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How Can We Make B'nai Mitzvah Matter More to Teens?

How Can We Make B'nai Mitzvah Matter More to Teens?

An Interview with Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Author of the JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary

View of a boys head from above as he reads Torah using a yad

Twenty-five years ago, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wrote Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah, winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award for the best religion book published in the United States. In that book, he sought to answer the question: “How can a 13-year-old boy or girl feel the spiritual promise of the event, the pull of the divine, and understand that he or she is participating in an event that has meaning both in the ancient past and in the very immediate present?”

His new book, the JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary (The Jewish Publication Society) goes even further as it aims to show teens preparing for bar/bat mitzvah how Torah, Judaism’s foundational text, addresses the issues in their world and in their own language.

Rabbi Salkin serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, FL. I sat down with him to talk about his efforts to make b’nai mitzvah more meaningful to all concerned. Why did you decide to write a Torah commentary for teens?

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin: There has been a curious lack of curiosity about the Torah itself. When kids receive their Torah portions, the focus is on how to chant. They might know the name of their portion, but they have never read the translation, or, if they have, they don’t really understand it. I wanted to find a way to say, “There is more here than you ever thought. It’s worth your time and energy. Chances are, there’s something in your Torah and Haftarah portions that has your name on it.” And so, over the past three years, I’ve looked at every Torah and Haftarah portion, distilling what I thought was teachable and learnable to help kids understand some very complex ancient ideas.

How can we get young Jews to think of bar/bat mitzvah as the beginning of lifelong Jewish learning and involvement?

Like many rites of passage, bar/bat mitzvah embraces the idea of a challenge – in this case, an intellectual one. I had previously thought that the challenge was to learn how to read passages in Hebrew so that one can demonstrate publicly mastery of a piece of our people’s lore. I realize now that a more important challenge is to teach what has been learned through the study of our people’s most important text.                                      

I would suggest that for many kids, writing and giving a d’var Torah – what many call the “bar/bat mitzvah speech” – is more challenging than memorizing the Hebrew. This is especially true when trying to understand and explain some of the more obscure or difficult passages.

What makes this book different from past Torah commentaries?

I’ve tried to make the language accessible to kids, even if that means being playful. My challenge was finding ways to use popular culture references that don’t quickly become stale. Also, this is the only Torah commentary for kids that also deals with the Haftarot. Too often the Haftarah is almost an afterthought. In fact, I’ve questioned if we really need to have kids learn this additional portion, but I have come to understand that it contains much valuable content. And so, I help kids, and adults, ask the question, “What does this Haftarah really mean.”

How have things changed in the 25 years since you wrote Putting God on the Guest List?

While the dropout rate after bar/bat mitzvah has always been high, it is even higher today, despite all our efforts. Twenty-five years ago, kids had to look for reasons to drop out. Then, kids chose to play soccer rather than engage in Jewish education. Today, school forces kids to be involved in after-school activities. And, today Jewish communities are less cohesive. There is a lack of communal Velcro to keep kids involved in synagogue life. We live in a time when thinking about ideas, about texts, is countercultural. Still, I believe that Judaism should be countercultural.

What advice do you offer parents on how to make bar/bat mitzvah relevant for their children?

Most parents just farm out bar/bat mitzvah preparation to professionals – but if they want their children to truly understand and appreciate why bar/bat mitzvah is significant in our lives as Jews, they have to put in the time. It is as simple as this: Show your children that our sacred text and this sacred rite of passage are important by being active participants with them.

Rabbi Robert Orkand, who retired from the pulpit rabbinate in 2013, lives in the Boston area. He is a past chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Rabbi Robert Orkand
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