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.