A Bar Mitzvah That Misses the Point
Rabbi Hillel, a great teacher who lived from approximately 30 BCE until 10CE, taught us one of the most important precepts of our faith, "AlTifrosh Min Hatzibbur - Do not separate yourselves from the community."Community is central to Jewish faith. Although we can pray alone, we can't say some of our most important prayers without being in the presence of 10 other Jews - a minyan. We can study unaccompanied, but tradition teaches us that we won't learn as well or as much as we would studying in hevrutah with a partner. In fact the Hebrew word for synagogue is not, as one might expect, "Beit HaT'fillah" - a house of prayer, but rather "Beit HaK'nesset" - a house of gathering. As central as prayer is to our faith, community is its cornerstone.
This week the New York Times published an article entitled "Bar Mitzvah Studies Take to the Web" about how modern technologies such as Skype are making it possible for students to prepare for Bar/Bat Mitzvah without the "expense" and "time commitments" of joining a congregation.
The article documented a new approach to bar/bat mitzvah preparation that completely defeats the purpose of this life-cycle passage. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah means that you transition to adulthood in the Jewish community. This comes with privileges and responsibilities, almost all of which take place within the context of and in the presence of other Jews. A newly minted bar or bat mitzvah counts in a minyan (a quorum of ten people required for prayer), can recite the Mourner's Kaddish (which can only be said in the presence of a minyan), can lead others in prayer, and can read from the Torah. At Temple Beth Torah, they are welcome to take part in our adult choir and to sit on synagogue committees. What does it mean to mark this rite of passage if it doesn't imply a change of communal status? How does studying for 12 hours over the internet compare with studying for a minimum of three years in a classroom with peers and five to ten months in a room with your cantor or rabbi?
While studying with students for B'nei Mitzvah, I connect with them about matters of importance. We discuss faith and we learn methods for studying that serve them for the rest of their lives. Sitting with them one on one, I sometimes discover learning disabilities that had gone previously undiagnosed. We build what will hopefully become a lifelong relationship of trust with their clergy.
I have no objection to the use of technology in teaching. In fact, I am known in my community for my extensive use of all different kinds of online resources. But studying solely online is incomplete. There is no relationship. You can't learn to be a good football player, for example, by looking up football on Wikipedia. You can know every rule there is, but you will never understand what it means to be a member of the team until you play the sport. Without a good coach you may also find it difficult to reach your full potential. There is simply no substitute for the special time that students spend in person, one on one with their rabbi and/or cantor.
The article argues that students today are accustomed to experiencing community online, but other articles in the same newspaper bemoan that very fact and the great many things that are lost to us when we forget to communicate person to person, face to face. To quote the Jewish educator at our temple, Juliet Barr, "I find it shocking that, in an age when people are craving real community, the New York Times would praise a practice that encourages and promotes the synthetic cyber community in which our children are already quite deeply ensconced."
And what about all those years of Hebrew school? Students in our school make Jewish friends and form Jewish community which they don't get in public school. After their bar/bat mitzvah they are given the honor of being called to the Torah for an aliyah at the simcha of their friends.They learned together, they studied together, and now they mark their adulthood by celebrating together.
My rabbi, Rabbi Brian Beal said: "It's unfortunate that there are people who believe that they can circumvent the need for community,acculturation and communal education by taking the expedient, less expensive way of educating a child for bar mitzvah. I think it reduces the bar mitzvah to the equivalent of learning one's lines for a school play and puts the emphasis on the party and celebration. Those are not the values to which Reform Judaism aspires."
The article touts this idea as a response to the rising cost of synagogue membership. Yes, joining a congregation is expensive. Why? Because, to one of the rabbis referenced in the article, "Our generation doesn't view Judaism as an obligation."
People want there to be a congregation in their town. They want thereto be a Rabbi and a Cantor available to them for times of celebration and in moments of need. But, because they aren't all willing to contribute the necessary funds to support building, staff, and school,the task is left to the few to shoulder the burden of the many. Those who want to fulfill the mitzvah, "v'shinantam l'vanecha - you shall teach it to your children" end up paying a higher amount because of those who opt out in favor of programs like the one described in the Times article, paying rabbis and cantors a la carte for weddings,funerals, and now b'nei mitzvah rather than supporting and being a part of a community.
Imagine if everyone in the United States who did not have children decided that they didn't need to pay taxes to support the public school system. Those who did have children would have to pay a mighty high tax. It is indeed a sad state of affairs. But just as with public schools,the solution is not to abandon the model altogether! Most synagogues will offer assistance to those who cannot afford to pay dues. In our community, families are never turned away for financial reasons.
The only time when I believe that lessons over Skype and long distance b'nei mitzvah preparation make sense are when a family does not live within driving distance of a congregation. In this case only, I can see this service offering something of value to these families. But it is a shadow of the community that they could have. For those who do have a synagogue nearby, well, there's just nothing like the real thing.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. This is no less true for a Jewish child. Every decision that we make regarding the lives of our families in the Jewish community sends a message to our children. When we live in a community with a synagogue and therefore have other options, yet we choose to go the "cheap" route for b'nei mitzvah, depriving our children of meaningful relationships with clergy, with Jewish peers, and with other Jewish role models, we tell our children that their heritage is not worth their time or their money. At the end of their b'nei mitzvah, we have produced mostly illiterate Jews with no community, little sense of history, and no reason to ever step foot in a synagogue again. Where then will our Temples be in twenty years? Where will they be in fifty? Online?
Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibbur - Do not separate yourselves from the community, or surely there will be no community left to join.