A veteran Israeli Cabinet Minister, the late Dr Yosef Burg, scornfully described Jewish education in the Diaspora as “Kaddish for the Niftar and Bar-Mitzvah for the Maftir“. Fortunately many parents these days have much higher aspirations for their children’s education, but we have to try to ensure that our children not only get a good Jewish education but will want to live by the tenets we teach them.
One of our educational failures is the common belief that a Bar-Mitzvah boy’s parashah (there are still some who think the word is posha, which sound suspiciously like the Hebrew for “transgression”) only needs to be learned parrot-fashion and turned into a show-business performance. The parashah should only be the tip of the iceberg, the acme of a whole range of studies on every aspect of Jewish knowledge and practice.
There is also an inordinate amount of attention given to the Bar-Mitzvah speech, which often tends to focus on everything but the boy’s Jewish identity and future. We must ensure that he has a major say in what he is going to speak about, and that he talks about his convictions and not just his computer, his spirituality and not just his sports.
We also need to ensure that a mentor, possibly the parent, possibly the Bar-Mitzvah teacher, starts the boy thinking about the big issues of life and death, good and evil, the existence of God and the nature of man, the efficacy and even the problems of prayer, our duty to this world and the next.
We have to ask ourselves why few guests really enjoy the Bar-Mitzvah party and most tend to come out of duty; we need to plan a party that will not merely be a clone of someone else’s but will express who our particular family are.
One aspect of “who our particular family are” is to get the boy and his siblings enthusiastic about family history. That’s not just a question of lineage – yichus. It means getting him to work to find out where the family originated, what they did in the various places they lived in, and what we have done for the community.
And let’s use the Bar-Mitzvah to involve the family more in the Jewish people and community. To mark the occasion with a trip to Israel is also a good idea, so long as it is an Israel experience that takes the family out of the ice cream-by-the-hotel-pool scenario and into the remarkable range of Jewish experience in the Jewish homeland.
Who is going to pay for the Israel trip? It doesn’t have to be the parents. In today’s difficult economic conditions that may even be impossible. Maybe all the guests can be asked to contribute part of the boy’s fare.
An extra word about Bar-Mitzvah presents. This is not the time for iPods and computer games. A little ingenuity and imagination and every present can have a relevance to the meaning of Bar-Mitzvah.