The communities are different, but they face a common challenge: how to prepare their students for one of the biggest days of their Jewish life – the Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Chaim from the UK manages 100 students in his UK synagogue’s cheder. Ezra from Montpellier in France works with fewer than a dozen. Both are among the 26 teachers studying in a new 16-week-long program launched this month called Teaching Their Chapter.
They come from more than a dozen countries in Europe, from Cork in Ireland in the West to Kuopio in Finland in the North. Some are professional teachers; others are active lay people. A grandfather wanted to prepare his granddaughter for the Big Day – “before it is too late.” A young rabbinical student wants to improve her understanding of how to teach teenagers.
The program, led by my Brussels International Jewish Center synagogue, represents a partnership between our former Rabbi Nathan Alfred and the National Library of Israel. Rabbi Nathan is one of a kind – a King’s College, Cambridge Classics graduate, a chess master (he once beat 20 of our congregants at once, cornering me in less than a dozen moves), and a globetrotter. He has ministered in Brussels, Luxembourg, Singapore, New York, and many places in between. He has taught more than 200 Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.
The National Library of Israel has developed a course called Writing My Chapter. It prepares students for everything from how to write an invitation to their Big Day to how to share their Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience so others can learn about it.
European Jewish communities large and small face a huge challenge to teach the next generation. A key weak point is Bar and Bat Mitzvah education: families need their children to receive sufficient Jewish learning in the year leading up to the ceremony.
In communities without full-time rabbis (and often even when there is one), the task of teaching Bar and Bat mitzvah students falls on lay leaders. Teachers with the best Hebrew are chosen. Many lack deep knowledge of Judaism. Rarely have they received training for how to teach 12-year-olds entering puberty. Sometimes they have no teacher training at all.
Despite the best will in the world, this is not a recipe for success. Families end up seeing their child learning some prayers and verses of Hebrew, often by rote, and “performing” well at their ceremony. It is a wasted opportunity for a more serious entry into Jewish learning and adulthood.
My own family represents living proof. An Israeli taught our oldest son. He memorized the prayers and his Paracha. The meaning of the ritual stayed submerged. My daughter studied with Rabbi Nathan. She memorized her lines. Her Paracha was about Miriam. When the time came for her to give her sermon, she launched into a spirited discourse – not reading, but speaking from notes – about how poorly the Bible treats women.
My daughter overcame her fears. She gained self-confidence. She became an adult – and to this day, we still talk about her experience.
Our course is being taught online over sixteen sessions, each lasting two hours each. At our inaugural meeting, students shared their experiences. We began by learning how difficult Bar and Bat Mitzvahs can be – YouTube offers a plethora of comic Hollywood scenes full of childhood apprehension, screeching voices, and overweening parents.
The serious stuff starts – texts, philosophy, and history -in the next lesson. We will build up an online treasury that will be open to future teachers and students. In August, we will conclude with a residential Shabbaton in Jerusalem, where students will have the opportunity to meet one another and deepen their friendships and network, whilst enjoying some further learning and Shabbat services together