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Youth Engagement: Launching the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution
an interview with Isa Aron and Bradley Solmsen

Teens from Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury
River Valley and their Israeli exchange partners
rest atop Masada, 2012.

A recent national census of religious schools shows dropout rates after bar/bat mitzvah ranging from 35% in 8th grade to 85% by 12th grade. What is the significance of this finding for the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE)?

Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, URJ director of Youth Engagement and co-director of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution: It points to the fact that the bar and bat mitzvah experience can either be a strong point of Jewish continuation or an exit. If our goal is to shift this trend, then we need to ask: How can the ceremony, the preparation, and the aftermath be deeply engaging and relevant for both teens and their parents?

Our CYE goal is developing opportunities to ensure the majority of youth and their families remain engaged in Jewish life from the time they enter our communities through the rest of their lives. B’nai mitzvah is one of our last major opportunities to connect with parents and teens as a unit. Afterward, young people tend to make their own decisions regarding involvement in the Jewish community, and therefore become more difficult to engage. That is why we’ve made b’nai mitzvah transformation one of the first major CYE initiatives.

Isa Aron, professor of Jewish Education, HUC-JIR and co-director of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution: Much of the impetus for this project is coming from synagogues that share a growing uneasiness about the way b’nai mitzvah are celebrated, and the fact that b’nai mitzvah preparation has, in many cases, supplanted other religious school goals.

In many synagogues b’nai mitzvah observances are standardized, not taking into account the differences between 13-year-olds in terms of maturity and interest or the differences between families in motivation or Jewish identification. Also, the celebrations tend to focus on the individual child’s performance of a ritual that s/he may not be able to fully understand or appreciate; for example, not having learned the meaning of the Hebrew he/she is reciting.

How did we get into this situation?

Isa: It began in the 1930s and ’40s, when, to address the low rate of synagogue affiliation and the correspondingly low rate of enrollment in religious schools, synagogues and central agencies of Jewish education banded together to impose attendance requirements on students whose families wanted to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah in a synagogue. In 1945, for example, the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues mandated two years of school attendance before a boy reached the age of 13. Although these requirements succeeded in increasing both synagogue membership and school enrollment, they had the unintended consequence of making bar mitzvah preparation—rather than the Jewish engagement and involvement of the next generation—the driving force of the religious school curriculum.

Why have you termed this initiative a “revolution”?

Bradley: Nothing short of a revolution is necessary to reverse the post-b’nai mitzvah dropout trend and ensure the Reform Jewish future. The change we imagine is of a magnitude that defies tinkering. There is no quick fix. We are planting seeds that may take a decade or more to bear fruit.

Isa: It will require a huge cultural leap to shift the Jewish community from the long-held assumption that religious school is about preparing kids for their bar/bat mitzvah to what we believe religious school should be about: learning how to become a committed and involved member of the Jewish community. To accomplish this radical change, schools will have to teach Hebrew and t’fillah (prayer) differently, parents will need to revisit the expectations they bring to b’nai mitzvah, and synagogues may need to reconsider and possibly undo the financial models that many have relied upon since the ’40s.

Are congregations that have not experienced post b’nai mitzvah dropouts doing anything differently to engage youth?

Bradley: Yes. Some congregations are already revolutionizing b’nai mitzvah. For example, Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley, Sudbury, Massachusetts has built a multi-year program around an exchange between their teens and teens in Israel which encompasses study of modern Zionism and Israeli history in the 9th grade, parallel lessons in culture and identity for both American and Israeli teens in the 10th grade, ongoing contact in the 11th grade, and the Americans’ continued Israel engagement in the 12th grade. Personal relationships are key: The Israeli teens come to Boston for 10 days, the American teens travel to Israel for about two weeks, and the entire congregation takes part in the interaction. Younger students want to have this experience—motivated by the emails the older teens send about their Israel experience, by hearing the older kids speak about it during teen presentations to their religious school class, and by meeting the visiting Israeli teens. And because young people must enroll in the high school in order to participate, there is a strong incentive to continue their active formal Jewish education in the post-bar/bat mitzvah years. Last year Beth El retained 95% of their seventh grade class into eighth grade.

We will also look at models outside the synagogue. I’m very impressed by the way some kibbutzim in Israel approach bar/bat mitzvah. Young people work individually, with their parents, and as a group on a year-long project they present to the community. Most have an aliyah to the Torah and a second ceremony connected to a project they’ve chosen that is meaningful in their daily lives. Some or all of this model might be useful for our own revolution.

What are the revolution’s goals?

Bradley: To generate new ideas and directions for meaningful b’nai mitzvah celebrations; to create models of b’nai mitzvah preparation that engage individuals and their families; to promote more effective methods for teaching Hebrew and prayer; to engage synagogue professionals in documenting these innovations through “action research”; and to share their findings, models, and resources within a peer network as well as an ever-widening group of congregations.

What is “action research”?

Isa: In “action research,” practitioners collect data about their setting, analyze what’s working and what’s not, experiment with practices that might yield a greater success rate, and again collect necessary data. This process will be revolutionary in and of itself, as it asks synagogue leaders to conduct research on the effectiveness of their own practices. Over the past two decades many congregational innovations have gone unnoticed, or been underappreciated. Action research will help ensure that the accumulated insights gained are widely shared. We also hope that synagogue leaders will “get” the action research “bug,” and use it in other situations as well.

Will a revolution in b’nai mitzvah have a similarly profound impact on religious school education?

Isa: Yes. I anticipate congregations will begin to ask themselves, “What kind of Hebrew should we be teaching, and for what purpose?” as well as “What is prayer and how should we teach it?” Instruction in both areas has been driven by the expectation that the ultimate goal is for the student to perform well at his/her bar/bat mitzvah. So students spend years in religious school learning how to sound out very complicated Hebrew words in the prayerbook without ever learning what they mean. Likewise, they are taught to recite prayers without any prior exploration of spirituality. Changing the “performance” dimension of b’nai mitzvah will allow schools to teach for meaning, rather than for show.

What are your next steps?

Isa: From now until the end of 2014, a pilot group of 14 Reform congregations will conduct and document their own b’nai mitzvah experiments, aided by a variety of consultants in such areas as congregational change, curriculum development, t’fillah, and action research. In addition, an Action Network comprising a larger cohort of congregations will partner with us to advance all of our work in the area of bar/bat mitzvah. Findings will be shared on the project website as well as at web conferences, face-to-face meetings, and site visits. In 2014 the experiments and outcomes will be presented at a national conference, and a larger group of congregations will be invited to participate. Visit the website for more information.

What is your best-case scenario?

Bradley: In 10 years, we hope to see new forms of ceremonies and celebrations of bar and bat mitzvah. These changes may well have larger impacts on the entire congregation.

Aren’t you investing a lot of hope in this one idea?

Isa: Yes, and as change consultants point out, just because you have a good idea doesn’t mean that it’s going to work. Much will depend on how we introduce new approaches and how we help synagogues manage the changes they are instigating. What we do know is that the current model is broken, and we have to find a better way of educating and engaging our youth. Utilizing congregational experimentation, action research, and community networks, we believe we will find that better way.


Union for Reform Judaism.