Drops of Honey

Drops of Honey

Creating a Better B'nai Mitzvah Experience for Your Child

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The modern bar and bat mitzvah has become a point of real debate in the Jewish community.  On one hand, it is pilloried for too often being an excuse for a big party rather than the important acknowledgement of a Jewish child's journey towards adulthood.  On the other hand though, it is still an important milestone in many Jewish families and a main reason for synagogue affiliation.  I recently read an excellent article by Tablet Magazine editor Mark Oppenheimer who proposed three contextual ideas for parents to consider as they plan for their child's lifecycle event.  As an educator and a parent who is also anticipating my daughter's bat mitzvah this summer, these ideas struck me as useful and meaningful on both levels.  I have copied the article text below and you can find it on-line here


Jews do the milestone event all wrong. Here’s a quick, and meaningful, fix.

By Mark Oppenheimer
March 3, 2017

About a dozen years ago, I traveled across the country crashing bar and bat mitzvahs, from Arkansas to Alaska. I sneaked into one swank New York City bar mitzvah party by posing as a security guard. I stealthily trailed a deluxe coach in my station wagon to figure out where the 13-year-olds were going for the after-party. I got mistaken for one of the hired dancers. I ate a lot of free finger food. It was all research for my book Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America. In the end, despite all the pop-culture ridicule that the bar and bat mitzvah come in for, the TV and movie depictions of bitchy, prematurely mature adolescents at lavish parties (e.g. in Sex and the City, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and many more), I argued that bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies—despite not being in the Torah, not being required, and being widely derided—are valuable coming-of-age ceremonies, and there’s a good reason that Jews who do almost nothing else Jewish nonetheless think that maybe their children should do this crazy thing.

The book is long out of print, probably because I didn’t have the vision to title it The Bar Mitzvah Crasher; the immensely popular movie The Wedding Crashers came out the same year my book did, and if I had piggybacked on the title, and set myself up as the Owen Wilson character, I’d probably still be counting my royalties. (If my book ever comes back into print, we know what we’ll retitle it.) Nevertheless, I still get emails from people who have happened on the book one way or another. And the question they most often have is, “How can we make our kid’s bar [or bat] mitzvah something special? How can we do it right?” How, in other words, can they avoid becoming a cliché, a party in search of a purpose?

I wrote Thirteen and a Day the year that I turned 31, a year before I even had any children, so I was understandably reluctant to offer any prescriptions. But now, years later, as my first daughter approaches bat mitzvah age, I have finally screwed up the courage to offer some wisdom. I still haven’t seen as many bar and bat mitzvahs as the average middle-schooler from a Jewish town on Long Island, but I’ve seen plenty, and talked to the rabbis and caterers, the hired “party motivators,” the florists, the Torah tutors. I’ve earned the T-shirt. I now give it to you. Ready? Here is my wisdom, in a nutshell:

The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony represents the child’s joining the community of Jewish adults.

From that definition, we can infer three big rules, drawing on three key words—ceremony, community, adults. We’ll take those one at a time.

First, it is a ceremony, but one that changes all the time. In the early text Genesis Rabbah, from the first millennium C.E., the bar mitzvah is simply the moment when the father recites the shepatarani prayer, which says, in effect, “Thanks, God, for making my son old enough that if he screws up, it’s on him, not me”—which, if you think about it, is still a workable definition of adulthood, when you are responsible for your own sins. Ages of first marriage or first driver’s license change with time and place, but moral responsibility really does come around early adolescence. Anyway, the ceremony has grown and changed since then, achieving something like its current form beginning in the Middle Ages. But the important thing is that it has evolved, which means that it is not fixed; no one form is commanded or required.

The bar and bat mitzvah ceremony has come to mean reading from a Torah scroll or leading part of the Shabbat service, although it didn’t have to evolve that way (more on that in a moment). But it’s so much more. It can involve a speech by the boy or girl. It can involve a testimony about the boy or girl from the rabbi. Usually, the parents say some words. The grandparents are acknowledged. At one temple near me, the rabbi always speaks about the Torah scroll itself, which in this case was rescued from Europe after the Holocaust. The multifaceted nature of the ceremony, with parts added over time, indicates that it could permit even more innovation—including the abolition, in some cases, of the requirement that the child chant Torah. The bat mitzvah was a 20th-century innovation, and, at first, it did not include reading Torah (and in more Orthodox circles, sometimes still doesn’t—if girls have bat mitzvah ceremonies at all). Throughout Jewish history, chanting Torah has been a specialized skill that only a minority of Jewish men, and a tinier minority of women, have had. There is no reason that we should keep torturing nonmusical children—or shy children, or those with stage-fright—by requiring them to perform a very specific skill that many will never do again.

We need more and different kinds of ceremonies, honoring the special gifts of each child. The child can perform tasks other than chanting Torah—indeed, the nearly ubiquitous inclusion of a speech is a step in that direction. But the ceremony could also be broadened to better include other people. Could multiple members of the congregation stand up to speak about the boy or girl? Should elementary school teachers, some of them gentiles, come to talk to about ways the bar or bat mitzvah has been a leader in school? What about the peer group, the friends—could they have some role other than putting on their best suits and dresses and partying afterward? Becoming a man or a woman is indeed a milestone, and it should be celebrated, ceremoniously. But that could, and should, mean many different things.

Second, the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony welcomes a Jew into a community. So it should not be a private ceremony. I don’t recommend a trip to Israel with some siblings and Bubbe and Zayde. As much as I like off-script, do-it-yourself religious creativity, being a Jewish adult means joining a Jewish community. It means being welcomed by an intergenerational community of elderly people, empty-nesters, young parents, and babies. And, ideally, it means having the poise and training to greet all those kinds of Jews, of different ages, with a smile and an appropriate greeting. It’s a moment when you are expected to deal with Jews outside your narrow age cohort, some of whom you may not know well. Because the Jewish family is diverse and multifarious, and we belong to all of them, and they to us.

So I recommend that if a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is important to a family, they join a community. Maybe it’s a temple or synagogue, maybe it’s an independent havurah, maybe it’s a group of other Jews struggling to find the right community. Maybe it’s an online community (as a last resort—Shabbat dinners are harder that way, as are hugs). Whatever it is, they won’t all be your kind of people. You won’t love every one of them. Some of them won’t share your politics or your beliefs. Some of them will seem snooty, others tacky. Some will seem too observant, others too casual about observance. But some of them will be loving and bring unexpected riches to your life. Judaism is a communal religion; we don’t do monasticism or hermeticism, and we can only pray fully in a group of 10. A central goal of the adult Jewish life should be spending some time with other Jews, and that bar or bat mitzvah can be a good time to start.

Jewish events are public events, by the way. Brises, for example, aren’t supposed to be by invitation; like shivas, sitting for the dead, they are announced to the community, and anyone can drop by. No reason a bar mitzvah can’t be an occasion to invite lots of people you don’t know, or barely know. They’ll feel honored, and you might make new friends.

And if, for whatever reason, there aren’t other Jews around, then have your ceremony around all your gentile friends (who can be invited even if there are plenty of other Jews). Take the occasion to explain to them, and show them, what your very different tradition is.

Finally, the bar or bat mitzvah is a ceremony welcoming a Jewish child to the community of Jewish adults. So it raises the question of what makes one an adult. Above, I noted that it’s the onset of moral responsibility. OK—so what else? Well, in most Jewish communities today, the adulthood is performed at the bar or bat mitzvah by leyning Torah, a skill the boy or girl may never again use. And, generally, the bar or bat mitzvah functions as a temporary graduation from Judaism, the Jew not to be seen again until his or her wedding (maybe). But what if we treated the bar or bat mitzvah as the onset of new adult responsibilities?

I believe that rabbis should talk with boys and girls approaching their bar or bat mitzvahs and say something like this: “Our community has a range of needs from its adults. We need people to chant Torah, yes. But we also need people to visit our sick elderly people in hospice. We need people to babysit during certain events when parents are busy. We need people to rake leaves and shovel snow. We need people to chop vegetables for the kiddush lunches. We need people to show up to help make a minyan. We need people to stuff envelopes for the monthly mailing. We need people to do tikkun olam for the wider, and non-Jewish, community. So: which of these gifts are you going to give us after you become a bar or bat mitzvah?”

In other words, flip the “bar mitzvah project.” Make it not a yearlong final exam leading up to the day you graduate from Judaism, but rather a commitment that you will undertake as a newly minted adult. Such an approach makes sense theologically. It gives a rabbi better grounds to talk about what Jewish adulthood really means—what we owe each other. And it honors the unique gifts of every child, including special-needs children, children with stage fright, tone-deaf children, and those who love being Jewish but aren’t moved by Jewish liturgy. This would, of course, be an expectation, not a contract; plenty of b’nai and b’not mitzvah would fail to uphold their commitments. But that’s OK. Plenty of much older adults fail, in all sorts of ways, all the time. Jews are human, after all. The point is to think of Jewish adulthood in a fuller way, a more realistic way. A better way.

What do these three rules mean in practice? They mean that, first, a bar mitzvah should have a ceremonial component: a date; an invitation; the child doing something, whether chanting Torah, or giving a talk, or leading a discussion of a Jewish text, or leading a song circle, or going off-site to clean up a park and then concluding with a discussion of Jewish environmental values—somehow demonstrating the gifts she or he plans to give to the Jewish community henceforth; then a celebration, one that is comfortable for, and unique to, the child. Second, the ceremony (and celebration) should go beyond the child’s immediate circle, to suggest an evolving and expanding commitment to Jews, and to humanity. Third, the new adult should be able to speak concretely and meaningfully about what she or he plans to do differently, particularly in a Jewish context, now that adulthood has arrived.

Come to think of it, that’s good advice for all of us. One thing I learned writing my book is that bar and bat mitzvah really are family occasions when everyone from the child to the parents to estranged Great Aunt Estelle has a reckoning with what it means to be Jewish and to be human. Giving us all that opportunity is the central work of the bar and bat mitzvah—not just the ceremonies, but the new adults themselves.

A Drash about Data in Jewish Education

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As 5777 is about to begin, CFJE is proud to launch our blog on Jewish education both in Chicago and around the world.  We call it Drops of Honey in reference to the tradition of putting drops of honey on a child's study page containing the Hebrew alphabet so it will smear on their fingers as they learn it and begin to associate learning with sweetness.  It is also a fitting title for this time of year!  Our hope is to create an informative and engaging space for dialogue around Jewish education.  Our first post is taken from our Executive Director, Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D., and has also been posted on the JFNA's Education and Engagement department's blog this week as well.  A happy, healthy and sweet new year to you and yours!

One of my favorite components of the Jewish gestalt is the idea that nothing is taken at face value.  Everything, no matter how sacred, can be interpreted or reinterpreted. Our most ancient of sacred biblical texts are still able to be excavated for fresh wisdom because of this principle. We even have a formula for levels of interpretation that we use to determine the richness of the wisdom we harvest from our interpretations. That formula, known by the acronym Peh-Resh-Dalet-Samech and pronounced Pardes (“Orchard”), stands for four levels of interpretative understanding: 


  • Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — "surface;” the literal meaning of the word or phrase.
  • Remez (רֶמֶז) — "hints" or the deeper meaning beyond just the literal sense, perhaps symbolic or metaphoric.
  • Derash (דְּרַשׁ) —"seek" — the comparative meaning when looked at next to similar situations.
  • Sod (סוֹד) — "secret" – the meaning given through inspiration or revelation at the mystical level.


Historically in Jewish education our greatest teachers applied thePardes concept to increase our understanding of biblical verses because they were understood to be the primary source of all important knowledge, but today our educational leadership needs to rely on additional sources of wisdom never envisioned by our Sages. We are a people compelled by ideas but we are living in a historic era driven by numbers. Our ancestors lived in a time where they interpreted their world through logic formulas; we live in a time where we interpret our world through logic algorithms. Our ancestors sought to use their formulas to extract din (law) to order their world; we use ours to extract data to order our world.


Secular education, the world of STEM that is the learning center of our American society, has found the use of data as a framework for measuring their work and understanding their students to be a critical tool since the evolution of the social sciences in the 19th century.  


Jewish education, however, has been slow to embrace data. After all, an education model that in its sometimes-dubious application seemed to try and quantify the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is antithetical to Judaism’s emphasis on the quality of the learning experience. Our teachers, especially in supplemental settings, are often chosen more for their love of Judaism than for their knowledge of texts. 


The use and exploration of data has not come over to our congregational supplemental schools yet, most likely because we have no larger cultural competitive phenomena against which we need to prove something to attract and retain our kids. Add to that a proprietary culture of competition among congregations to distinguish their schools and their content from each other, and the result is that we have a much diminished understanding or even awareness of the various educational patterns of our supplemental programs and their impact. Put another way, everyone is so busy trying to tweak the challah recipe that we cannot easily tell what a good challah is anymore much less what changes to the recipe actually do to the loaf. Strategic use of data allows us to intentionally improve the recipe, to document the effect of changes and make educated choices about additional changes in order to produce what we desire.  


It is fair to add that using data as a tool is a bit nerve-racking if you are not trained how to do it.  Based on the training of most Jewish educators, many of us can tackle a page of Talmud more comfortably than a spread sheet.  But thinking back to when many of us were first introduced to text study, be it Gemara or Chumash or other sacred text, it was not so comfortable at the time. Learning to study text took time and none of us could have done it without Rashi, the 11th century rabbi whose clarifying commentary on text is the first resource a text student draws upon to understand the content.  His work is so ubiquitous that most classic editions of sacred texts have his commentary included in the printing using a special font that a student also has to learn how to decipher so as not to confuse it with the text itself. Today’s Jewish education professionals can actually decrease their anxiety and increase their confidence around data if they keep that experience in mind and use it as a lens to better utilize data in their work. Supplementary Jewish education can really benefit from data collection if we understand that data use has its own concepts of Pardes and its own Rashi.  


As an example, look at Chicago and its supplementary schools. When the Federation went in to the education business several years ago by adopting a local Jewish education central agency, they possessed almost no real information about the community’s congregational schools beyond anecdote.  Real numbers of students in supplementary schools, their budgets, funds spent on professional development, retention rates post-b’nai mitzvah, and a myriad of other helpful data points had never been collected and analyzed in the community in order to effectively plan and allocate funds.  Comparable data was available at the Federation for health and human services agencies in the community. That collection, though, was in large part due to the reporting requirements of the state, and supplementary education providers have no such comparable outside requirements. Federation’s historically allocated lump sums of funds to the central education agency to distribute did not mandate collection information either.  


Now that Federation had assumed the role of direct educational support for themselves, they needed to collect substantive information to make informed allocation and granting decisions in this area. Most Federation planning professionals are not trained and experienced educators; data could give them an accessible medium to understand the field as it does with health and human services and other areas. However, sharing that need with the congregational professionals though was not met with sympathetic responses. They had legitimate worries about data work. They are already overworked; how much time did Federation expect them to give to data reporting? Data reporting means sometimes sharing sensitive information; how did they know their data wouldn’t be shared inappropriately? Does the fact that Federation wanted to collect the data mean that they would now be making funding decisions for supplementary education only on the basis of numbers and not on content delivery? Bottom line, could Federation be trusted to do the right thing with this information if it is not immediately clear what value the data has to them?


Two years later, some very valuable lessons were learned that seem to have justified the effort. The data collected gave Federation its first in-depth understanding of the inner administrative workings of congregational education programs. It showed the wide range of budgetary and human capital realities such as costs per student, teacher salary ranges and professional development expenditures amongst the 49 congregational education programs, and it gave a real sense of actual student enrollment patterns across the community. It also provided the first real information about the supplemental programs at the furthest reaches of the Federation catchment area that are well beyond the Jewish population clusters that are the usual focus of attention and resources. These further-afield education programs were operating with not only little communal support but also little knowledge of communal resources available to them. Both Federation and the programs learned about each other.


Even with such important information coming to light, the raw data collected was able to be understood by the Federation staff only at the peshat level. That alone arguably would not have justified the expense or effort taken to collect it. To get a deeper understanding of the data the Federation needed a Rashi. We employed Dr. Amy Sales, JData director.  She loves Jewish education but she is not a Jewish educator; she is a social scientist who can discern patterns from data that the average person is not trained to see. With her assistance, the Federation professionals and the Jewish educators who shared the data were able to see the remez and derash in the numbers. With just two years of data work, we cannot say we have found the sod yet in the numbers but there are already hints of it.  

At the same time, we have learned a lot about data collection. too.    

  • Providing such information is not automatic to Jewish educators and that incentives to complete data collection help them immensely to overcome their reservation to disclose.  
  • The findings from the data have to be seen in use to be respected and use incentivizes reporting. In this case, the findings were publically presented to the education community and they were openly referred to in grant-making decisions and in allocations.   
  • Making data findings accessible helps to bridge the gaps between and amongst funders and communal professionals because it provides them all with a common language and reference point in their discussions about Jewish education.  
  • Data can reveal phenomena that were previously not noticed and that are worthy of deeper investigation. In this case, the data collection showed occurrences of families choosing to prepare and celebrate b’nai mitzvah on their own rather than through a synagogue. This led to a specific study commissioned by Federation on this trend that documented how much more wide spread this is in Chicago had than previously known and what factors contribute to it.  


Data collection and analysis should no longer be seen as antithetical to Jewish education but as another tool in its improvement and sustainability in the modern Jewish community.  Everyone uses data in various forms every day whether through a digital instrument or a smart watch or GPS. All we need are the Rashis out there to help us understand it and they can be found in universities and consultant groups around the country. It is really not that hidden of a concept for all of us in the Federation world to embrace.  Hmm… maybe that’s the sod!

Coming Soon

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CFJE blog coming soon!

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