Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
The first time I officiated at a bar mitzvah was when I was the visiting rabbi at a young congregation in Virginia during my senior year of rabbinical school. I was a 27-year-old without children and not quite sure what to say to a 13-year-old Jewish teen. My wife was pregnant with our first child, and I was tirelessly trying to determine what advice I’d have for this yet-to-be-born child, let alone come up with some meaningful words of a wisdom for a teenager. I tried to channel what my own rabbi had said to countless bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls over the years as I sat in that congregation.
I don’t recall exactly what I said to that young man in Virginia, but it was likely a trite bar mitzvah charge in which I said he’s the future of the Jewish people, and I encouraged him to continue his Jewish education and the performance of God’s mitzvot (commandments) as he walks humbly in God’s presence… or something uber-rabbinic like that.
I reflected on that moment last week after seeing a question that came through one of the rabbi discussion groups to which I’m subscribed. A first-time congregational rabbi asked what other rabbis like to say when they have that special moment to speak personally to the bar or bat mitzvah toward the end of Shabbat services. Some rabbis chimed in that they try to focus on what a wonderful job the bat mitzvah did of preparing for the day and how well she performed. Other rabbis suggested praising the bar mitzvah for his mitzvah project and congratulating them for taking the time to perform this act of charity. These are all kind and meaningful sentiments to offer to these Jewish teens on the biggest day of their lives thus far, but the more I thought about it the more I considered that we rabbis should take a different approach to speaking to the bar and bat mitzvah teens who stand in front of us during what might be the most impressionable period in their lives.
As my oldest child (the one who was in the womb at the first bar mitzvah I officiated as a rabbi) continues to prepare for his own bar mitzvah early next year, I find myself thinking what advice I’d give to him on his own special day. I also think about what advice I’d want another rabbi to impart to him. More than just encouraging them to continue their Jewish education and to get involved in the youth group, what are the most impactful words a rabbi can offer to a bar or bat mitzvah in the 21st century?
Here are the areas I think rabbis should talk about when offering wisdom to the bar or bat mitzvah:
- 1) Take good care of yourself — You are created in the image of God. That means you should respect your own body and soul as much as possible. As a new teenager that means practicing good personal hygiene and establishing an exercise regimen. Don’t do things that would jeopardize your health. Always try to eat healthy, wear sunscreen when you’re outside and when you have the opportunity to walk or ride your bike, take it. Don’t smoke or do drugs, even though as you get older these might be things that others pressure you into.
- 2) Be a good teammate — Play individual sports like tennis and gymnastics and do individual activities like karate, gymnastics, dance and art. However, you should also get the experience of being part of a team. This collaboration and camaraderie will prove essential for your adult life. Learning to work well with others will be an important character trait in your future family and work life.
- 3) Set goals for yourself — I promise you that your parents have their own set of goals for you. Most parents do. However, it’s important for you to set your own journey in life and to try to aspire to your best YOU. That means planning out what you want to accomplish and when. Take control of your life and try to surpass your own expectations.
- 4) Be an entrepreneur — We have enough young people graduating college and going to law school. Create something that’s yours. As a teen you can start your own business, create a product or launch your own nonprofit organization. Be a dynamic teen who builds something themselves. You have the potential to be a maker and you might even surprise yourself at what you’re capable of building.
- 5) Be politically active — You still have five years until you can vote in our country, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be politically active and politically aware. Learn about the issues and determine which issues hit you in the kishkes — the guts. Go to Washington D.C. and see our political process at work. Meet some of the politicians and law makers to understand what they do each day. During an election year, meet the candidates and learn about the issues. Begin to formulate your own political agenda.
- 6) Have a stake in the community — Don’t just be another member of our Jewish community. We need more leaders, not rank-and-file Jews who only come to synagogue a couple times a year and are not involved in decision making. There are many ways to get involved in the Jewish community — even for teenagers. Take a tour around the community and visit the agencies that serve our people. More than a one-time “mitzvah project,” discover how you can have a role. Become a volunteer, help plan an event and encourage your own friends to help.
- 7) Get active in the larger community — We Jews are a light unto the nations. It’s not just about helping our own so begin to think more globally. How you can you make a difference in your town? What are some of the problems that need to be solved? How can you reach out to your teen peers in other faith groups?
I know the list could be longer and I know it’s often dependent on the type of teen to whom we are speaking. I also recognize that there are rabbis who are already focusing on these topics and I commend them. I hope more rabbis begin using this precious moment to extol such wisdom on our Jewish teens, remembering that their words are being directed not only to the bar or bat mitzvah, but that all of the Jewish teens in the congregation are (hopefully) listening too.
Pronounced: bar MITZ-vuh, also bar meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish rite of passage for a 13-year-old boy.
Pronounced: baht MITZ-vuh, also bahs MITZ-vuh and baht meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish rite of passage for a girl, observed at age 12 or 13.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.