Bar or Bat Mitzvah
Is there a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in your future?
In response to numerous inquiries, the OMJS board recognized a need to provide parents with information about the bar and bat mitzvah process.
OMJS does not provide specific training for b’nai mitzvah in the curriculum. As with any Jewish education though, if you’re interested in your child becoming bat or bar mitzvah, attending OMJS will help you provide your child with the background, the context, the identity and most importantly, the desire, to celebrate a Jewish rite of passage.
Certainly, it’s not for everyone. And can be daunting for many. But for many Jewish families it’s an important milestone, and one that can be significant to different families for a variety of reasons.
We are a very mixed community when it comes to this – just as we are about everything else. Some of us want our kids to become bat/bar mitzvah in a more or less traditional way, but are not affiliated to a synagogue, don’t know how to go about it and can’t really envision it happening. Others may want a non-traditional b’nai mitzvah or a completely different kind of coming of age ceremony. Still others may belong to a traditional synagogue, but are looking for ways to make their celebration less traditional and/or more custom fitted to their family.
And, there are those of us who have been through the process and have children who have become bar or bat mitzvah or who have had other coming of age ceremonies. We can share what we did, what we learned in the process, what was perfect for our family and what we would do differently next time.
We want to make sure that our whole OMJS community knows that anything is possible, that whatever you wish for your child – there is likely a way to bring it about. There is no better way to do that, than to share our stories. Our stories
We have contacted all the shuls in town to ask them their requirements, their process etc. Only a few of the shuls have responded so might be best to contact them directly. We have included a list of the shuls in Ottawa with the most recent contact info that we found. Remember if there is a pamphlet, booklet or info section at the shul’s Web site, it is always good to check in to be sure you have the latest version as some are updated every year and policies change.
And remember that whatever is stated as a shul’s requirement or rule or policy may well be open to discussion. Go and talk to the rabbis or to the directors or other board members. Speak to whoever you can to help you get whatever you want for your child as they become bar or bat mitzvah.
The following is information that we have gathered in our travels through the process. It is necessarily not comprehensive and reflects only the experience of those who offered their experiences. It is anecdotal. But it will give you a good start in finding your way in and around and through the process. We especially tried to include the kind of information that you won’t find in the shul’s guidelines – the things we wished we’d known!
And as you gain different experiences, please pass them on to us so that we can keep revising this information. And when things change please let us know. Information like this is in constant flux – rabbis change, shul policies change, customs and traditions change. Maybe you work out something with a shul that’s never been allowed there before. That will help other folks who may want to do something similar. So please let us know what you encounter as you go through the b’nai mitzvah adventure, and we’ll add it here to help out the parents coming after you.
Learning to chant Torah
By religious tradition, a girl aged 12 and over and a boy aged 13 and over become bat or bar mitzvah when they are first called to the bima in a shul to read Torah. That’s actually all that is required. So let’s start there.
The first thing you need to know is that different shuls use different tropes (the melodies used for chanting.) Therefore, you need to know the shul where your child will be called to the bima. And you need to know this well in advance because most shuls not only have their preferred trope, many also have minimum requirements of Jewish education that precedes the b’nai mitzvah. Some will stipulate, for instance, 4 years of Jewish education, defined as two classes per week, one focussed solely on Hebrew reading. Some will stipulate much less.
So you need to gather information and decide where you want to be, however, you certainly don’t need to pull your child out of OMJS and seek out a two times a week Hebrew school. What you need to do is go talk to the rabbi at the shul you’ve tentatively settled on and see what arrangements can be made. Shuls have posted requirements, and some of them may insist on them, however, in our experience there tends to be a great deal of flexibility. If you can’t get what you want from one shul, try somewhere else. Don’t be discouraged or assume that you will get the same reception everywhere. The Jewish community is much more open to diversity of practice, participation and religiosity than it used to be – yes, even in Ottawa! In general, rabbis and shuls are not in the business of discouraging Jews who want to participate in Jewish life in whatever way they choose and most would likely prefer that a child become bar or bat mitzvah than not. Assume that they will work with you to make that happen. So don’t be daunted by whatever is written in the shul policies – consider that to be a starting point for negotiations and go from there to get what your family wants or needs.
Some shuls in town provide actual training in chanting Torah, via the cantor, for instance, or via a class. Most do not. Several provide a b’nai mitzvah group or class which meets regularly and provides education, support and a social aspect to the process. However, you still have to hire a tutor for your child to learn to chant his or her Torah portion! That may be changing as shuls right now are very actively examining their b’nai mitzvah processes and more of them may start providing Torah chanting preparation. In any event, they will help you find a tutor and the groups or classes that do meet can be invaluable for the kids as they can provide a great deal of education, inspiration, and support to the process. Just hanging for a year or two with other kids going through the same preparation can be very helpful to your child’s feeling about the process.
There are many b’nai mitzvah tutors in town. You make individual arrangements with them as to hourly rates, which are around $40 an hour. The important thing to know is the trope that the tutor teaches. Make sure it’s the right one for the shul you’ve chosen. As well, some shuls have a list of tutors that they want you to use. Again, like anything else, we would recommend discussing with the rabbi should you want to hire a tutor who is not on the list. The tutor will work with you to determine what kind of teaching is best for your child, how long they will need to learn their portion etc (typically eight months to a year).
If your child does not have the requisite years of Hebrew education, your shul may suggest services with less demanding Torah reading requirements, ie Rosh Hodesh services, afternoon or evening services, or weekday morning services – all good alternatives to the more customary Shabbot morning service. This may be exactly what your child and family would like. Some families like the idea of a Rosh Hodesh (new moon) service for a bat mitzvah, given the female connection with the moon inherent in our culture. Some families might like the idea of a weekday morning service, especially if their child might have difficulty chanting in front of a large crowd. If you have out of town guests to consider, however, a Saturday afternoon service might be preferable.
Other families, however, want only Saturday morning. If that is what you want but your child does not have sufficient Hebrew as per the shul’s requirements – discuss it with the rabbi. There are variables in a Shabbot morning service as well. The child can sometimes read a shorter portion, or read rather than chant, or do their Haftorah, or part of it, in English.
Sometimes, these arrangements can even be revised at the last minute. Don’t stress! Check out at the beginning of the process, whether or not this flexibility will there if you need it at the end of the process. Assuming a positive response, use it if you have to. If you think, as the time nears, that your child may not be ready for everything your family signed up for – go talk to the rabbi and make some last minute adjustments. Remember that the shul is no more interested in your child getting up there and not knowing their stuff than you are. They have an equal interest in ensuring that the service runs smoothly, that your child has a positive b’nai mitzvah experience, and that everyone is happy.
Remember too, that for the rabbi, the congregation, and of course, for your friends and family – what’s important is the process, the rite of passage and the celebration of your child that happens through the b’nai mitzvah process. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Stumbling over some words or making a few mistakes will not be remembered or considered important by anyone.
Don’t forget though, that your kids can surprise you. At least those that work well under pressure. What may be sounding a bit rough around the edges as the time nears, can sometimes get beautifully polished at the eleventh hour.
Also, remember that what we are talking about here are shuls’ requirements – not actual Hebrew knowledge. There is an assumption in the community that a three hour, once a week curriculum, such as that offered by OMJS, does not provide sufficient Hebrew. However, many of our graduates have chanted a full Shabbot morning Torah portion beautifully, so another option may be to simply ask the shul to check out your child’s command of Hebrew and judge for themselves, rather than rely of the number of hours of study they have had.
A final note about your child’s portion – for each section they read a family member or friend whom you choose is honoured with an aliyah – they are called to the bima where they recite a blessing before your child chants that section. This can be a wonderful honour – it can also be a recipe for disaster if you have a large family and a short Torah portion. You will have to decide who is honoured so you may want to keep this in mind when you decide the date (which will determine the Torah portion) and how much of it your child will chant. There are a possible seven sections that can be read, however, some shuls reserve some of the aliyot for the congregation. So even if your child chants all seven you may only have three or four aliyot to offer your guests.
Again, however, if you find that this isn’t working out there are often solutions. In some shuls, for example, family members will go up to the bima in pairs, as families, or even in quite large groups of extended family or friends. It’s all workable. Just make sure you don’t forget anyone!
There are lots of options for where you choose to have your child become bar or bat mitzvah. Of course, the traditional location is the shul of which you are a member. If you’re not a member of a shul you can become one – most will want you to do that at least two years or so before a b’nai mitzvah. This can be expensive, however, that too is often negotiable. Have a good faith discussion with the shul about the fees that you feel your family can appropriately pay.
Not all shuls insist on membership so if that is preferable you may want to check out that option.
Most shuls ask, not only for membership, but for a certain level of commitment to attendance in the year leading up to b’nai mitzvah. Of course, you do what you can. However, it is probably a good idea for both you and your child to get comfortable in the shul in any case, and to gain some familiarity with the structure of the service, if you don’t usually go.
You may belong to a shul but want your child’s bar or bat mitzvah to be in another shul. That may sound unlikely but it could happen. Sometimes we belong to shuls for historical reasons – perhaps our parents went there, and we did as children. We don’t care that much about the shul policies. But when you’re planning a b’nai mitzvah sometimes shul policies can become unworkable for us or our families. For instance, besides Jewish education requirements, there may be policies about what needs to be done in a b’nai mitzvah service. Or different rules about what non-Jewish family members can or can’t do. Or, for example, whether certain children (girls) can become bat mitzvah at all! There can be lots of reasons to plan a b’nai mitzvah at a shul other than your own.
You may also want to have it at your shul but with a different rabbi or with someone other than the shul’s rabbi officiating. This might be possible to arrange, as well. Or you may prefer to have it at a location other than a shul. This can be the case with a traditional type of b’nai mitzvah or with a different type of ceremony. Either way, it can be done anywhere you like – indoors, outdoors, at the cottage, at camp, in the park, in the social hall of the JCC, a rented ballroom, a community centre or in the comfort of your home – all of these options can happen, with or without a rabbi.
If your child’s bat/bar mitzvah does not take place in a shul, you can, of course, structure it any way you like to make it meaningful for your child and your family. There are many others rites of passage traditions to draw on for ideas, and, of course, every family has traditions that can be incorporated into a milestone event like a b’nai mitzvah. Your child’s b’nai mitzvah can be anything you can imagine and create. (See Feran Hodgson story)
It you go with the shul arrangement – you can simply let the shul guide you and do whatever the shul does, as a matter of course. There’s a lot to be said for simply following tradition. Firstly, it’s easy – and you can save all your energy and creativity for the simcha (the party or celebration) – if you have one. Secondly, if an important part of your reason for doing this is to follow those who have gone before and connect your child to the tradition – this will serve you well.
However, you can also go the shul route but still make it your own in different aspects. Different shuls, of course, will be more or less open to personalized additions or changes to the service – but many are quite flexible. Discuss with the rabbi the various roles for family members and friends and who does what. Make sure there will be roles for non-Jewish family members, if that’s what you want, and that you know which roles these will be. Most shuls have certain roles which are performed only by Jews – important to know before you make any promises. Again there may be some flexibility here, but probably not as much as you would find in respect of most other aspects of the ritual. These decisions are made at the Board level and while they can be changed, this can take time – probably more time than you have.
So different shuls will have different policies, but, in general, you should be aware that apart from the aliyot for the reading of each Torah section there are other ways that family and friends can usually be part of the ceremony – opening and closing the ark, holding the Torah up for all to see, passing on the Torah, dressing the Torah etc.. There may also be roles to play such as ushering, leading the blessing over wine or challah after the service – if that is the shul’s tradition. (It is customary and likely required in most shuls to provide a kiddush after the service for the congregation – it can be simply wine and challah, an elaborate luncheon (with wine and challah) or anything in between).
It’s important to think about the various roles beforehand because, like the aliyot, they can be wonderful honours or disastrous if there aren’t enough to go around or if some are seen as more important than others. Family members, who may arrive with no expectations of participation whatsoever, may quickly revise their expectations upon seeing other family members engaging in aspects of the service.
If you aren’t used to going to shul, attend a few b’nai mitzvah services to see how they play out – this will give you a better feel for which family member or friend should be asked to play each role. Make sure you give them the information they’ll need ahead of time – the words of the blessing, instructions. But assure them that they will be walked through any of these roles if they are not familiar with them. Some shuls will want the Hebrew names, where available, of all the folks you ask to perform these honours. Ask them early as some may need time to find their Hebrew names. Even if the shul doesn’t ask for this, you may want your family members introduced to the congregation with their Hebrew names.
Think about any family ritual or objects that you may want to build into the service – especially perhaps to remember a deceased family member. Perhaps a tallis, a kipa or other item belonging to a grandparent could be worn by the b’nai mitzvah. Discuss with the rabbi well ahead of time to make sure you can do whatever you have in mind.
Think about what you want to say to your child as this is a rare opportunity to declare your love and respect for your child in public. Not all shuls provide this opportunity, but for those that do, it can be an invaluable occasion that you’ll want to be prepared for. If whatever you want to do or say can’t be done or said at the service – you can always do or say it at the simcha.
If you have far more family and friends than can be honoured with aliyot and the other honours embedded in the shul service, think about how they, and their role in your child’s life, can be highlighted at the simcha. Some folks have a candle lighting ceremony where various people light one of thirteen candles and say something about the child and their relationship with him or her. Or alternatively, the child can light the candles in honour of various people and speak about them and the role they have played in the child’s life. There are many possibilities.
The simcha following your child becoming bar/bat mitzvah (assuming you have one – that too, of course, is optional) can be whatever you want it to be. Many people choose to have the big party which has been popular in North America for the last several decades. This type of celebration has been much maligned for its excesses in some communities, however, there is much to commend it as well. To whatever extent the big party has become a tradition, some people will choose it for that reason alone – to have their child experience the most well known type of b’nai mitzvah celebration. Others will choose to have a small party, some will simply have a luncheon after the service, some will have a gathering for family only, some will invite their child’s friends over to chill in the rec room.
Just remember, whatever you do with the first child may set the bar for their younger siblings. Depending on your child, of course, it may be more or less difficult to explain why they are not having a lavish shindig at the country club like their older brother did!
You can arrange for food yourself, with some help, if your simcha is small but catering is very helpful for larger groups. You’ll need to think about whether you need kosher catering. Don’t assume it’s more expensive, it isn’t necessarily so don’t worry if some of your guests will require this. Or just make special arrangements for your kosher guests if they are only a few.
Whatever you decide to do, you will likely have to figure something out for the out- of- towners. Family members will travel great distances for a b’nai mitzvah and if the service is Saturday morning, they will be in town Friday night and Sunday, at the very least. You will probably want to plan something for these folks. It needn’t be lavish or expensive but you’ll need to give it some thought beforehand, for instance, if they will be coming to your house or meeting for a meal etc. It may also be the perfect occasion to plan for a more extended visit of some family members, or for a family reunion. So again, think about it beforehand – the more family involvement, the more special the whole experience is likely to be for your child.
Honouring the child & connecting him or her with the Jewish community
There are a number of traditional ways to honour the bar or bat mitzvah, that can be surprisingly important to your child. You can have their name inscribed in a sefer torah in Jerusalem through the Jewish National Fund. When visiting Israel they can then go and look up their name in the book, among millions of others. Shuls often have various ways to commemorate milestones such as a tree of life, on which you can buy a leaf which your child can then see whenever they are in the shul. There is a particularly wonderful program through Yad Vashem through which your child can be twinned with a child who died in the Holocaust via Hebrew name and birthdate. This can provide a wonderful opportunity for your child to understand and engage with the meaning and importance of taking one’s place in the Jewish community. (See Shelley Rivier’s story). Shuls will also usually offer gifts and items of commemoration of various types to the b’nai mitzvah, as well as a b’nai mitzvah certificate.
The most important thing to remember in all of this is to stay calm, have fun and enjoy what is bound to be a meaningful celebration of your child as s/he becomes an adult member of the Jewish community. (Expect lots of arguments from your kids later about why they should be allowed to do this or that because they are adults now).
Remember too, that if you do decide to work with a shul, you should be able to find any flexibility that you want. And, as importantly, know that most of the shuls are used to working with folks who aren’t necessarily familiar with services or with anything else about the process. They will guide you through it – just make sure to ask lots of questions.
Also remember to talk to other parents and to kids who have been through the process. They are your greatest resource. Remember to ask any b’nai mitzvah kids you know what they liked and didn’t like about their celebrations, about what was meaningful to them, and what they would have done differently had it been up to them. They may tell you things that would surprise their parents! Good luck.