The Bar Mitzvah — The Measuring Stick of a Society

I am a concerned Israeli. I believe Israel is here to exist for the ages, and I want to make sure that Israel represents the best of what Judaism has to offer the world and to not be a nation like any other nation. I am concerned for Israel’s future because I want it to be the best that it will be.

I find my measuring stick for this concern recently surrounding the Jewish life cycle event of the bar mitzvah. In Israel, generally boys mark their bar mitzvah by learning to read from the Torah and participating in a ceremony in a synagogue. And they have a party to celebrate. By and large, girls mark their bat mitzvah by having a party.

I teach children in preparation for their bar mitzvah – how to read from the Torah and the haftarah (the Prophets), learn some prayers, and write a drasha. I teach them a class where they learn about the history of bar mitzvah, what it means today in Israel, Jewish values, and how to lay tefilin. I have officiated at over 80 bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies in my short rabbinic tenure. I would venture to say that over 800 bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies take place in Reform congregations around Israel every year.

I want to start by saying that I have nothing against the Orthodox way of observing Judaism – for someone who derives spiritual fulfillment from that type of observance and worship, I wish him well. However, the fact is that the majority of the Jews in the world are, in practice, not Orthodox Jews.

I recently attended a bar mitzvah ceremony of an Israeli secular family at an Orthodox synagogue. The bar mitzvah boy’s mother and female relatives sat in a balcony on the side and were not involved in what was happening, except for throwing candy after he read from the Torah, and for preparing the food at the end of the service. He and his father had no idea what was happening in the service. They did not follow anything in the service and no one explained to them except to tell them what to do when it came time to have the aliyah to the Torah and read. The rabbi spoke in his (long) sermon about connecting to G-d through the commandments – but not really on a level that this boy or his father could connect with. Yes, the people at the synagogue were nice, wished him well, and blessed him on his way, but this boy had never met these people before and will probably never see them again.

What did this bar mitzvah mean to this boy? He could put a “check” in the box for bar mitzvah. He enjoyed the presents he got and the relatives he met after the ceremony. Maybe he will remember the stained glass windows or the giant and beautiful reading lectern.

This past weekend, I officiated at a bar mitzvah of a family that are sixth generation ideological secular Israelis (so declared the grandfather proudly after the bar mitzvah boy said in his speech that he doesn’t believe in G-d). We held it in a nice restaurant because the high school all-purpose room that my congregation meets in was not to their taste. I brought the Torah and the kipot. I had worked with the family to create their personal prayerbook for the occasion – an integration of traditional prayers with modern Israeli songs and poems. The mother explained to me many times: don’t forget to explain things. Our family is very secular, from the kibbutz, they don’t know any of this, and it is so important to make everyone feel as much a part of this ceremony as possible. And I did explain everything that happened in the prayer service and in the bar mitzvah ceremony. We invited family members to take part in readings. The bar mitzvah boy delivered a d’var torah, his interpretation and ideas about the Torah portion that he read after we had studied it together. Yes, I said it was OK for him to say that he doesn’t believe in G-d – as long as he could explain why. We invited his parents to bless him and they themselves made a beautiful connection from the Torah portion to their wishes for their son on his journey in life.

As usual, people came up to me after the ceremony to say how nice it was (Of course, if there are those who don’t think it’s nice, they don’t usually come and tell me). What struck me was the comment of some of those who approached me: This is the real Judaism, not the Orthodox version. This is what Israel needs. We Israelis made a big mistake in giving the Ultra-Orthodox control of religion in the government.

And it wasn’t just that people said it there. The next morning, I officiated at another bar mitzvah in my congregation (This time in the family’s house – again, didn’t want that school all-purpose room!), and people came up to me to tell me the same things. One man said to me: Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef may be a great Torah scholar but what he says in the public arena frightens me. Who can trust someone’s Torah if he says that people who are victims of a hurricane because they must have sinned? He said to me, I want the Torah that tells me how to make the world a better place, that helps my grandson learn how to be a moral and just leader, as he spoke about it in his d’var torah.

And I think to myself: How many more people we can reach if we can also offer Israeli families the beautiful synagogue for their lifecycle events? We can give them a beautiful sacred space and, in doing so, we will have the opportunity to help them build that sacred space in their souls. And when they come, they will surely come back – for the next child’s bar mitzvah, for a drama class, for Torah study, for everything that will fill our synagogue building, just as in other communities where we have succeeded to build a Reform synagogue.

When Jews from Israel and around the world who understand this vision will help Congregation Darchei Noam finish its synagogue building, the Israelis will come and they will lift up their voices and then we will all tell our government – This is Judaism. This is what Israel needs. Not just for freedom of religion, but also because Israel and Israelis need to connect with our higher moral values to be the best human beings we can be, to guide how we govern ourselves, how we relate to the other, and how we conduct our commerce.

And when we have the centers to attract Israelis, our numbers will be so large that the government will listen.

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