Q. Are Bar-Mitzvahs really such a good idea? After all, what do the boys gain from simply learning how to read a portion from the Torah?
A. I must have known thousands of Bar-Mitzvah boys. I even used to teach them, and some were truly wonderfully stimulating pupils to deal with. I must admit, though, that I am not a great supporter of the established Bar-Mitzvah procedure. For a boy who lives a fully Jewish life and is au fait with davening and leining, a maftir, haftarah or whole sidra is literally child’s play, as is a musaf or any other part of the service.
But in most cases the socially-required synagogue performance is an immense strain on the boy’s time and good will, on the teacher’s patience, and often on the family budget. Whatever the boy learns is also perishable; very rarely if at all is he likely to use it again and he breathes an understandable sigh of relief when the performance is over.
For my part, I would forget about maftir and haftarah for most boys. Teach them the b’rachot, yes, and parts of the service, if possible; but add a presentation (in English) worked out by the boy, focusing on a Jewish idea or ideal, and make this part of the Bar-mitzvah service.
Even more important, use the time released from Bar-Mitzvah lessons by not needing to go over and over the maftir and haftarah by delving, teacher and boy together, into what it is to be Jewish, to live Jewishness and to debate the great questions of Jewish theology.
A few boys will be shocked to the core by having to think, and some may not yet have emerged from their childish comfort zone: but most will find this the greatest Jewish experience of their lives.