Authenticity: The Key To A Meaningful Bar/Bat Mitzvah

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Last week, I shared with you an article written by my colleague, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, that focused on the innovation that is going on within the Jewish world, particularly surrounding the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In this article, Chai Tech, our own Online Bar/Bat Mitzvah Preparation Program, was featured. Earlier this month, Ritualwell.org, an online source that allows people to learn about and create Jewish rituals, hosted a #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah Twitter chat. The chat – some of which you can see here – explored various ways that make the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience more meaningful for B’nai Mitzvah and their families. I am happy to report that most of the innovative ideas that were discussed in the chat are ones that we fully embrace at Ramat Shalom. However, while I certainly take great pride in the creativity that we incorporate into our B’nai Mitzvah services and believe that this creativity adds something special to our services, I don’t believe that it is this creativity that makes Ramat Shalom’s B’nai Mitzvah as powerful as they are.

Tomorrow night, we celebrate Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the moment Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. We’ve been preparing for Shavuot for weeks now. As part of this preparation, we are taught to read Pirkei Avot, an ancient collection of Jewish wisdom. In the fourth chapter of this incredible collection, we are taught: “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it.” As we step back to examine what makes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service special, we can’t just focus on the vessel, the service itself: the prayers, songs, descriptions of mitzvah projects, readings shared by friends, speeches given by the B’nai Mitzvah and their families. Don’t get me wrong, these words are important! But it takes more than these words to create the energy that we feel at a Ramat Shalom Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It is what is in the words that creates this energy. In Hebrew, we talk about the kavanah of a prayer – the story behind the words. The intensity that we all feel is a result of the kavanah behind everything that is said and done during the service.

So what is the kavanah behind the words shared at a Ramat Shalom Bar/Bat Mitzvah? It is the authentic story of every Bar/Bat Mitzvah that steps foot on our bimah. It is also a desire to truly celebrate the bonds the Bar/Bat Mitzvah shares with his/her family, friends and the Ramat Shalom community. What we do on the bimah is not a performance. It is not a concert or a poetry slam. It’s not about being perfect. Rather, it is about being real. This means different kids do different things on the bimah. Some read Haftarah. Some don’t. Some sing. Some squeak. And it’s all good. Because it’s real, mistakes might very well be made: the Bar/Bat Mitzvah mispronounces a word, the Rabbi calls up the wrong person for an aliyah (yes, it happens!) or your dear aunt completely panics during her Torah reading. And so? We help each other out, laugh and hold hands as we honestly and openly celebrate the sacred rite of passage of a child we love.

Our B’nai Mitzvah are celebrations of relationships. The Cantor and I, along with Beth Michell, our Torah School Director, and Amy Freund and Miriam Lomnitzer, our tutors, are lucky enough to truly connect with each of our students and their families. Our interactions with each other on the bimah are not for show. We know our kids and their families and they know us. The words we all share with each other during the service are a continuation of relationships that were formed slowly, over time. This authenticity is contagious and is picked up on and shared by everyone who joins us for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

As Shavuot begins tomorrow evening, there is not the pomp and circumstance that is associated with the other major Jewish holidays. There is nothing like a Passover seder, a sukkah or a shofar. Yes, on Shavuot, there is cheesecake – but really, there is simply the Torah that we open, study and celebrate on this holy occasion. We don’t need anything else – just the story of our people. The same is true at our B’nai Mitzvah celebrations and, honestly, at any of our Ramat Shalom lifecycle events. We don’t need bells and whistles to make these moments sacred. We just need the story of our people which, of course, includes the unique story of you and your family.

May you find the time to celebrate your authentic story this Shavuot and may we as a community continue to strengthen our relationships with each other, relationships that lie at the heart of everything that is Ramat Shalom.

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