Deconstructing Bar Mitzvah

This week’s Torah portion marks the 38th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. (Go ahead, I’ll give you moment to do that in your head). What struck me is how much and how little things have changed in that period of time.

On the one hand, synagogue life couldn’t be more different. The Conservative Movement has embraced total egalitarianism–no more second class treatment (such as those sorry Friday night bat mitzvah services) for the girls in our congregations. Women are full and equal participants in our services and synagogue leadership. Same sex weddings are accepted and commonplace. The music of the liturgy has evolved as well–appealing to a more modern ear while still preserving the rich history of past generations. Even the liturgy itself has changed to become less patriarchal and more inclusive.

But what about bar and bat mitzvah training and services?

In many ways, all aspects of the bar/bat mitzvah service and preparation have not changed much at all–not only since I put on that late 70’s-era 3-piece suit, but going back a lot longer than that.

We are still preparing kids to become 1950’s adult Jews. Put another way, this is your father’s bar mitzvah service. (Your grandfather’s as well).

So I hereby present the following exercise:

  1. Forget everything you know about bar or bat mitzvah!
  2. What would the ideal bar/bat mitzvah experience or preparation include? What would we stop doing? What would change?
  3. Nothing is off the table. For instance, should we even have a service? Should we still do it at age 13?

As you think about this, I want to give you one important piece of information: there is nothing required or halachic about a bar/bat mitzvah service. No one “gets bar mitzvahed”. It simply is a commemoration and celebration of the fact that a kid has already become old enough (age 13) to be obligated to observe Jewish laws and rituals.

I’d love to get a conversation going about this, and include as many past, present, and future b’nei mitzvah parents as possible. Please post your comments below so that we can all see and respond. As you can imagine, I have many opinions on this subject, but I’m waiting to hear from you first…

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

2 comments on “Deconstructing Bar Mitzvah

  1. Ellen Arad

    When I prepare students ( and their parents) , I speak about them “becoming a bar/bat mitzvah;” or being called to the Torah as a bar/bat mitzvah. It’s a noun, not a verb. Somehow making that a conscious distinction changes their perception just a bit


    • Cantor Matt Axelrod

      Totally–it’s one of the most persistent fallacies of Jewish life that someone gets bar or bat mitzvahed. I think the confusion stems from the Christian ritual of baptism–where there is in fact a religious transformation when a person gets baptized. But if the Jewish community would think of it instead as simply an acknowledgement of something that has already happened (becoming a certain age), that might help put things in the proper perspective.


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