For a video on what to expect at a bar/bat mitzvah, scroll to the bottom of this article.
Every parent and every child come to bar/bat mitzvah planning with some vision of what the event will be, both as religious rite and as celebration. This vision is refined through a process of exploration and decision-making that will shape the spiritual impact of the experience on child, family, and guests. All of the smaller decisions that follow — where, when, what, how, and even who–flow out of this developing consensus on what this bar/bat mitzvah means to this family.
Meaning is in the Details
Because the spiritual essence flows out of the pragmatic details, a timeline can help organize the huge list of tasks. These tasks, which will vary with the personal predilections and values of the bar/bat mitzvah family, can range from selecting a synagogue or a rabbi to booking a particular band to selecting kippot (ritual head coverings) crocheted by people from developing nations or Israel.
To prepare for a typical bar/bat mitzvah, the child studies Hebrew, Bible, Jewish history, and holidays for several years in religious school. In the year before the ceremony, the child learns the trop (the cantillation for Torah and haftarah, the reading from the Prophets) and then learns to chant the specific Torah and haftarah portions for the week of his or her bar/bat mitzvah.
In the “bar mitzvah factory” atmosphere of many synagogues, choosing a date is often constrained by the availability of Shabbat (Sabbath) mornings. This limitation ironically can free families to choose a date and time that serves familial needs and considers the personality and capabilities of the child. For example, some families will hold the ceremony at another time, aside from Shabbat, that the Torah is read, so that their Orthodox relatives can drive to the synagogue. If the bar/bat mitzvah child is extremely shy, has severe learning problems, or has a spotty Jewish education, families may choose the shorter Shabbat afternoon service to decrease stress on the child. Traditional Jews, on the other hand, usually aim for the first Shabbat after the child’s birthday.
For other families who are not affiliated with a synagogue (and are not keen on becoming members solely to have their child’s bar or bat mitzvah there) may opt for a private route. They will hire a tutor to prepare their child and a rabbi to be a part of the preparations and facilitate the service, which would take place at a site of their choosing.
Some families add personal and familial touches to the ceremony by creating objects of Jewish art, like a tallit (prayer shawl); by selecting a mitzvah [social action] project whereby the child engages in tikkun olam (correcting the world’s wrongs); by permeating the entire celebration with acts of social service and environmental awareness, for example, by placing food baskets on the bimah (pulpit) instead of flowers, or sending left over food to a food pantry; or cutting down the amount of waste generated by the party by using mainly recyclable goods.
Some Bar/Bat Mitzvahs Demand Special Sensitivity
Even for a family without additional emotional challenges, extensive decision-making combined with the stresses of negotiating with a preteen child mean inevitable frustration. But when the parents are divorced or intermarried, or the child is severely disabled, the stakes are higher, and both parents and Jewish professionals must be sensitive and flexible.
When divorce is a factor, both parents must try to set aside their own emotional baggage and put the child’s interests at center stage.
For interfaith families, the challenge is how to involve the non-Jewish parent and his or her extended family in a celebration that is Jewish. Because most of the potential roles in the service are Jewish ritual acts, they are often off limits for non-Jews. Yet synagogue policies vary with the Jewish movement, the synagogue, and the particular rabbi.
More complicated yet are the complexities of arranging a bar/bat mitzvah for a child with severe disabilities. Parents often encounter prejudice and misunderstanding and must explain why it makes sense for children with limited intellectual ability to celebrate their new obligation to participate in Jewish life.
Finally, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah
On the day of the bar/bat mitzvah, the child steps up to the bimah and performs the ritual activities for which he or she has prepared for months. Depending on the child’s abilities and the synagogue’s expectations, the child’s role varies but nearly always includes being called up to the Torah for his or her first aliyah, reciting the blessings over the Torah (in traditionalist synagogues, girls will not receive an aliyah). Besides reading from the Torah and chanting the haftarah, many children lead all or part of the congregational service. In many synagogues, the child also offers an interpretation of the weekly Torah reading, an opportunity to wrest personal meaning from the sacred communal text.
Although the parents are often involved in the service, the only role with ancient roots is the father’s (in traditional synagogues) or both parents’ recitation of an ancient blessing formally recognizing the child’s newfound physical, emotional, and moral maturity. Parents may also recite the Sheheheyanu blessing (which thanks God for the opportunity to celebrate the occasion), present a tallit (prayer shawl) to the child, help lead the service, read from the Torah, and receive an aliyah.
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: BEE-muh, Origin: Hebrew, literally “stage,” this is the raised platform in a synagogue from which services are led and the the Torah is read.
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.
Pronounced: tah-LEET or TAH-liss, Origin: Hebrew, prayer shawl.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.