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January 10, 2011
Although the ritual of bar mitzvah dates back almost two thousand years and has been a staple in our tradition ever since, the Reform Movement abandoned it in its early years. Along with many of the ritual laws and minhagim (customs), the Reform Movement felt that bar mitzvah was no longer a pertinent ritual. A boy, only 13 years in age, no longer had the adult status in society that he once had. Reform introduced the ceremony of confirmation, whereby a group of young men and women would become confirmed together around the age of 16 following years of education. However, the power of tradition eventually prevailed: Reform brought back the bar mitzvah for boys and even introduced the bat mitzvah for girls.
Today, the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, followed by its festivity, is central to synagogue life. Many families affiliate with a synagogue in order to ensure their child become bar/bat mitzvah. The requirements are usually stringent. In most, a synagogue requires the child to enroll in religious school beginning in 3rd or 4th grade, be consistent in their attendance and grades, and attend Shabbat services regularly.
Especially with the increase in interfaith marriages, the choice to send a child to a religious school, whether it is Jewish or another religion's, is not an easy one to make. There are more extra-curricular activities and greater academic pressures nowadays which can often take precedence over religious schooling. Parents often choose to maintain religious traditions associated with the holidays at home, instead of sending kids to school to learn about them. Regardless of a child's religious schooling, they should be entitled to a bar/bat mitzvah. Just as one born of a Jewish mother is no less Jewish if he never had a bris, a Jew becomes bar mitzvah, according to Jewish law, simply by reaching the "age of majority." No other conditions apply. Nonetheless, knowing that a ceremony is not necessary to one's becoming bar/bat mitzvah means little to many families and their children who want to experience this meaningful lifecycle event.
There are other options for families not affiliated with a synagogue who wish to celebrate their child becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. A bar/bat mitzvah does not have to take place in a synagogue. It can take place anywhere that there is a minyan (10 Jewish adults) present for public prayer and public reading of the Torah. A synagogue is holy only as a place of worship, but not intrinsically so.
There are many Jewish clergy, rabbis and cantors, who welcome the opportunity to teach Judaism, prepare and preside over a ceremony that takes place in locales beyond the synagogue. No Jewish child, whether the child of two Jewish parents or just one, should be denied the opportunity to have this special lifecycle ceremony.