Becoming a bar or bat Mitzvah in America has developed into a far different ritual than our grandparents or great-grandparents knew. First, bat mitzvah was then unheard of. Second, a bar mitzvah, bachur, had already spent years of daily minyan attendance. The child knew Hebrew, knew how to read Torah and lived as an experienced religious Jew.
Then there is “the party.” Mine cost more than my first automobile. Many American Jews pay more than my first home for their parties. We keep the country clubs in business, hire bands or DJs, stellar light shows and games for the children, catering galore, etc. When my grandfather became a bar mitzvah in Lithuania, his father brought a bottle of Schnapps and a bag of kichel to shul. That was it.
Yes, when our children reach the point of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, it is a cause of celebration. But what are we celebrating? We parents (and grandparents as well) should take note of the short b’racha that is said in many congregations when the child first ascends the bimah: “Praised are you, HaShem, who has released me from the penalties due to this child.”
We celebrate that our child has, halakhically, become the master of his or her own spiritual destiny and fully responsible for his/her own spiritual survival in the eyes of God.
Have we prepared our children for survival? What can we do to transform our indecisive, ineffective b’nai mitzvah students with questionable ability to survive into a confident, well-trained, practicing member of the Jewish community?
This is my hope for my grandson, and for all of your children and grandchildren as well: that we root them in the Judaism that we practice. That we show them, by our actions, how and why being a Jew matters in our daily lives. Rooted in our tradition, each of them and each of us can go from strength to strength, with the ability to know the difference between right and wrong, between our distractions and our obligations.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)