In the American Jewish community life cycle, the major rite of passage for a Jewish girl of 12 or 13 is to mark her emergence from childhood into adolescence by becoming Bat Mitzvah. (For boys, it’s a Bar Mitzvah.) It requires diligence, reverence and good old-fashioned hard work. And yet, most people think primarily of the party after the ceremony.
How do parents, and families balance the rite of passage ceremony with the Bat Mitzvah celebration?
Bat Mitzvah as part of the Jewish Life Cycle
“It’s a big moment, a rite of passage, the bat mitzvah,” says Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Nefesh and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. She tells Parentology, “It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of its aspects. Life cycle moments are by their nature emotional.”
The words bat mitzvah literally translates to “daughter of the commandment”. Dr. Rabbi Arielle Hanien works with families and congregations in Los Angeles, and is an expert on psychological and neurological layers of Jewish custom. She explains, “The term reflects maturity and responsibility, and thus an ability to contribute to the spiritual and intellectual life of the community.”
Bat Mitzvah Preparation and Payoff
Preparation for the bat mitzvah usually requires several years studying the prayers and torah for the ceremony, choosing a tikkun olam project (charity work that gives back to the community), and writing a speech addressing how the torah portion resonates within you. For many kids, this process feels arduous. What kid wouldn’t rather focus on the party?
“I know it can be hard. Stick with it,” Rabbi Goldberg tells Parentology. She explains that the celebration correlates to the effort. “A little time to practice every day is always better than cramming. The party often gets overly emphasized. The party feels good because of what you’ve accomplished, because of the time, commitment, and honor you have given to the process of being called to the Torah.”
Dr. Rabbi Hanien adds, “This is often the first time that young people experience adults taking them seriously, listening to them as their teachers rather than as students. This is a powerful experience at a time when they are forming a new sense of self outside of their nuclear family.”
It’s also important for the young person to know that their effort impacts the adults as well. It makes parents think of their own adolescence and their own relationship to Judaism can come up.
“It can be an opportunity to go deeper into their Judaism,” Rabbi Goldberg says. “The Bat Mitzvah ceremony, when done in a meaningful way, reconnects parents to their jewishness, or at a minimum helps them to see it differently. Most [adults] are surprised and struck by what the ritual brings out in the kid and themselves.”
Hanien agrees, noting that parenting has a tendency to absorb parents and children in everyday life. However, “This ritual provides an opportunity to slow down time for a day to recognize a transition between generations,” he says. “It offers a pause in that otherwise fluid rush from toddler to teen for parents and children to turn towards each other, held by community, to behold each other, to celebrate and contemplate that together.”
After the Party, the Reflection
An important point for parents and young people alike is to not simply have the party and then return to normal life. That, the Rabbis say, would be missing an opportunity.
“Soak it in and take the time that it deserves — even after the fact,” says Rabbi Goldberg. “Talk about it. Reflect on how the preparation went. How did they feel it went? You’ll be able to say [to the child], you really did this. Kids have really powerful reflections in the weeks after the bat mitzvah. There’s an opportunity to deepen the relationship to themselves, to their families and to the Jewish tradition. ”
Dr. Rabbi Hanien encourages parents to remember that mitzvah ceremony is about connection—invisible lines of connection between people and generations. Learning and celebrating in this way creates an opportunity to share meaningful memories, relationships, and the joy of being alive together. She notes, “This is an opportunity to feel, rather than a demand to perform.”