Is Bar/Bat Mitzvah a Communal or Personal Rite?

The bar/bat mitzvah service now focuses on the child as individual, but the synagogue community should not suffer.

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Some parents decide to hold a more private ceremony during the afternoon Mincha service, effectively disinviting the synagogue "regulars." Other parents who want completely free rein at their child's bar/bat mitzvah hold their services outside the synagogue, either with or without clergy. The decision not to have a Saturday morning bar/bat mitzvah is often driven by pragmatics like religious relatives who don't drive on Shabbat or a bar/bat mitzvah child too shy to stand in front of a large congregation. And unaffiliated Jews who plan a non-synagogue bar/bat mitzvah are enacting a form of Jewish commitment. Yet both are limiting the "Jewish community" present at the bar/bat mitzvah largely to family and friends, arguably attenuating the connection with k'lal yisrael (the entire Jewish community).

Another innovation is the "bar mitzvah pledge." The child recites a formal pledge to continue his or her Jewish education and to remain involved in the Jewish community. My gut response: Has the original meaning of the ceremony as an affirmation of the child's new communal obligations been forgotten and then brought back in this formulaic individual recitation?

Balancing Communal and Individual Needs

There are signs that parents are beginning to recognize the importance of communal identification. Instead of holding private luncheons following the service, increasing numbers of families are holding elaborate kiddush luncheons to which the congregation is invited. And in our synagogue, the religious affairs committee has stepped in to limit what a parent can say to a child during the service.

Despite my concern over the invasions of individualism, I realize that I am not free of its taint. I may not be planning a spiritual quest in the American West for my daughter's bat mitzvah, but I am certainly part of my generation. Yes, I may omit the tallit ceremony and the bar mitzvah pledge, but I admit to having a personal vision of what I want my daughter's bat mitzvah ceremony to be. Coming from a havurah background (where groups of Jews join together for self-led services, communal celebrations, and other programs, without benefit of clergy), I would like a service that is havurah-style and participatory. But as I press for my own demands, am I ignoring the community's wishes for a standard Shabbat morning service?

Despite my rejection of the clergy-focused 1950s suburban synagogue services of my youth, in search of more "meaningful" and lively havurah communities, I am still looking for a balance. I find meaning by endowing the traditional communal rituals with extra verve, spirit, and insight. In the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, I would like the developing focus on the individual to mesh more seamlessly with the traditional meaning of the event: the child's commitment to the Jewish community, its values, and its practices.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.