October 3, 2013
A few years ago, I was contacted by parents who wanted their daughter to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, not in the way they had seen in synagogue
, but rather in a way that would be genuine to their vision
of what it means to become a young adult. The largest issue they had with a standard Bat Mitzvah service was that there was a lot of “God-talk,” and the father, while very connected to his Jewish roots and culture, and the mother who had grown up as a secular Episcopalian, were atheist. They were seeking a rabbi or cantor who would be flexible enough to work with them and an Episcopal priest who was a member of the family.
At our first meeting, we sat down to brainstorm. Would the child read from the Torah and write a d’rash (a speech in which relevant meaning of the Torah portion is taught)? How could we create a Jewish-Episcopal “coming-of-age” ceremony based upon a Bat Mitzvah model but without any prayer? As we spoke, I ascertained that the most important unifying value of this family was tikkun olam (repairing the world). In fact, this was a family that not only talked the talk, but walked the walk! They had recently returned from a 2-month stay in a small village in Africa where the family all taught at a school.
It was decided right then that for her tzedakah project (similar to a community service project), Emily (the Bat Mitzvah) would raise money for school supplies and books for the African school. Over the months as she prepared for her Bat Mitzvah, she had some rubber bracelets made which she then sold, she did three bake sales and she did a presentation at her school about her experience in Africa. At her Bat Mitzvah, she was able to present a check for $632 to a representative from the school via Skype.
At our first meeting, Emily told the Priest, who wanted to be included in some of the planning discussions, and me that she was very interested and curious about the acts of the Righteous Gentiles of World War II: Christians helping Jews at the risk of their own lives. We had now found our theme: “Especially in the face of dire consequences, what motivates someone to help a stranger?”
Emily did want to chant from the Torah. We decided that rather than read from the portion of the week, Emily would read a passage that paralleled her theme. We chose the portion of Exodus where the Pharaoh’s daughter takes baby Moses from the water and raises him as her own.
To replace the prayer service, Emily created a power point presentation that explored her theme. She was assigned six books and seven movies all of which told stories of people who chose to do the right thing. She subsequently put together 13 groups of slides that included pictures, poetry that she wrote and prose encapsulating what she learned and what she wanted us to learn. Between each group, Emily invited a group of family or friends to come forward to light one candle of a 13-branch candelabra. A short poem, a musical selection and a “photo-op” accompanied each of these lightings. When it was time for her parents to speak, rather than petitioning for blessings and offering prayers, they spoke of their gratitude, their hopes and dreams for their daughter.
I have been officiating B’nai Mitzvah for over 20 years and I have to admit that this Bat Mitzvah ceremony stands out as a highlight of my career. I do support the standard model of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but I think it might be due for a makeover. With a little imagination and little flexibility, it can be tweaked to take on even deeper levels of meaning and become more relevant without losing connection to tradition.