Too Much Bar and Not Enough Mitzvah? A Proposed Research Agenda on Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Oct. 04, 2010

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 76, Issue 4, pages 301 – 314


Jewish educators are understandably interested in research on how bar/bat mitzvah affect Jewish education or research on what Jewish schools have done to avoid the distortions of a focus on bar/bat mitzvah. Research might also focus on the somewhat different and more ambitious topic of the role that bar/bat mitzvah play in contemporary Jewish identity. Three examples—the meaning of bar/bat mitzvah in intermarried families, bar/bat mitzvah as a ritual entry into early adolescence, and how bar/bat mitzvah perform values—indicate how this larger research agenda might be useful to those rethinking the role of bar/bat mitzvah in Jewish supplementary school education.



In response to the call to rethink the relationship of Jewish supplementary schools to bar/bat mitzvah, this article proposes research as a first step. It proposes that thinking about the role of both supplementary schools and bar/bat mitzvah in Jewish identity include some important features of contemporary Jewish life. It argues that it is important to bring into the conversation the impact of bar/bat mitzvah on a large and growing number of intermarried Jewish families who enroll their children in supplementary schools, and many more who could potentially do so. It recommends seeing bar/bat mitzvah as a ritual of transition into adolescence and being attentive to what is happening to the family systems that are going through that transition. It cautions against an uninformed acceptance of the critical view that current practices amount to nothing more than empty ceremonies and self-indulgent celebrations, and indicates how common bar/bat mitzvah practices perform values of community, social responsibility, and individual autonomy.


There are other issues that could be explored as well that could give a fuller picture of bar/bat mitzvah in contemporary Jewish life and would be useful for rethinking its relationship to Jewish schools. Jews are internally diverse in a variety of ways. Research on how the Israeli and Russian populations within American Jewry understand bar/bat mitzvah would give a more nuanced portrait. So too would research on Orthodox patterns and in contrast, on what publicly atheist Jews (a small percentage perhaps but often intellectual and culturally influential6) do. The way in which bar/bat mitzvah and Jewish education reinforces Jewish identity as religious could be a point of departure to investigating changing (and apparently weakening) understandings of the ethnic dimension of Jewish identity, with implications for connections to Israel and to other diaspora communities.


In general, this discussion has been sympathetic to the educational reforms described by Aron and the call from Rabbi Richard Marker that she endorses for collective reconsideration of the relationship of bar/bat mitzvah to Jewish education. In moving forward on this agenda, research of various kinds has much to offer. From what we know about bar/bat mitzvah, the challenge is not so much to work around, denigrate or eliminate them, but to work to understand how they can contribute to the Jewish identity our schools would like to cultivate and plan for how our schools can make that partnership work.

Updated: Mar. 08, 2011