Overhauling the Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs in America

As Jews celebrate the new year tonight, leaders in the largest branch of Judaism, the Reform movement, are starting an initiative to stop the attrition by reinventing the entire bar and bat mitzvah process. Laurie Goodstein, writing for The New York Times:

The problem Jewish leaders are trying to tackle is deeper than the perennial lament about ostentatious bar mitzvah parties, revived last month with a YouTube video from Dallas of a bar mitzvah boy hoofing it with Vegas-style showgirls.

Their concern is that they have built up the bar mitzvah worship service as the pinnacle, putting children through a lot of time and effort geared to preparing them for a daylong event. Rabbis said in interviews that the event has become more a private service for the bar mitzvah family and friends than a communal event for the congregation.

Children and their families go through what some rabbis call an “assembly line” that produces Jews schooled in little more than “pediatric Judaism,” an immature understanding of the faith, its values and spirituality. Most students deliver a short speech about the meaning of the Torah passage they were assigned to read, but they never really learn to understand or speak Hebrew, only to decode the text.

The new initiative by the Reform movement, a liberal branch that claims 1.5 million of the nation’s estimated 6 million Jews, is called B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.

Interesting. I wonder how successful it will be. This comment at The Times is thought-provoking:

Laurie Goodstein’s article about reviving the bar/bat mitzvah is well written. Unfortunately, there is nothing new about the “new look” of the American bar/bat mitzvah. As a former Reform rabbi, I heard and read endless variations of responses to the dilemma of the bar mitzvah/religious school industrial complex for decades. Efforts to include good deeds and social action in the process of bnei mitzvah study have been underway for generations, as have efforts to rewrite the Sabbath morning service to make the bar/bat mitzvah more “meaningful”. Such efforts, however, ignore the basic truth that, for most Reform Jews (and Jews of the other reformed movements), Judaism is a matter of nostalgia, not belief. It is a cultural identity, to be taken out of the drawer during life cycle events and then put back again. There is no getting around the fact that Judaism is based upon a belief in a Jewish God who issued Jewish commandments, not just good or humane ideas. If a Jewish child grows up in a family that does not believe in or follow such a God or such commandments–however moral that family may be–that child will not feel he or she is entering a religious community in any real sense. Do I have the answer? The fact that today I am a Zen Buddhist will tell you. I wish these well-intentioned rabbis and congregants luck, but unless they look issues of belief–belief specific to Judaism–squarely in the face, their efforts will be frustrated.


Men of Science, Men of Faith

In a must-read op-ed piece in The New York Times titled “Welcome to the State of Denial,” Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, laments on the decline of people’s perception of science in our society.

Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.

The list goes on. North Carolina has banned state planners from using climate data in their projections of future sea levels. So many Oregon parents have refused vaccination that the state is revising its school entry policies. And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember.

He goes on to write:

We face many daunting challenges as a society, and they won’t all be solved with more science and math education. But what has been lost is an understanding that science’s open-ended, evidence-based processes — rather than just its results — are essential to meeting those challenges.

My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement. My students cannot afford that luxury. Instead they must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.

As some comments note, the effort to denigrate science is strong and insidious. I agree with this:

The push by religious institutions to have creationism and intelligent design taught alongside evolution in schools as legitimate competing theories, as well as the suppression of data linking man-made atmospheric discharges to climate change by industry are designed to preserve the status quo. Science, as a catalyst of change, has always upended institutions as it ushers in new ideas. We are on the verge of discoveries that may forever change the way we look at the universe and our place in it. It’s clear that those with a vested interest in the institutions of today fear what this means for their futures. Science can make oil and bishops largely irrelevant rather quickly if left unchecked. You bet they’re scared.

If I am not being clear: this perverse social acceptability of the denial of scientific fact must be fought with vigor. I fear for our future generation in America otherwise.