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Sandra's Bat Mitzvah

Living Judaism

Why the Bat Mitzvah Girl Wept

The right kind of rite of initiation.

The soft crinkled leather of the small, old white book with gold lettering wasn't expected. 

After opening more numerous wrapped crystal CD cases of mostly duplicate recordings, five watches and a pile of checks with mostly duplicate cards, Sandra's Bat Mitzvah continued to disappoint. Oh, she'd memorized, chanted and spoken as required by the bar/bat mitzvah mill as the cantor at her temple calls it. The party was honorably lavish. But sitting with what her brother called "the loot" she was even more sure she'd missed something important along the way that would have mattered, maybe something about the meaning of being Jewish or feeling the presence of God, something. But now her heart leapt in joy and amazement at the site of the little worn white volume now resting atop crumpled wrapping.

Her mother's copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems lay before her. This well-worn book Sandra knows better than Torah, the margins are inked with tear stains and memories of her mom's own adolescence and loves longed for, earned and lost. Sandra suffers from Crohn's Disease, and during bouts of pain her mother would bring out the little book to help Sandra transcend physicality through moments in the margins of memories from her mom's life. Sandra knows now about savoring the sensation of a first kiss, surviving the loss of a first love, and even having a parent lose his company, moving the family to another state, and how her mom mourned losing friends, changing schools and starting a new, good life all over again, and then yet again.

A note came with the volume: 

Dear Sandra:

We have spent more time together than most parents and children are privileged to do these days. I treasure every moment with you. You are such a fine young woman --- dignified, kind, determined, life-loving, curious, talented and creative.

We owe you an apology. You were right to implore us to send you to your friend Lydia's synagogue for bat mitzvah preparation. Hers indeed was the kind of rite of initiation we had hoped for you. We didn't really understand until Lydia's bat mitzvah took place last week and we experienced the difference between a rote rite and one that is inspired. We promise we will work with you to plan a more meaningful Jewish future for our family. 

After last week, while thumbing through this little book that is so comforting through my pain and your own, the thought came that this is really the right present. We entrust this volume to you as a legacy and charge you with one day passing it on to just the right bat mitzvah daughter or niece or granddaughter of your own.

Next week, when we walk and talk and things are less frenetic and more gifts will arrive in the mail for you, two volumes by wonderful Jewish women poets of our times, one by Marge Piercy and another by Merle Feld. You have come of an age where we're sure one of them will speak to your heart and now, if you so choose, your memories can also be written into the margins for generations to come.

With abounding love, Mom and Dad
Touched, honored, feeling fully known and respected, Sandra wept.

In studies now widely available, some 73% of bar/bat mitzvah students and families report disenchantment with the rote process of preparation found in too many synagogues. They are clear about what they were hoping for: meaning. Meaning for living to be found in Jewish practice, to discover the answer to "I'm a good person anyway, so why be Jewish?" and to experience life-touching, family enriching Judaism by means of their local synagogue. 

Sandra's parents have realized that shift happens, beginning with individual Jews and individual Jewish families entering their own search for meaning. A truism, form follows function, and likely our institutions will shift as we shift. 

Well, Sandra (not her real name) isn't a local girl. But Alec Loeb, (real name), is. And his thirteen-year old cousin Sara from Birmingham, Alabama, from her own position vis--vis the bar/bat mitzvah process also grasped the importance of reflecting back to Alec something of himself. In the quilt photo illustrating this article you will see not the bar mitzvah lad, but the quilt-maker, herself, the task took her six months. Each square is from one of Alec's t-shirts and sports jerseys representing a different stage of his evolution as an athlete. Alec's reaction: "Wow-this is my life."

Imagine if instead of engaging tutors to coach students through the bar/bat mitzvah process meaning-making mentors would be engaged. Such a mentor would help youth like Alec understand how he's learned much through his experiences as an athlete that will help him to become an empowered leader and participant in the Jewish future. For example, "being in the zone," is often spoken of by athletes as a religious experience. Athletes use this term to refer to that moment when everything flows perfectly, times slows down and you connect with the ball, with the energy-of-all-being, when you are an instrument doing more than you could ever have willed yourself into.

Over the course of a year, "being in the zone" moments can happen when contemplating and undertaking mitzvot, prayer and Torah study, with the right mentors. By encouraging students to create a list of those whose ways of "doing Jewish" they most admire and to then select four whom they will make appointments with to interview about that person's Jewish journey, we can multiply the meaning-making mentors in a youth's life. These can become life-saving relationships, as mentors beyond the family are well-documented as important mental health supports for adolescents.&

One young man in Oregon, who suffers from autism, is an artist. One of his four mentors is a fabric artist. While he could never have given a bar mitzvah speech, he did illustrate the twelve tribes in long felt panels that hung in the synagogue on his bar mitzvah day. His mentor spoke instead, describing their process. His cousin had the same Torah portion a year earlier, and his year of preparation was textured by studying the personality and decisions in Torah and midrash (commentary) each of Jacob's twelve sons, one each month and, as a guitarist and aspiring song writer, he wrote a ballad about them as his d'var Torah. Meaning-making mentoring matters. 

Readers, are you seeing necessary shifts happening in bar/bat mitzvah preparation? We'd like to hear your vision, views, voices and values and publish them in the next issue.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Previous Features  

The Living Judaism feature in each issue focuses on Jewish spirituality, meaning and activism with invited columns written by rabbis belonging to the various movements of Judaism. Jewish clergy interested in writing for Living Judaism are invited to make contact with Rabbi Goldie Milgram at judaism @ pjvoice.com