Strictly speaking, according to Jewish law, becoming a bat or bar mitzvah is both a much bigger and much lesser deal than one might think from our modern American celebrations. Once a child reaches the “age of majority,” they become obligated in all the ritual responsibilities of a Jewish adult. As Jews know, this is a big responsibility. But even if we do not celebrate the moment of transition, the obligation befalls us. In other words, even without the synagogue service or the party, one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah.
So why bother with the ritual?
Indeed, in earlier generations, the occasion went generally unmarked for girls and was low key for boys. But in the modern era becoming a bat or bar mitzvah has come to mean a service with a significant focus on the child and a fancy celebration. But it is also much more than that.
In earlier times, 13 might have been the true start of adulthood. Today it marks the beginning of the transition into a period of growing up. That means increased responsibility. As exciting as that may seem, with responsibility comes the hazard of making mistakes, having to own the decisions you make and uncertainty about your ability to guide your own destiny.
Done right, the celebration of a bar or bat mitzvah can help prepare a young person for this transition.
One of the most common answers I hear from students when I ask why celebrate, is that we are having a ceremony for my parents or sometimes grandparents. But children on the cusp of adulthood are beginning to understand that they will face choices about what they do in life and do not have to do things just because it makes their parents happy. This is the perfect moment to ask a young person why they are doing it for their elders.
In asking, often I learn about how much students love and admire their elders. At this critical developmental moment being able to articulate what is valuable in that relationship. I encourage students to sit down and ask these elders why this ritual and by extension Judaism matters. Not only is the content of the conversation important but learning to have such discussions is valuable. The very act of taking time to talk about big ideas with b’nai mitzvah families models for them the possibility of new forms of discussion within the family that can be helpful as both parents and children learn to navigate this new stage of their relationship.
And sometimes the answers surprise me and even the student themselves. The very first time I asked a group of students this question, a girl broke into tears. “I thought,” she explained, “I was doing this for them. I’m realizing, I’m doing this for me.” Without pausing to reflect, she may have missed this critical truth.
The cusp of adulthood can also be a particularly lonely time. As we come away from childhood and begin to explore possibilities of who we may become, the world is wide open but also uncertain. Will we be liked? Will we succeed? Where do we fit in?
There are endless answers to these questions and no guarantees, but a bar or bat mitzvah celebration stands as one answer to the uncertainty. The ceremony is a reminder that you are not alone. Family and friends stand with you. And you are the center of your community. While some may decry the fancy parties as moving away from the purpose of celebrating bar or bat mitzvah, I see it as amplifying the sense of self as part of larger wholes that counter the narratives of marginality that are far too common for our young people. This may seem obvious; it is worth pausing and noticing and naming this as valuable. As such it can become a touchpoint to reflect upon when the doubts of adolescence set in.
Of course, it is not all about the child. On the contrary. The act of participating in and leading elements of a service place the individual child in the context of an enduring tradition. Even as the child shares their own take on the Torah portion, they are just a small piece of the whole. They are a footnote in an eternal community. Not only is it appropriately humbling, but it is also key for young people to know, especially when they falter, that they are part of something that will endure no matter what. As important as they are, being part of a service is a reminder that they do not need to take on the weight of the world on their own.
As adolescents, we begin to wonder if we will be able to actualize our childhood hopes and dreams. Taking on the task of preparing to lead a service and speak to a community demands that most young people step forward well beyond their comfort zone. Every time a student worries that they can’t learn this or that, I encourage them to persevere. I remind them that there is no grade for how well they do it and no consequence if it does not work out as planned. Then in the weeks before the celebration, I ask them to reflect on all they have achieved, which is usually a great deal more than they anticipated. That sense that with support and hard work you can do more than you thought, that, too, is something that every young person should know about themselves.
Taking time to reflect on the why of bar and bat mitzvah celebration can add a great deal to the process of learning and to the celebration itself. At a time when a young person is stepping into a new role, the ritual of bat/bar mitzvah offers them an opportunity to reflect, garner support, and build towards the future. And that is worth celebrating.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is the director of education at Be’chol Lashon, an organization dedicated to racial diversity in Jewish life.