There is no one way to do a b’nei mitzvah | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

There is no one way to do a b’nei mitzvah 


A congregant had a request, said Rabbi Joel Dinin. 

The man, in his 80s, wanted to participate in an adult bar mitzvah ceremony at Milwaukee’s Lake Park Synagogue. Dinin said the congregant, by age, technically already was a bar mitzvah – a son of the commandments. But he didn’t mark the occasion as a teen. 

Now an adult, the rabbi said, the congregant had returned to his Judaism and spent time learning with Dinin at the modern orthodox synagogue. On a Sunday, the man came to the synagogue, read from the Torah and shared a sermon while about 30 friends watched the occasion by video stream. 

Jews typically become a bar or bat mitzvah at a young age, and they achieve that status irrespective of whether it’s marked with a ceremony or celebration, Dinin said. Girls are usually considered a bat mitzvah at age 12, and boys become a bar mitzvah at 13. The designation conveys a person understands the Jewish commandments and now is responsible for their own actions. 

At Milwaukee-area congregations, marking the coming-of-age takes a variety of shapes – including a ceremony for adults. Between the health and safety precautions forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and other cultural shifts, celebration of the bar or bat mitzvah continues to evolve. 

The age at which many are viewed as a bar or bat mitzvah correlates with the start of puberty but is not necessarily fixed, Dinin said. Jews are expected to begin following any of the faith’s tenants once they understand them. 

“Once they recognize they’re responsible for their own actions, they have to start fasting and keeping the other laws,” Dinin said. 

Tzipi Altman-Shafer, the Jewish Education Community Planner at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said a person who becomes a bar or bat mitzvah can be counted as part of a minyan – the quorum of 10 adults needed to recite certain prayers. Ceremonies marking the occasion often include the child leading parts of a service and reading from the Torah. 

The different denominations of Judaism have their own traditions celebrating the occasion, Altman-Shafer said. Some of those variations have to do with women’s role in Judaism. 

In Orthodox congregations, she said, women typically do not lead the service or read from the Torah.  
For her daughter’s bat mitzvah, Altman-Shafer said the celebration included a candle-lighting ceremony on a Friday night before Shabbat. Her daughter did not lead the service, but she read psalms in Hebrew and delivered speeches about what she learned. 

In other cases, Altman-Shafer said young women’s bat mitzvah ceremony could be timed with Rosh Chodesh, the start of a new month. 

At The Shul Bayside, an Orthodox congregation north of Milwaukee, the celebration of the bar or bat mitzvah varies. Chava Edelman, the co-director of the synagogue, said the coming-of-age is a “momentous occasion” because of what it signifies. She said the life cycle event is about more than just the Jewish commandments. 

“When a boy or girl becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, it’s this unique opportunity where they’re developing their own relationship with Hashem,” Edelman said. “They’re becoming an adult. They’re not just a child that’s part of their parents’ relationship with Hashem, but they’re truly creating their own relationship. That’s something really special and to be celebrated.” 

At The Shul, some students read Torah, some lead services, some say the blessing over the wine. Many families celebrate with a kiddush luncheon at the synagogue. 

“Including the community in your celebration is something we put a lot of emphasis on,” Edelman said. 
In lieu of a party, she said, some families choose a different activity, such as taking a trip to Israel.  
Altman-Shafer, of the Jewish Federation, said the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements see fewer differences in the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony.  

Instead, she said, the ceremony may vary from one child to the next. Some students may lead more portions of the service than others. Congregations may make accommodations for students who are shy or who don’t like to be in front of large groups, she said. 

“It’s a very individual thing,” Altman-Shafer said. “They don’t all look the same.” 

At Congregation Shalom in Fox Point, students typically mark the bar or bat mitzvah milestone by reading from the Torah. Director of congregational learning Brian Avner said those acts show the students are taking on the responsibilities of Jewish adults. 

Congregation Shalom sees the bar and bat mitzvah experience as a life cycle event and not the end of students’ engagement with Judaism. The expectation is students will stay enrolled and then become madrichim to serve as role models for younger students. The bar or bat mitzvah, Avner said, is a transition point. 

“By choosing to come back as a madrich or madricha and helping the program, that’s another way that they can take on that responsibility of living their Jewish life and connecting to their Judaism in their own way,” Avner said. 

During the pandemic, Avner said the congregation created opportunities for people to join in the celebration from afar by streaming the ceremony online. As of early November, Congregation Shalom maintained a limit on how many people could attend a bar or bat mitzvah service that allows family and friends to be present in-person. Avner said the Reform synagogue was not yet allowing receptions or parties in the building. 

The pandemic is not the only reason some congregations are re-evaluating their approach to the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony. Rabbi Michal Woll of Congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee said she is also seeing changes in the language used to describe the event. More youth want gender-nonbinary options, Woll said. 

Shir Hadash is part of the Reconstructionist movement, which Woll said is looking at options that do not attach a gender to the event. One example is “b’nai” mitzvah, the plural. Another is “brit” mitzvah, meaning covenant of the commandments. 

Irrespective of the name, Woll said, the occasion is the same: young people take responsibility for their Jewish life. 

In addition to gender-inclusive language, Woll said she wants to rethink how the students demonstrate they are taking that responsibility. Jewish adults are told they can choose different avenues to live Jewish lives, such as prayer, study and social justice. Why, Woll asks, couldn’t the same apply to youth? 

Some students are not engaged in traditional elements of the ceremony, such as learning Hebrew. Woll wants to offer other opportunities, such as studying the relationship between Judaism and a topic of interest to the student. To mark the coming-of-age, Woll said, the student could have an aliyah and give a presentation on what they learned. 

“There’s a lot of kids who are not interested in this and would be interested in other things,” Woll said. “That is what I would really like to see: Treating our youth to say there’s so many different ways to engage with Judaism and at their moment of becoming a Jewish adult, getting to choose what that would look like.”