Bar or Bat Mitzvah
Girls at age 12 and boys aged 13 become bat or bar mitzvah according to religious tradition. From this point on, they may be called to read Torah. For many Jewish families, the first time a child is called to the bima is an important milestone. OMJS’s curriculum will help you provide your child with the background, the context, the identity and — most importantly — the desire to celebrate this Jewish rite of passage.
We are a very mixed community. Options pursued by some OMJS families for b’nai mitzvot have included:
- Traditional service, tailored to the family, in a shul
- Somewhat traditional service in a shul
- Non-traditional service
- Completely different kind of coming-of-age ceremony
Whatever you wish for your child, there is likely a way to bring it about. Below are some tips we have learned along the way.
Working with shuls
The traditional location is the shul of which you are a member. Not all shuls insist on membership, but some do and prefer at least a 2-year commitment to membership. Many also ask for regular attendance in the year leading up to b’nai mitzvah. This helps families get comfortable with community and familiar with the service if necessary
You may belong to one shul but want the service to be at another, or you may want to have it at your shul but with a different officiant. This might be also possible to arrange.
If you’re interested in working with a shul, contact it directly to obtain current information and learn whether any relevant requirements, rules or policies are open to discussion. You may even speak to rabbis, directors or other board members.
If you’re planning for the bar or bat mitzvah to be in a shul, you need to know it advance. Many shuls have Jewish education requirements before the event — some will stipulate 4 years of Jewish education, for example, which they define as 2 classes per week with 1 focussed solely on Hebrew reading. Some will stipulate much less.
Many OMJS graduates have chanted a full Shabbot morning Torah portion beautifully, so you may ask the shul to check out your child’s command of Hebrew so they can judge for themselves rather than rely of the number of hours of study they have had.
Shul service types
For children without the requisite years of Hebrew education, shuls may suggest services with less-demanding Torah reading requirements than those on the customary Shabbot morning.
Rosh Hodesh (new moon) services, afternoon or evening services, or weekday morning services are all good alternatives — some families chose Rosh Hodesh for a bat mitzvah given the female connection with the moon, for example, and others prefer weekday morning service for children who might have difficulty with a large crowd. A Saturday afternoon service might be preferable if there are out out-of-town guests.
Other families, however, want only Saturday morning. Children without sufficient Hebrew as per the shul’s requirements may be able to:
- Read a shorter portion
- Read rather than chant
- Do their Haftorah or
- Do part of it in English
Ask the shul at the beginning of the process whether this flexibility is an option if needed as you get closer to the day.
Aliyot and other honours
There are many ways that family and friends may be honoured. Possibly most significant is an aliya, when a family member or friend is called to the bima where they recite a blessing before the child chants his or her 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.
Some shuls reserve some of the aliyot for the congregation — so even if your child chants all 7 sections that can be read, you may only have 3 or 4 aliyot to offer your guests. Some shuls allow family members to go up to the bima in pairs, as families, or even in large groups of extended family or friends.
Discuss with the rabbi various roles for family members and friends. These may include opening and closing the ark; holding the Torah up, passing it or dressing it, etc. There may also be roles such as ushering, and leading the blessing over wine or challah after the service if that is the shul’s tradition. (It is usually customary 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).
If there are non-Jewish family members, find out what roles they may play.
If you aren’t used to going to shul, attend a few b’nai mitzvah services to get a better feel for the roles involved. Give family and friends the information they’ll need ahead of time, and assure them that they will be walked through any roles if they are not familiar with them. Some shuls will want the Hebrew names for all you ask to perform these honours — some people may need time to find their Hebrew names.
Also think about any family ritual or objects that you may want to build into the service, especially perhaps to remember a deceased family member. Discuss with the rabbi well ahead of time to make sure you can do what you have in mind.
Lastly, 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 do decide to work with a shul, you should be able to find any flexibility that you want. Most 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.
Education and training
Several shuls provide b’nai mitzvah classes which meet regularly and provide education, inspiration, and support. You may still have to hire a tutor for your child to learn to chant his or her Torah portion, however.
Some shuls have a list of tutors that they want you to use. Different shuls use different tropes, the melodies used for chanting, so you need to make sure the trope is the right one for the shul you’ve chosen.
B’nai mitzvah tutors typically charge around $40 an hour. They determine what kind of teaching is best for your child, and how long they will need to learn their portion, etc — typically 8 to 12 months.
Don’t want to work with a shul?
You may prefer to have the bar or bat mitzvah somewhere other than a shul; this can happen with a traditional b’nai mitzvah or with a different type of ceremony. Either way, it can be done anywhere you like – indoors or outdoors, in a social hall or ballroom, in a park, in your home – all of these are options, with or without a rabbi.
If your child’s bat/bar mitzvah does not take place in a shul, you can structure it any way you like to make it meaningful for your child and your family. There are many other traditional rites of passage to draw on for ideas, and every family has traditions that can be incorporated into a milestone event like a b’nai mitzvah.
The optional simcha following your child becoming bar/bat mitzvah can be whatever you want it to be. Many people choose a big party — popular in North America and maligned for its excesses in some communities. It has become a tradition for some, however, and they choose it to provide their child the experience of the most well-known type of b’nai mitzvah celebration.
Others will choose to have a small party, a luncheon after the service, a gathering for family only, or some of 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.
Note the simcha also provides opportunities for honours family and friends. Some people 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. The child could also light the candles in honour of various people and speak about them and the role they have played in the child’s life.
For food, think about whether you need kosher catering. It isn’t necessarily more expensive, so don’t worry if some of your guests will require this. You can also just make special arrangements for your kosher guests if they are only a few.
As for the out- of- towners: family members will travel great distances for b’nai mitzvah and, if the service is Saturday morning, they will likely be in town Friday night and Sunday at the very least. You will probably want to plan something for them if they will be coming to your house or meeting for a meal. It may be the perfect occasion to plan for a more extended visit of some family members, or for a family reunion. Overall, more family involvement, the more special the whole experience is likely to be for your child.
The most important thing to remember in all of this is to:
- stay calm
- have fun
- enjoy what will be a meaningful celebration of your child as s/he becomes an adult member of the Jewish community.
And remember to talk to other parents and children who have been through the process ― they are your greatest resource. B’nai mitzvah kids can tell you 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.