his Saturday morning celebration.

After a few months of planning and organizing, Jonas became a Bar Mitzvah on September 9, 2017. He did a spectacular job of reading Torah and leading some of the prayers, but the best part was when he started to teach after just two introductory songs. The look on the faces of the regulars was priceless. They were intrigued as to why he might be speaking at this point. He spoke eloquently about how important feeding the hungry is to him and his family. He spoke about volunteering at soup kitchens and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and then he told his guests that they would be making sandwiches and sack lunches for the hungry that very morning.

We ushered his guests into the Social Hall where Jonas had set up stations for packing bag lunches. One table made sandwiches, another decorated bags, a third put apples and cookies into bags, and there were boxes for collecting the finished lunches. Participants went from station to station, making two or more lunches, which Jonas took the following day to Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa. After boxing up 346 lunches, Jonas led the congregation in the rest of the worship service, including reading beautifully from the Torah.

Jonas allowed us all to feel uplifted that Shabbat morning, showing us what it really means to be a Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish man committed to the commandments. The service Jonas led and the experience he had was much more of a revolution, and he has inspired future nigh-13-year-olds to have the same choice.

Instead of doing the same service their peers do, each student at CBT from this point on will be taught that the four things they need to do are Lead, Teach, Mitzvah, and Tzedakah, but whichever one they put at the forefront is up to them. If they want to break from services to organize a social action project for the community, or organize a longer lesson plan that allows us to dive deep into the weekly Torah portion, or even coordinate a fundraiser that will bring tzedakah to a cause about which they are passionate, any of these things can be the focus of their B’nai Mitzvah service. Of course, if Leading services is their passion, they will lead a great service. They will do what we did, but they won’t be dragged to it. They will take on the helm of B’nai Mitzvah with passion, and God willing, they will stay connected to the Jewish community by their own choice, because they will know that they are part of a revolution.

Rabbi David N. Young serves Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, California.