Before I came to Yavneh Academy, I worked in a high school for ten years. When I came to Yavneh nine years ago, I was introduced to a phenomenon that I had known about, but had never really absorbed into my psyche- the Bar/Bat Mitzvah syndrome. I have to be honest. My own children were not yet bnai mitzvah age at the time. I had never worked intensely with 6th and 7th graders. Although I myself had a beautiful bat mitzvah, I never truly appreciated the stress that comes along with the bnai mitzah years.
There is, of course, the keriat haTorah, the learning/siyumim, the divrei Torah- all of which have to be studied and internalized. There is the challenging nature of all of the above for all our students, and especially for our children who find learning challenging. The pressure to perform is intense. Some are shy about performing in public. I encourage all parents and children to engage in a meaningful Judaic experience, while also allowing oneself the freedom to opt out of any of the above for the right reasons.
Then there is the intense social pressure of these years. Aside from having to decide whom to invite, there is the social atmosphere of the event itself. Who will be in my carpool? Who will I sit next to? Will I have someone to schmooze with at the smorg? Will someone want to pair up with me for Coke and Pepsi? Where will I stay for Shabbos for the affair out of my hometown? What will I do Shabbos afternoon- will I have someone to be with? For our children who don’t quite have their “go to group” a bar /bat mitzvah party can be very stressful, and often disappointing. I have heard students over the years tell me they spent the affair in the bathroom because he/she could not navigate the social demands of the informal socializing at affairs.
Additionally, there is the pressure that one’s own party should be one that is not “embarrassing.” Will they like my dress? My kippa that I give out? The giveaways? The band? As parents, we struggle with providing our children with a memorable celebration while at the same time managing the finances. We know that to children just entering the teenage years, being accepted by their peers is everything. There is significant pressure to have a party that all will think is cool.
In December, Erica Brown wrote an article for the Jewish Week called “Not Another Video, Please- Bat/Bar Mitzvahs should celebrate the Jewish people, not any individual child” at http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/jew-voice/not-another-video-please. When I read the article, I tucked it away, (to use in a future column, of course). She focuses on the famous video montage that we all create for our beautiful children.
To quote, “But I want to focus on a standard feature of these events: the video…It is basically the narration of the child’s life as a toddler, kindergartener, elementary schooler and awkward middle schooler. The child’s friends will clap wildly when an image of one of them appears. There will be the great aunt who will give a smaller check because she did not show up in one slide. There will definitely be one girl sobbing in the ladies’ room stalls because she’s been left out.” (Here she highlights something of which I had never thought- the social pressure that surrounds the montage. Something to think about).
The story that is important — the narrative that a child joins on this occasion — is the story of the Jewish people. That’s the exciting, meaningful story. A bar/bat mitzvah is not a celebration of a child, in which case the photos of said youngster would be totally appropriate. The bar/bat mitzvah is arguably not a celebration at all. It is a marker of a major transition in the life of a Jewish person: when he or she takes on the adult responsibilities incumbent upon being a member of the Jewish community.
If you want to make a video of that, go around taking pictures of people in need, of a pair of tefillin, of a soldier in Israel fighting on our borders and of an old woman praying at the Wall. Create a picture of Jewish life during the days of the Talmud, the Spanish Inquisition, the Renaissance and Poland in the 18th century. In that video put in a passage from the Bible and maybe a medieval commentator or two. Don’t forget to show an image of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and some obscure everyday heroes of Jewish life.
Make this video aspirational because that’s what the bar/bat mitzvah is all about. It’s not about the child. It’s about our Jewish story. If we keep telling kids through videos and speeches how wonderful they are but forget to tell them how wonderful Jewish life is, then we will have failed them at this transitional time. Our job as Jewish adults is to welcome and inspire a new crop of Jewish adults to take their place in this majestic story. Don’t tell them that they are fabulous the way they are but just how fabulous they could be if they took one great meaningful leap into their own Jewish future.”
As my son celebrated his bar mitzvah a few weeks ago, the words of Erica Brown came to mind. As I wrote the Dvar Torah and the message I wanted to deliver to my son, I thought, “Is my message to him ‘aspirational’?” For, even if our 12 and 13 year olds believe that they are adults, they have a whole life ahead of them where they need to know not only how fabulous they are, (I disagree with Ms. Brown a bit- it’s good once a while for your child to be reinforced for his/her positive quailities!), and how fabulous they can and must become.
Now that I have been sensitized to Bar/Bat Mitzvah syndrome, every time I receive an invitation in the mail, I consider all that the “syndrome” brings with it mentioned above. That is why, at the beginning of each month, I e-mail our middle school staff the names of children celebrating their simcha in the coming month so that they can keep it in mind. This bnai mitzvah time is a wonderful, yet “bumpy” time for our children. When you think about it, it is no different from the rest of adolescence.
On Chag HaShavuot the Jews accepted the Torah. A bar/bat mitzvah is your individual child’s Kabbalat haTorah. We know that even thought the Jews accepted the Torah willingly with Naasah V’Nishma (we will do and we will listen), the Gemara Shabbat 88a states a famous midrash on the words, “And, they stood beneath the mountain.” Rav Avdimi bar Chana bar Chisdah said, “This teaches that G-d held the mountain over their heads like a bucket and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, good. And, if not, your burial place will be there.’ Despite their excitement and willingness to embrace the Torah, there was some sort of pressure and stress surrounding the nation’s Kabbalat HaTorah. Our children experience this same stress and pressure in their personal kabbalah on their bar/bat mitzvah day. We hope they will all leave that kabbalah with a whole hearted “Naaseh V’nishma.”
I know that we as parents work hard on making sure these days are positive forces in our celebrants’ lives. But, I have to admit that sometimes I yearn for the good old days that my Zeidi used to tell me about- as he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in Europe with some kichel and herring in shul. My Zeidi really knew how to throw a party!
Sixth Grade- Students have been learning about L.E.A.D.E.R.S. strategies to combat bullying and social exclusion.
Seventh Grade- Students are completing their empathy unit called Operation Respect where they learn about what it means to be homeless and about poverty in our own community.
Eighth Grade- Students have been focusing on the dangers of the abuse of alcohol and other substances.