Mazel tov on your upcoming simcha! It's never too early to start thinking about your bar or bat mitzvah, and I advise you to approach this important rite of passage not as a sort of graduation ceremony, but as a meaningful transition toward Jewish adulthood.
Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is an exciting opportunity. I use the word "becoming" here intentionally. In our tradition, bar and bat mitzvah is not something that just happens TO us, but an event that requires the bar or bat mitzvah to take an active role. The more you make the process your own, the more momentous it will be.
I have three questions that I hope will help you think about ways to make your bar or bat mitzvah as meaningful to you and your family as possible.
What is important to you?
What do you love to do? What's important to you? Are you a musician or artist? Do you have a favorite hobby? I urge you to think about ways to incorporate your passions into your bar or bat mitzvah experience. Talk to your rabbi, cantor or an educator at your synagogue about how to do this. You might be surprised at the many ways you could make your bar or bat mitzvah a more personalized experience. I have worked with teens who have integrated live music into their ceremonies and others who have brought a love of cooking into their learning process. One teen, in addition to studying about different ways of celebrating Passover, studied recipes from all over the world and cooked some of them for her family's Passover seder.
What can you contribute to your community?
One of the most important aspects of becoming bat or bar mitzvah is taking on greater responsibility in your community. Ask yourself how you can make a difference. The answer to this question might be based on one of the interests you thought about in the previous question, or it could be based on something you might think is missing or should be improved in your community. I know teens who have started non-profit organizations or lobbied their elected representatives to make real change. It is important to be connected to your synagogue, but that isn't the only place where you can make a difference. And don't let your age stop you. It can be challenging to find the right opportunities when you are young, but there is so much you have to offer and so much your community needs.
What might you want to teach?
Teaching is another way of adding your voice to the Jewish people in an essential way. When you teach something, it forces you to become a specialist in that area. The Jewish people need to hear from you and learn with you and from you. You are essential to writing the next chapter in the history of the Jewish people.
I worked with one bat mitzvah student whose Torah portion included the passage that discusses the obligation to remember and keep Shabbat. She studied the Torah text and its commentaries and found related contemporary texts and works of poetry, art and music that exemplified what keeping Shabbat meant to her. After her bat mitzvah, she turned this into a four-session adult study seminar!
What might you be able to teach your peers or even adults in your community?
All of these suggestions will be easier to do in partnership with an adult in your congregation. But, don't wait to be asked-make an appointment with your rabbi, cantor, teachers or other community leaders to discuss ways to make your bat or bar mitzvah one of the most meaningful milestones in your life.
Rabbi Bradley Solmsen is the Director of Youth Engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Solmsen recently launched, in partnership with Dr. Isa Aron at HUC, the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution-a project to help synagogues radically reframe their approaches to bat and bar mitzvah.