Bar Mitzvah: Emphasizing the Journey
Or Mars is the Director of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program. Or lives in Columbus, OH and is also a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus of Class VI. Or can be reached at email@example.com.
When I was twenty-seven years old, fresh back from studying in yeshiva in Jerusalem, I took a job as an educator for the JCC on the Upper West Side (now: JCC of Manhattan). Through my yeshiva connections I was approached by a family with a twelve year old boy preparing for his bar mitzvah. Dan was in day school and had a tutor through his synagogue. Even with this infrastructure in place, his parents still wanted me to work with him in preparation for his bar mitzvah. The sole official output that they wanted from our working together was the d’var Torah but that was only the excuse. What they really wanted for Dan was to develop a relationship with a young man (me) who could give over a positive sense about Jewish life.
In between weekly sessions of studying Jewish texts together we went to concerts, movies and hockey games. One week we would be studying Rashi on the laws of leprosy and the next we would be slam dancing at the Foo Fighters concert. Even in that moment I knew what an enlightened parenting decision this was. Yes, the immediate end goal was the bar mitzvah ceremony, but the real and ultimate goal was helping to form a young Jewish man who loves being Jewish and will know how to integrate his Jewish identity into his emerging teen identity.
Now I am forty-one years old and I have a son of my own who is twelve. My wife and I think about that year with Dan and how we can draw inspiration from the experience. As Dan’s parents did, we are hoping to emphasize the journey over the destination. How can this time be used to provide formative experiences and sweet memories? Our son does not feel compelled by the performance aspects of modern bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies and neither do we. And like Dan’s parents, we are not opposed to taking the road less traveled.
I reflect back on my experience with Dan. The bar mitzvah was about maximizing educational opportunities and I was fortunate to be part of it – not only because of the positive impact on Dan but also because of the unforeseen impact it would have on my future children. And I think now about my son’s eventual bar mitzvah experience. The end “result” could wind up looking like a traditional bar mitzvah or it could be something completely different – as long as it is something that makes him proud, happy and serves as a catalyst for his Jewish learning and maturation, then the rest is commentary.
I think about the prayer at the very beginning of shacharit services – “May the words of Torah, Adonai Eloheinu, be sweet in our mouths…” – this, to me, sums up the goal of the bar mitzvah process.
We think we have an a nice educational plan that our son enjoys – he studies ethics and philosophy weekly with his grandfather, Torah and prayer with a local tutor, and, together, we’ve taking on a “little brother” through Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Central Ohio. We’ve kept the expectations of a product very loose so that this process can evolve organically without social or time pressures. Sometimes I hope that by not tying these activities directly, and only to a bar mitzvah ceremony, they will be something that will be an ongoing experience that will never end.
I still remember Dan’s d’var Torah very well. I remember how his mother and father lovingly parented him through that year. And because of who they are and how they brought me into their creative model I know that my son’s own bar mitzvah experience will be enriched.
So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking (maybe over-thinking), a bit of talking, but mostly letting things (and our son) unfold naturally.