Parents & Bar/Bat Mitzvah Preparation

How to step in and step back.

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Just as pre-teens are gaining a greater desire for independence, they undertake the massive task of preparing for their bar/bat mitzvahs. Many parents who seek to be involved in the process find themselves afraid of intruding on their maturing child's personal space and, at the same time, fearful of stranding their child at a moment when he or she might need substantial support. The following are some specific tips for parents.

What Will be Expected?

Synagogues and schools vary greatly in their bar/bat mitzvah expectations, though most require students to lead certain prayers, read or chat some text (Torah and Haftarah), and deliver a d’var Torah (homily). Some also require tasks not directly related to the bar/bat mitzvah service such as volunteer projects, written research reports, and/or attendance at religious services.
parents role in preparation of bar/bat mitzvah
Most medium and large synagogues assign bar/bat mitzvah dates according to children’s birthdates; smaller congregations usually take date requests. Ask about your community's standards as soon as your child’s bat/bat mitzvah date is set.

When you receive the list of requirements, set a realistic timetable for fulfilling them. A child who has a busy sports schedule may find it easier to complete a community service project as much as a year early, during the summer. A child who does not want to miss summer camp in order to prepare for an early fall bar/bat mitzvah service may ask to reschedule the service for later in the school year, or may decide to start tutoring well in advance, completing all preparations before heading off to camp. Make sure to include your child in the process of budgeting time, allowing him or her to set priorities and measurable goals.

The simplest and most often overlooked method to prepare your child for the bar/bat mitzvah service is to make a habit of attending services together at least once a month, starting two years before the bar/bat mitzvah. There is no substitute for frequent exposure to the liturgy, practice with Hebrew, and the support of sitting beside a parent who takes the time to prioritize communal prayer. While attending services, talk to the rabbi, cantor, or service leader at your congregation to see if children can come up to the bimah ahead of their bar/bat mitzvah to lead a prayer.

Assess Your Child's Learning Strengths, Challenges...and Preferences

Parents are generally experts on their own kids. You know if your child is a high-achieving procrastinator who pulls things together at the last minute, works well independently, has a hard time meeting deadlines, or whizzes through work but does it sloppily. All of these factors can have an enormous impact on your child's bar/bat mitzvah preparation.

However, many parents don't keep track of how well their kids read Hebrew or which synagogue skills they've mastered.

If you are able to do so, sit with your fifth or sixth grader and have him or her read some prayers that may be familiar, like the Shema or the Amidah. Also challenge your child to read some previously unseen Hebrew text from your congregation’s prayer book.

As you assess the fluency of your child's reading, look for specific Hebrew skills such as recognizing vowels and distinguishing between letters pronounced differently with and without a dot (dagesh). Does your child experience letter confusion, for example, mixing up tav and het? Does he or she have a hard time keeping the place while reading?

If you are not able to determine these things by yourself, have a teacher or administrator at your child's school, or a private tutor, do an assessment of your child's Hebrew skills. If you discover reading deficits, arrange a few tutoring sessions. If the challenges seem more significant, speak with your rabbi or synagogue educator about how to receive more specialized help, adjust service expectations, or delay the bar/bat mitzvah service.

Before beginning bar/bat mitzvah prep in earnest, you can also empower your child to assess his or her own preferred learning styles by using an online test supported by multiple intelligence theory (like this one). Discuss with your child how to harness his or her learning strengths and preferences during the bar/bat mitzvah process.

For example, a verbally gifted child might enjoy writing an original midrash instead of a more conventional d’var Torah, while a theatrically gifted student might prefer to perform a monologue in a biblical character’s voice. A shy child might choose a community service project with an animal shelter or a community garden, rather than a project working with many strangers. Encouraging students to draw on their own talents and interests allows them to personalize the bar/bat mitzvah experience and create a stronger, more independent Jewish identity. 

Working with a Tutor

After you’ve done initial assessments of Hebrew and other learning preferences, it will be time to begin preparing for the bar/bat mitzvah service, most often with a tutor. Synagogues have different systems of tutoring: cantor, on-staff tutor, independently hired tutors, and teen peer tutoring networks. Sometimes families have a choice of tutor, and sometimes they do not. Regardless, communicating your child's needs to his or her tutor is vital. The tutor should know about your child’s learning styles and work habits, and should have a good sense of what your child finds fun.

Generally, students work with tutors once a week, and are encouraged to practice on their own between tutoring sessions. However, certain students, particularly those with relatively high interpersonal intelligence, do better meeting with a tutor more frequently. If your family can afford it, extra tutoring meetings can be helpful for this kind of student. A more economical option is to augment tutoring sessions by having a family member, friend, or classmate review prayers and text readings with your child on a fixed schedule.

A particular area in which students can exercise independence is in their relationship with their tutor. Allow your child and his or her tutor to discover what modes of communication, feedback, and encouragement work best for them. Trusting your tutor to monitor your child’s progress can take some of the pressure off you. Your child and his/her tutor can set their own study schedule; don’t step in unless you’re asked for specific help.

Room to Grow

Some bar/bat mitzvah students are able to keep their work organized, practice unsupervised, schedule appointments, and meet deadlines by themselves; most won’t be ready for this level of responsibility and may want more of a partnership with their parents during the process. Bar and bat mitzvah students are often ambivalent about how much their parents should participate in the preparations for their “special day.” Encourage your child to voice what he or she needs from you in order to succeed.

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Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.