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Crowd Control: When It Comes to Honoring Bar and Bat Mitzvah Guests, Families and Synagogues Face a Delicate Balancing Act

October, 2004

Reprinted with permission of the New Jersey Jewish News.

When Linda Cohen's son celebrated becoming Bar Mitzvah on April 24, the family had some tough choices to make. "We wanted to honor everyone but we had to prioritize," Cohen told NJ Jewish News.  

That's because the synagogue, Ahawas Achim B'nai Jacob and David, in West Orange, has strict rules about how many Torah honors a Bar Mitzvah celebrant's family may give to friends and relatives. Like many synagogues, the Orthodox congregation limits how many family members may recite the aliyah blessings that precede and follow the chanting of each section of Torah.

"The family is entitled to three aliyot, plural of aliyah, [of the traditional seven]. If they require more, a special request must be made," said Rabbi Yaakov Sprung, the congregation's religious leader. "It's a nice thing to celebrate a simcha (joyous event) but in a community as large as ours, if we permit the family to gobble up all of the aliyot, there wouldn't be any left for others."

Let's face it: When it comes to internecine religious struggles, the jockeying for bimah (podium) honors is not exactly "Who is a Jew?" But for parents of families planning a Bar or Bat Mitzvah--and for rabbis trying to preserve the rules and atmosphere of Shabbat (Sabbath) services--questions of crowd control loom large. Even when family and clergy agree on the principles, it's the rare simcha-planning family who doesn't ask, "How can we say no to Uncle Sid?"

It's an issue that synagogues face across the denominations. Call it aliyah wars, or more judiciously, a balancing act, but family needs and synagogue policies often come into conflict when it's time for young Jacob or Julie's big day.

And like so much else in Jewish life, the balance has shifted in recent years. When Rabbi Eliseo Rozenwasser arrived at the Conservative Adath Shalom 10 years ago (when the Morris Plains synagogue was still in Dover), "the Bar Mitzvah family would take over. The whole service was geared to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to the point where the regulars did not feel comfortable. They would choose to come on Shabbatot when there was no Bar or Bat Mitzvah."

So Rozenwasser, along with the synagogue board, adopted a strict policy that the family could have four aliyot and the congregation would have three.

The congregation resisted, according to ritual committee chair Laurie Levy, who was on the synagogue board at the time. "We had to have an open meeting. People came to express their outrage. We stood firm . . . Today, no one remembers, and [the policy] is wonderful. The services don't belong to the Bar Mitzvah; it's a community event," she said.

While reserving three or four aliyot for the family and the rest for the congregation appears to be the norm, the policy is more generous at B'nai Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Orange. Families are allotted between five and seven aliyot, and an additional aliya, or hosafa, can be added when needed and permissible.

But B'nai Shalom does not allow one innovation that other congregations have used to increase the number of people receiving honors: group aliyot. The practice of two or more people reciting the blessings in unison is considered a relatively recent variation on an honor intended for an individual.

"At some point there has to be a standard," said Rabbi Stanley Asekoff. "We will add [individual] aliyot when people show up unexpectedly at shul with things for which they need to have an aliyah," such as a yahrtzeit (anniversary of a death). "But you can't create honors that do not exist."

When the issue of group aliyot arose, Asekoff consulted the Conservative movement's responsa, or legal opinions, on the matter. He came to the conclusion that "group aliyot came into being to find a way to give more people honors. It's a way to mollify families who are upset because they have more people to honor. The more authentic way is for one person to have an aliyah. You don't use the Torah as a way of getting in honors. You can't use the Torah to honor people. It's an honor to be called up to the Torah."

There's another reason group aliyot are prohibited at B'nai Shalom, said Asekoff: When so many people get up for an aliyah, it creates a distraction from the service.

A family affair

Still, many local synagogues have adopted the practice of group aliyah as a way to include more people. At the Reform congregations Temple B'nai Or in Morristown and Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, families are permitted three aliyot with as many as four people at each, so up to 12 people can be honored.

"We resisted group aliyot for a long time," said B'nai Or's Rabbi Donald Rossoff. "They can be awkward, and sometimes it does not come off well." To alleviate the problems, he said, the synagogue's cantor tries to practice with the groups before the service. "That helps a lot. It's such an intensely family-oriented time. I go with the maximum amount of family inclusivity."

Reform synagogues, many of which hold Saturday morning Shabbat services only when there is a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, tend to be less concerned about families "gobbling up" the morning prayers. But Reform synagogues face a thorny issue of their own: With many of their congregants part of nuclear or extended interfaith families, who is eligible to be called up to the Torah?

The main Reform bodies offer guidance on the issue, but no diktats. For example, "The B'nei Mitzvah Handbook," jointly published by the Reform movement's congregational and rabbinic bodies, quotes the policies of Temple Ner Tamid. According to the handbook, non-Jews may not "hand down" the Torah scrolls from grandparent to grandchild, lift the scrolls, or recite the Torah blessings. "In the instance of an interfaith marriage, both parents are called to the Torah," according to the handbook, "but typically the non-Jewish spouse reads the translation while the Jewish spouse recites the blessings."

Congregations that belong to the Conservative movement follow a ruling set by its Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that prohibits non-Jews from participating in the service on the bimah in any way. This includes opening the ark, carrying or dressing the Torah scroll, or reciting the blessings, according to Rabbi Moshe Edelman, director of the Committee on Congregational Standards at United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. A non-Jew can, however, recite in English the prayer for the State of Israel, for the United States government, or for the armed forces of either Israel or the United States.

When Judith Sachs Bliss planned her son's Bar Mitzvah service on April 17 at B'nai Or, she gave aliyot to 10 of her son's 12 cousins. "We solved the problem of grandparents and aunts and uncles by having this new generation [receive the aliyot]. We felt it was a way to honor everyone." The problem was, two of the cousins are not being raised as Jews and, according to the synagogue, are therefore not permitted to be called to the Torah. The situation gets more complicated when the non-Jew is one of the parents.

"You have to be [at least] 13. You have to be Jewish. You have to be able to say the blessings in Hebrew," said Rossoff. Non-Jewish parents and other guests may be involved in passing the Torah, giving a speech, standing behind the child before the ark, he said; "but it doesn't make sense for parents [or guests] who are not Jewish to say Torah blessings. The language affirms that the Torah is the path to salvation, and only someone who is Jewish can say that. Otherwise, it's like a Jewish person taking Eucharist in a Catholic church."

But Rossoff said he believes that including non-Jewish parents as much as possible is critical. "I don't want a child up on the bimah (podium) with one parent on the bimah and one parent off. That's like having half of the child on the bimah and half of the child off. We have an obligation to communicate in everything we do a sense of wholeness."

For Bliss, the issue resolved itself simply. She offered the non-Jewish cousins alternate ways of being honored, such as dressing the Torah. They "were thrilled. It was not at all awkward."

Pleasing the "regulars"

Shabbat morning services are held regularly at Temple Ner Tamid, but because there may be only a dozen "regulars" on a given Shabbat, including the congregation members is even more critical, said Rabbi Steven Kushner. But inclusion comes in a different color there.

Some synagogues have come up with other solutions, like adding an earlier or alternative minyan (quorum of 10 adult Jews needed to read from the Torah) to accommodate regulars who have an obligation to recite an aliyah, and those who simply prefer to avoid Bar or Bat Mitzvah services. Temple Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Springfield, has added a 7:30 a.m. Shabbat minyan. But the synagogue's Rabbi Chaim Marcus pointed out that this works only if the congregation accepts some of the onus. "We ask people that if they know they will have the obligation, not to wake up on Saturday morning [and just show up], but to contact the gabbai early in the week" about their plans, he told NJJN.

As for the Cohens of AABJ&D, their Bar Mitzvah decision was not easy.

As an Orthodox synagogue, the shul is bound by halacha, or rabbinic law, which requires that men saying yahrtzeit (memorial prayer) for a parent, and people in certain other circumstances, be given an aliyot. (Orthodox Jews tend to accept the prohibition against women coming up on the bimah.) And while the law permits hosafot, additional aliyot, most weeks, the congregation might not agree--especially when the already lengthy services are made even longer.

"It's tirha d'tzibura--a stress placed on the forum or community," said Sprung. "People expect to get out of shul at a certain time each week."

In the end, there were enough aliyot for all of the Cohen's relatives, except for Alan Cohen, father of the Bar Mitzvah boy. According to halacha, as a kohen, a descendant of the Temple priests, he could take only the first aliyah. But if he took that aliyah, his father, also a kohen, would not have received the honor. The rabbi could have added hosafot, and then a kohen could received the last aliyah. But that was not the resolution reached by the Cohens. In the end, the boy's father didn't have an aliyah.

"Alan thought about it and thought about it and thought about it," said Linda Cohen. "And he decided to give his father the respect he deserves. It was the right decision for us."

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "time of [one] year," referring to the anniversary of the day of a relative's death. Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") The plural version of the Hebrew word "aliyah." Meaning "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "gladness" or "joy," it is often used to refer to a festive occasion or celebration, like a wedding, bat mitzvah, or bris. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Is a Hebrew word, sometimes used interchangeably with the Hebrew word "shamash," used to describe a person who assists in the running of synagogue services in some way. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "synagogue." A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Johanna Ginsberg

Johanna Ginsberg is a staff writer for The New Jersey Jewish News. She can be reached at

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