Nathan Alfred

Teaching Their Chapter – Meaningful European Bnei Mitzvah

A bat-mitzvah ceremony. PHOTo CREDIT: Anne Rifkin-Graboi
A bat-mitzvah ceremony. PHOTo CREDIT: Anne Rifkin-Graboi

Julia was a shy 12-year-old lacking self-confidence. The prospect of a Bat Mitzvah frightened her – chanting prayers in Hebrew, reading from the Torah, and giving a sermon.

But when I showed her the Parasha about Miriam, being punished for gossiping about her brother, Moses, something clicked. The future Bat Mitzvah wanted to speak up and tell the world how much she disagreed with her treatment.

Teenagehood represents a challenge. It’s tough to turn 13 in front of your friends and family, your parents’ friends, and the whole Jewish community: high expectations, speaking – even singing – in public. And getting your tongue around an ancient script and words you don’t understand. What exactly are we putting our children through when they celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah?

This summer I am launching a new course for those who train bar and bat mitzvah students around Europe. Participants will meet online each week for four months, culminating in a seminar in Jerusalem, in partnership with the National Library of Israel. The course – called “Teaching their Chapter” will address some of the unique challenges of dealing with budding Jewish teenagers. These may be pedagogical or psychological or relate to the familial and communal settings in which these kids are growing up. 

Many European Jewish communities are dwindling and struggling to exist, and bar and bat mitzvah students lack the cohort and peer group in which to thrive. Many families have intermarried. Others have a strong Holocaust background which can cast a shadow over a coming-of-age celebration, even eighty years after the Second World War. And many teenagers struggle with God, the meaning of prayers, and what it means to be counted as an adult in a Jewish community.

I have more than two decades of experience bringing kids to the Torah in various settings. While each child is unique, there are certain recognisable patterns that recur among my students. Like the Four Children at the Seder table, some kids are conscientious, while others are rebellious. Some accept simply their tasks, while others need far more encouragement to ask a question at all. 

But each of our communities is enhanced by accepting its youngest members. How they are embraced plays a large part in whether they will see the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony as an end of a process, or rather as a gateway into an active life of Jewish learning and involvement. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah should not be about memorizing a few prayers and lines in Hebrew. It should not be about reading a sermon written by parents. 

The challenge is a deep one, and I believe this will be the first course in Europe that targets the non-clergy teachers who are often entrusted with this sacred task. Some communities are well-resourced with educated teachers, whilst others step up to the breach as part of their commitment to the needs of their Kehilla. 

Our course will also dust off their knowledge of the sacred books, introduce them to the wealth of online resources that are available today, and provide them with a network of peers who are sharing their struggles in different locations. And they will be encouraged to work on projects that build resources for their own and the wider community. 

I still remember Julia’s Bat Mitzvah. When her big day came, she chanted, read – and spoke in a strong voice with determination. Her performance astounded her parents – and accomplished what all successful coming of age ceremonies do, boosting her self-confidence and speeding her path to adulthood. Today, a decade later, her parents still talk about the Bat Mitzvah and Julia is a successful journalist. 

For more details see:

About the Author
Rabbi Alfred grew up in London and read Classics at King's College, Cambridge. After time spent in Budapest playing chess, he studied rabbinics in London and Jerusalem, receiving semicha in 2008. He led communities in Europe (Belgium and Luxembourg) and in Asia (Singapore), and now lives with his family in Jerusalem. Most recently he was the spiritual leader of the Free Synagogue of Flushing, the oldest reform shul in Queens, New York.
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