I SAW the blinking light on my answering machine and listened to the frantic voice of my girlfriend, Debbie, as I put the groceries away.
“Heeeeeelp! Jason says he doesn’t want to have a Bar Mitzvah anymore. What should I do? We’ve got the date and the place and I’ve hired a DJ already. He’s making me crazy. Call me.”
Wow, what a bummer, I thought to myself. What would I do if my own son decided he just wasn’t into having a Bar Mitzvah? Would I force him to do it? Cajole him with promises of gifts and rewards? Guilt-trip him into having one because I know, deep down, he will be sorry later?
The honest answer is I would be tempted to do all of those things (plus a few zingers about how it would just kill his grandparents!).
But I would also use my best parenting skills to help him realize that sometimes the decisions we make are significant, not because they make us happy, but because they are connected to important values, like Jewish learning, tradition and family.
And yet, I also know that every child and each family is different, deserving a unique look at when the right time is for a meaningful Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience.
That truth was made clear to me a few years ago when I taught a group of college students, each of whom had never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but wanted one now that they were in college. Some, like Debbie’s son Jason, didn’t want one when they were younger because they weren’t ready to commit to the hard work and study. Others came from interfaith families where it wasn’t an option or from Jewish communities to which they didn’t feel connected.
After they left home, each of my students realized they had a personal desire to learn more about Judaism in order to understand their relationship to their faith, traditions, G-d and Israel.
As a teacher, I was honored and thrilled to be a part of their spiritual journey toward Jewish adulthood. As a mother of a college student myself, I was rewarded by having this opportunity to learn about the struggles, fears, doubts and joys of college life and be able to offer my students a Jewish lens through which to view their lives.
EACH student approached the task with commitment, enthusiasm and a genuine intellectual curiosity that was palpable in our weekly hour and a half classes.
We studied Jewish history, holidays, ethics, rituals, and liturgy while building a trusting spiritual community. We shared holidays and birthday, news about boyfriends and pre-exam anxiety. In our effort to find meaning in and from Judaism, we struggled together with issues of faith, family, doubt and fear.
The year of study culminated in a Shabbat morning service where each student was called up to read from the Torah and offer a personal teaching about something important they had learned or grappled with during the year.
It is true that “words from the heart, reach the heart” and anyone who had ever struggled with issues of faith, G-d or family was moved that Shabbat morning by the group on the bimah. Individually and as a community, they had engaged in the type of serious Jewish study that would now enable them to become responsible Jewish adults.
And that, in a nutshell, is at the heart of what it means to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
I CALLED back my friend Debbie and we talked for a while about what she should do. I urged her to talk with Jason and try to understand what had caused him to change his mind. Perhaps it was the stress of learning the Torah portion, or the fear that he wouldn’t be able to participate in other school activities if he was busy with Hebrew school.
In the end, whatever the decision, I knew that it would have to be one that his family could accept.
Perhaps Jason and his family would be better served if they considered the words of the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig who, when asked if he put on tefillin each morning, responded, “Not yet.” Rosenzweig knew he was not ready to commit, but didn’t close the door on the possibility that someday he might be.
What a powerful message for Jews of all ages — to envision the potential that remains open to us throughout our lives to embrace meaningful Jewish living when we are ready.
Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News