Royi Shaffin
Royi Shaffin

Don’t lower the bar for the Bar Mitzvah

There has been a lot of discussion recently in the rabbinic community about bar/bat mitzvah preparation. Some are claiming that bar/bat mitzvah preparation needs to be changed from emphasizing the mastery of the Haftorah (a section from the Prophets) to simply being able to lead some prayers.

This is being portrayed as a more practical Jewish education for a generation having trouble learning a complex set of skills in language and music. It is being claimed that these new curricula, although less rigorous and less authentic to the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, will enable students to put to practice that which they may use on a weekly basis rather than that which occurs once each year, when their particular Haftorah is scheduled to be chanted in the synagogue.

I could not disagree more. In reality, this is none other than giving in to the trend of Jewish assimilation sweeping across the country and diluting Jewish education. Rabbis who keep lowering the academic levels at their respective religious schools are not innovative thinkers. They are failing to live up to their responsibilities to conserve, preserve, and protect our sacred heritage.

At my synagogue, Congregation Or Atid, in Richnond, Virginia, we place an emphasis on education with a dedication to educating life-long Jewish learners. Indeed, through its dynamic program and curriculum it has been designated as a Framework for Excellence School, the highest status granted a religious school by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. It is the only one of its kind in the State of Virginia.

The emphasis on education is evident in that our students read, write, and speak Hebrew; the Hebrew of the Siddur (prayerbook), the Hebrew of the Torah, the Hebrew of the Haftorah, and modern Israeli Hebrew. They are familiar with the Torah, Jewish values and ethics, Jewish history, and Jewish holidays. As the school is modeled on the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan and sees Judaism as a civilization, students also participate in Jewish art, music, dance, cooking, and sports. Most importantly, we make Jewish education fun.

When children arrive at the age of eleven, they enroll in my Bnai Mitzvah Class, which meets for one day a week in addition to our regular two day a week religious school. There, they learn trope (Jewish musical notes), speech making, and the meaning behind the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony. They master their Torah portions and Haftorahs and the blessings that are recited before and after these readings. We study together as a class as well as in pairs (chevruta). We also study each student’s Torah portion and Haftorah portion and discuss possible topics for divrei Torah (sermons).

The end goal is that our kids should be able to be “rabbi for the day”. In other words, they lead all of the services on both Friday night and Saturday morning from beginning to end, read Torah, read Haftorah, and give divrei Torah (sermons). Some even call out the page numbers. I just sit back and enjoy the nachat (pride).

We added an extra day and, beginning at the age of eleven, meet for three days a week. Conservative religious school once met for three days a week and we are partially reinstating this. Why? Because less is not more. More is more. We place the bar high and, as a result of these expectations and the support of family and community, our students excel. Not only are they able to lead services on any Shabbat in any synagogue. They are also able to be called up for a maftir aliyah to the Torah and chant any haftorah with no preparation. As a result, our young adults return to services often after their bar/bat mitzvah, craving the opportunity to once again be in the spotlight and lead the congregation.

This does not mean that everyone can achieve these heights. Indeed, with help from members of my family who are experts in special education, I personally take on special needs bar/bat mitzvah students and they are often performing as well as other students. Over the years, I have acquired a reputation for my special education bar/bat mitzvah tutoring and several families have flocked to Or Atid for this reason.

Our bar remains high and everyone does their best to reach it. I encourage my colleagues to do the same. Don’t bring the bar down. Rather, bring our students up.

About the Author
Rabbi Royi Shaffin has served as a rabbi, Jewish educator, professor, writer, and public speaker for over 15 years. His writings span the full spectrum of Jewish religious and political topics. He considers himself a member of both the faith community and the community of free-thinkers. As such, he bridges the gap between religion and reason, belief and inquiry. His commentary on Israel and the Jewish world uses unique insight, satire, comedy, passion, and life experience to shed light on Israeli and Jewish life in the modern world and creating visions and possibilities for a better future.
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