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B'nai Mitzvah for Do-it-Yourself Jews

B'nai Mitzvah for Do-it-Yourself Jews

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells the stories of several Brooklyn families that planned and carried out do-it-yourself b’nai mitzvah ceremonies and receptions for their teens at various locales in the borough. Among them were the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Chelsea Piers, and a Doctor Who-themed bar that served virgin cocktails for the event,

As a traditionalist, I believe that religious ceremonies belong in synagogues. Nonetheless, I decided to ask two of my favorite critics – my daughter, Amanda, who teaches in a Long Island Hebrew school, and my son, Lathan, a former temple youth group president and recent graduate of our congregation’s Hebrew high school – what they thought of the article.

Each of them had attended b’nai mitzvah parties in various venues – on a small yacht, in a kosher delicatessen, and in synagogue social halls, among other places. Our children’s b’nai mitzvah receptions – and those of many of their friends – were held in our temple social hall and were by no means elaborate. Regardless of the setting, though, everyone always seemed to have a great time.

Although they are long past b’nai mitzvah age, my kids’ first reaction was that, if we were doing the planning today, they would prefer the ceremony in the sanctuary. When I asked about the possibility of the beach, a park, or a museum, though, their creative juices started flowing. My daughter suggested that a photography museum might have been an appropriate venue because of her love of photography, and my son hit on something that involved cooking, to coincide with his culinary passions. I, too, started to imagine the possibilities, though it’s too late for do-it-yourself b’nai mitzvah for our family.

In the Reform Jewish community, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, in cooperation with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and its Experiment in Congregational Education, has developed the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, the URJ’s director of youth engagement, who is quoted in the Journal article, says the URJ wants to “encourage synagogues to offer more customized approaches.” The goal is to “encourage families to join a congregation and stay involved.”

I would argue that we are seeing a b’nai mitzvah evolution as unaffiliated families seek to put their unique stamp on b’nai mitzvah, which are no less important Jewish milestones to them than to families who belong to synagogues. Most of those profiled in the story say they have little need for a synagogue or a rabbi, instead “renting a Torah” and hiring a “Chinese wellness practitioner and acupuncturist who taught Torah studies on the side” to conduct the service. If God is everywhere, who is to say that God isn’t on beaches and in bars and wherever else these families are holding their b’nai mitzvah celebrations, too? For families without synagogue affiliation, hiring a rabbi for Jewish events – from bris to bar mitzvah to funeral – is not new, it’s just becoming more mainstream.

I’m fascinated by the fact that families creating the do-it-yourself b'nai mitzvah industry aren’t shunning b'nai mitzvah. Rather, they’re embracing Judaism and the heritage and traditions that go with it. Had circumstances been different, would I have been a b’nai mitzvah do-it-yourselfer? I cannot say for sure, but I do admit that I’m a little jealous of those who are seizing this do-it-yourself opportunity.

I am hopeful that we – the Jewish community at-large – can find ways to encourage these do-it yourself families to use their imagination and energy to create meaningful b’nai mitzvah that are not products of a “bar mitzvah mill.” At the same time, we must encourage these young people to continue their studies after the ceremony, connect them to Jewish youth groups and Taglit-Birthright Israel, and send a clear message to their families that the doors to the synagogue are always open. Although synagogues as we know them today cannot survive without paying members, neither can Judaism survive without do-it-yourself Jews. All of us need to work together to be Reform in such a way that none of us feels the need to reform.

Howard Lev is a member of Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, N.Y. and currently serves on the temple's rituals committee. Married with two children, Howard is a theatre professional who has worked on a number of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, including the national tour of The King & I. He has also been published in Newsday.

Howard Lev
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