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Chabad On The Bar/Bat Mitzvah: It’s Your Jewish Birthright

By , Ithaca, NY

In this guest editorial, invited Chana Silberstein to respond to recent comments by Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

In a recent editorial, Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie criticizes the willingness of Chabad to allow any child a bar mitzvah. He describes the norm of other congregations to require family synagogue membership and attendance in Hebrew school for a year or more before allowing children to be bar mitzvahed. He cites this practice as necessary for ensuring that the bar mitzvah will not be “without meaning, an excuse for a party.” And he accuses Chabad of becoming a “purveyor of Jewish minimalism, lowering educational standards for our children and the community,” teaching the lesson that “Judaism is not a serious endeavor and that even the most significant milestones require only a modicum of commitment.”

To be sure, he is correct that Chabad downplays the importance of bar-mitzvah preparation when considering their long-term educational goals. In a recent survey of directors of Chabad Hebrew Schools, only 11 respondents selected “preparing kids for bar mitzvah” as their most important goal.
But this is hardly a statement of Jewish minimalism. The goals the directors favor include giving children positive Jewish experiences (101 votes), exposing children to Torah (74 votes), teaching children about Jewish holidays and rituals (73 votes), and inspiring children to become actively Jewish adults (64 votes).

What Yoffie fails to consider is that Chabad’s willingness to offer all children a bar mitzvah stems not from lowering of religious standards, but from a refusal to make children the pawns in a game of institutional extortion.

The reason most temples demand certain requirements be met before allowing children to be bar mitzvahed has nothing to do with standards—and everything to do with increasing synagogue revenue. The present system of front-loading fees such as synagogue membership and building fund, while creating an economic base for synagogue operations, discourages many Jews from getting involved.

Thus, many American Jews affiliate with synagogues only because they believe that if they do not, their child will not be able to become a bar mitzvah. In effect, the children are forced to pay the price for the failure of congregations to give their members a reason to want to join of their own volition. And so the kids become hostages. Parents are told that unless they ante up, their children will be denied this most significant of milestones. Some parents pay the ransom. Others leave the temple in disgust.

But it is not the party that makes the child a bar mitzvah, nor even the chanting of the haftorah to the doting approval of family and friends. Just as the child of a Jewish mother is automatically conferred with Jewishness at birth, as soon as a girl turns twelve or a boy turns thirteen, they automatically assume the responsibility for the performance of mitzvot—and this fact alone is sufficient reason to warrant celebration. To mislead children—and their parents—into thinking that there are “standards they must meet” before they can become full-fledged members of the community is to promulgate a self-serving falsehood.

A woman who was suddenly widowed came to us distraught because her very angry son refused to take any bar mitzvah lessons. She had spent years involving herself in his Jewish education, and was devastated at the thought that he would miss this religious milestone. She was relieved when we told her that her son did not need to do anything but show up in shul on the day of his Hebrew birthday. Disarmed, the child agreed to come to shul. My husband helped him recite the brachah when he was called up for his aliyah. Afterwards, there was plenty of singing and dancing and rejoicing—and more than a few wet eyes. And the child who had spent a year raging at G-d left the synagogue feeling like he belonged.

As Chabad representatives on campus, my husband and I often meet students at our Shabbat table who tell us that they have not been bar or bat mitzvahed. They say this by way of explanation of why they aren’t—indeed, have no right to be—Jewishly involved. Invariably, we tell them that there is no such thing as a Jewish adult who is not a bar mitzvah, and toast a l’chaim! to them on the spot. There are no entrance requirements to becoming fully-functioning, responsible, and active members of the Jewish community.

Many of these students subsequently decide they want to celebrate their newly-discovered status in a more meaningful way—by lighting Shabbat candles, by putting on tefilin, by learning to recite the Friday night Kiddush, or by preparing a devar Torah. We encourage them to take these steps at deepening their relationship to Judaism. But our first and most important message to them is that the joys of Jewish participation are the unconditional birthright of every Jew.

Chana Silberstein Phd. is educational director at Chabad at Cornell and curriculum specialist for the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.


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