We are about to celebrate our fourth Shabbat in our new, beautiful East Greenwich synagogue building. Two of these four Shabbatot have been enhanced with the celebration of b'nei mitzvah: that Jewish rite of passage that has kids jumping through liturgical and emotional hoops to establish their place in the Jewish community.
A "bar" or "bat mitzvah" is one who now counts in our minyan, can be honored with an aliyah to the Torah or reading the haftarah or can lead us in prayer. For all that the time-honored declaration of the bar mitzvah back in the day was "today I am a man," the actual moment of bar (and now bat) mitzvah isn't quite that.
A bar or bat mitzvah celebration, stripped down to essentials, is the celebration of a Jewish youth reaching the age at which he or she is responsible for his or her own relationship with God. Observe commandments? Look to the values God offers us when making tough (or even easy) decisions? There was a time when a Jewish parent was responsible for those decisions and behaviors. Now, we say to our youth, you've mastered the skills, you've reached the age of self-awareness . . . own your Jewishness and keep studying and being involved so that your Jewishness can grow with you.
A young person who has already celebrated bar or bat mitzvah and remains engaged in our congregation is a beautiful thing to behold. Our youth come to our school and help younger kids master skills. Others continue to read Torah for us at services. Yet others involve our congregation in coat drives and food drives and bike rides for good causes . . . because they know that here, in their community, they will find plenty of enthusiastic support and encouragement.
Every bar or bat mitzvah we have celebrated at Torat Yisrael has been a little different. For all that the structure may seem "cooky cutter," each family seems to put their own mark on the day. We have now established a new practice here at Torat Yisrael where members of the family together choose two or three English readings which are central to our new "P'sukei D'Zimra" (spiritual warm-up) part of the service.
The basic building block of bar/bat mitzvah is well-established in our community . . . but its color, its nature will, I hope, continue to evolve and remain a meaningful event for our families and our congregation.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.