B’nai Mitzvah Revolution is a joint project of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education and its Experiment in Congregational Education. We aim to empower synagogues to return depth and meaning to Jewish learning and reduce the staggering rates of post-b’nai mitzvah dropout. We believe that a root cause of these challenges is the perception that b’nai mitzvah celebrations are like graduation ceremonies.
We share with many synagogues a growing unease about the way b’nai mitzvah are celebrated, and the fact that b’nai mitzvah preparation has, in many cases, supplanted other goals of synagogue educational endeavors.
In many synagogues b’nai mitzvah observances are standardized, taking into account neither the differences between thirteen-year-olds, in terms of maturity and interest, nor the differences between families, in their motivations and Jewish identification. Because these ceremonies are centered on the individual child’s performance of a ritual that s/he may not be able to fully understand or appreciate, current methods of b’nai mitzvah preparation in many congregations are inefficient, wasting much instructional time in the religious school. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they often prove counter-productive as well, driving children and their families away from the synagogue and Jewish community, rather than strengthening their involvement. Thus, the opportunity for bar/bat mitzvah to usher in a new phase of involvement in the Jewish community is missed.
What We’re Doing About It
We are working with congregations across North American in three initiatives:
- The Pilot Cohort: a small group of congregations working intensively in 2013 and 2014 to create experiments with new approaches to b’nai mitzvah preparation and observances. Read more about the Pilot Cohort.
- The Active Learning Network: a network of congregations learning from experts, research, and each other in order to move to action in revolutionizing b’nai mitzvah. Read more about the Active Learning Network.
- The LA Cohort: congregations from multiple movements in the greater Los Angeles area preparing to launch small experiments during the 2013-2014 school year and meeting in-person to network, learn, and support each other. Read more about the LA Cohort.
- View our Theory of Change interactive graphic.
Learning About Approaches to B’nai Mitzvah
We are working on uncovering a range of approaches to preparing for and celebrating b’nai mitzvah in congregations across North America. If your congregation has made changes in this area that you would like to share, please go to our brief 4-question survey to tell us about it.
More about the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution
Need more info? Click a question to read more.
The goals of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution are:
- To generate new ideas and images of meaningful celebrations of b’nai mitzvah, celebrations that would tie b’nai mitzvah and their families more closely to the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.
- To create models of b’nai mitzvah preparation that are more engaging for both the young people and their families.
- To promote more effective methods for the teaching of Hebrew and prayer.
- To document these innovations carefully, through a process of action research conducted by synagogue leaders who are integrally involved in the process of change.
- To create networks of “critical friends” among these synagogue leaders, sharing the findings of their research, and providing network members with a continual feedback loop.
- To share the models and resources created by this network with an ever-widening group of congregations.
By December 2014, participating congregations will:
- Create a range of innovative models for b’nai mitzvah observance and preparation.
- Experiment with more effective models for Hebrew learning.
- Experiment with new ways of teaching kavannah (intentionality) in prayer.
- Document both the challenges and successes in their innovations and experiments.
- Share their models and materials with synagogues throughout North America, through a website, and through conference presentations.
Four key assumptions inspired us to start the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution:
- Community: Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah should signify that one is ready and able to participate more actively in the Jewish community. The child’s commitment to the community and the community’s commitment to the child and to the family should be marked in a meaningful way.
- Meaning: B’nai mitzvah preparation and celebrations should be meaningful for 13-year-olds, their families, and their communities. Pre-teens are already asking big questions about life. The process of bar/bat mitzvah preparation should encourage these questions and help children explore how the Jewish tradition approaches them. Similarly, synagogues can and should support parents experiencing changes in their family dynamics as children enter adolescence.
- Multiple Approaches: There is no one “right” way to demonstrate an increased sense of responsibility. A century ago b’nai mitzvah were celebrated quite simply — by an aliyah to the Torah. Today there is a general expectation that children becoming b’nai mitzvah should demonstrate synagogue skills. We believe that the change of status that becoming bar/bat mitzvah represents should be marked in ways that are aligned with the child’s developing interests, abilities and commitments to the Jewish tradition, whether in the realm of torah (study), avodah (worship), gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness), tikun olam (social justice), or some combination of each. For example, children who are curious about God or their own spirituality might write their own prayers or responses to existing prayers, in addition to (or instead of) leading a service. Those whose growing participation in Jewish life involves working with those in need might describe their experiences in words or video. Those whose interest is in study might write their own articles for the synagogue bulletin, teach a class or give a d’var torah that demonstrates what they have learned. The overarching purpose of all of these activities would be to highlight the special contributions that this newest member brings to the community.
- Deep and Authentic Jewish Learning: The education of children should focus on depth and inquiry, rather than more superficial breadth. For example, children should be taught the meaning of key Hebrew terms, rather than how to simply sound out letters. Learning of prayer, to take another example, should include an exploration of the child’s own spirituality and belief in God, as well as age-appropriate communal experiences of traditional t’fillah (prayer) with kavannah (intentionality). This project is committed to identifying and sharing “best practices” in these areas and others.