Talking About A Revolution — For Bar Mitzvahs

Talking About A Revolution — For Bar Mitzvahs

Reform movement pilots initiative to ‘radically rethink’ the rite.

From the Russian to the Chinese to the Sexual to, most recently, an eponymous sci-fi post-apocalyptic TV series, the past century has witnessed its share of revolutions.

Now, with just a bit less tumult (one hopes) comes B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a Reform movement pilot initiative to “radically rethink” the Jewish rite of passage and its place in synagogue life and education.

With many children and their parents viewing bar/bat mitzvah as the primary purpose of Jewish education and synagogue membership — and with growing numbers opting for private tutors and do-it-yourself ceremonies officiated by hired rabbis — the idea is to help congregations “radically transform” the ceremony and preparation for it. The goal: simultaneously making the b’nai mitzvah experience more meaningful and engaging, yet also, de-emphasizing its graduation-like role in liberal Jewish education.

Fourteen Reform congregations — none in New York City, Long Island or Westchester, but two in suburban New Jersey — are piloting the national initiative, jointly run by the Union for Reform Judaism and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Their work kicked off with a recent weekend-long workshop, with sessions on adolescent development, visioning, developing experiments, new approaches to congregational education, alternative approaches to teaching Hebrew, and strategies for involving the broader community.

The project is also emphasizing “action research,” an approach to gathering and analyzing data “in order to bring about change,” according to a URJ press release.

The “revolution” comes at a time of ferment in the world of Hebrew school/complementary education. This fall marked the launch of the Jewish Journey Project, a Manhattan program offering families more scheduling and curricular choices. In addition, for the past few years, New York’s Jewish Education Project has facilitated the Coalition of Innovating Congregations, a group of approximately 50 institutions working in various ways to make their religious schools more dynamic and engaging.

Meanwhile, a new movement of after-school programs that combine day care with religious school is emerging, and growing numbers of Hebrew schools, such as Manhattan’s Temple Israel, which this year is supplementing its program with a synchronous online Sunday morning class called TiLearn, are experimenting with technology.

On a related note, on Thursday, Dec. 13, several scholars will come together at the 14th Street Y for “Is Jewish Education Broken?,” a public discussion exploring “current models and challenges facing liberal Jewish education” and proposing new curricula and educational models for the future.

As the Beatles crooned in their “Revolution” back in 1968 (after urging would-be revolutionaries to abstain from Chairman Mao worship and “free your mind instead”), “You know it’s going to be all right.”

read more: