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When the Rabbi's Kid is the Bar Mitzvah Boy

When the Rabbi's Kid is the Bar Mitzvah Boy

bar mitzvah boy in tallit returning the scroll to the ark

“So what’s the theme of your son’s bar mitzvah?”

It was such a simple question that it’s difficult to explain exactly why it stumped me.

“I do this every week,” I reminded myself. “Isn’t that what I say to anxious students and nervous parents?” I promise them, “Don’t worry, I’ll get you through.” How was it, then, that when I was on the other side of the table, I had no idea how to respond?

From 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday mornings, I know exactly what to do to prepare for upcoming b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. But as for what happens before and after, all of the minute details that go into the planning and execution...well, of that I have no idea. Thank goodness we had the foresight to hire an outstanding party planner – but there she was, looking expectantly across the table and asking, “What’s the theme of your son’s bar mitzvah?”

From my wife, I got only the same expectant face. She’s also a rabbi, so I figured she would be some help. But she’s also been out of the pulpit for almost 10 years, ever since she refocused her life’s work on hospital chaplaincy and caring for our sons – one of whom apparently now needs to have a theme for his bar mitzvah.

I consider throwing out something arbitrary. Sports! No, that’s no good. I know my son, and sports are not his thing. My frequent remark is he’s more likely to own a team than to play for one. Moreover, I also know my son doesn’t relish being the center of attention (tough break for a rabbi’s kid).

We’ve already clearly told our planner some things we don’t want. We don’t want the spandex-clad dancers that seem to accompany just about every deejay we’ve ever seen. Oy, the DJ! I supposed he’ll want to know what the theme is, too. I can picture it now: He’ll lower slatted, Kanye West-style sunglass and ask, “Yo, dawg, what’s the theme of your son’s bar mitzvah?”

“All fathers must have a moment like this,” I tell myself. The work Joanna and I do, as rabbis, is so unlike that of most of our peers, but our lives are not so different. We have the same struggles about how to approach our careers, our home lives, the balance between needs and wants. If this is true in our daily round, how much the more so when it comes to a bar mitzvah?

We all ask the same questions: What does this really mean to my son? How will his life change after this day? Will he live the Jewish values we have worked hard – and spent so much time and effort – trying to instill in him? Will he be a link in the chain of our tradition, or will this generation be the last? Do I really need to invite this cousin that I haven’t spoken to in 12 years?

I comfort myself with the thought that all of our ancestors must have asked themselves these same questions. The glory of our tradition is that at the end of the day, even Jacob was simply a father who worried about his son’s futures. I wonder what the theme of their b’nai mitzvah were?

Suddenly, I understand what it’s all about. It’s the same message I’ve given in countless adult education classes. It’s the same idea I’ve tried to teach each and every confirmation class. It’s the same concept I’ve veered off topic to touch upon during almost every Torah study.

Only this time, the lesson is for me.

The intent of Judaism is not to answer all of life’s questions. The main purpose of Judaism is not to make clear that which is otherwise unknown. The goal of Judaism is to provide wisdom and guidance to make our lives easier. The essential tenet of our faith is that our lives have meaning and purpose. The goal of Judaism is to remind us that somewhere out there, there is a source of all life, all order, all existence. In God there is a wisdom, an intelligence that loves us and cares for us and wants only what is best for us, for our families, for our communities.

We are all fathers, we are all mothers, we are all sons and daughters struggling to make the most out of our precious time on earth. We love. We share. We celebrate. We mourn. We live our lives as best we can with the lessons that we have been given.

I reconsider the question: “So what’s the theme of your son’s bar mitzvah?”

And I know the answer: “Judaism.”

Rabbi Anthony Fratello is a 1994 graduate of Pomona College and was ordained at the Cincinnati Campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1999. Since 2000, he has been the rabbi of Temple Shaarei Shalom, a 560-family congregation in Boynton Beach, FL. He has served as a board and executive board member of numerous community agencies and is a highly sought and well-regarded speaker, teacher, and lecturer.

Rabbi Anthony Fratello
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