Autobiographies of B’nai Mitzvah: The Meaning of B’nai Mitzvah and the Role Adolescents Believe Adults Play in the Process

Published: 
2020

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 86:2, 164-195

 

This study explores the autobiographies of teens who are at the center of this ritual. Their narratives illuminate that the adolescent story of b’nai mitzvah is not a traditional coming of age in which the adolescent emerges with a new status, but one that is characterized by hard work, a sense of accomplishment, and expressions of pride. The experience is overwhelmingly positive and an opportunity for family and friends to witness what the teens perceive as a significant milestone. While they may not emerge as a true adult, they do feel changed.

B’nai mitzvah requires substantial preparation, confronting nervousness, and ultimately being at the center of attention. Whether teens become b’nai mitzvah in a synagogue or as part of an alternative program, they ultimately see the process as one in which they exercise their own agency and feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. While they are grateful for the adults who aid them, they see this as their own experience. With the exception of the individual who assists them with Hebrew or helps them make significant choices about the service, they see the adults as mainly their cheerleaders, providing them with pep talks and showering them with expressions of pride. This study further explores how the adolescents who are at the center of this ritual, and who do not see a tension between Jewish particularism and American individualism (Bryfman, 2016; Herring & Leffert, 1997; Kadushin et al., 2001), further respond to his question as to why this ritual persists. This study addresses the gap in the understanding of religiosity in a culture of American individualism by exploring b’nai mitzvah that occur in synagogues as well as programs that take place outside of a synagogue. This study is a narrative study that considers the experience of the teens that is derived from the stories they tell after they have completed the process.

This study was conducted in a large metropolitan area known for its entrepreneurial nature and openness to alternative lifestyles, thus making it a ripe area in which to explore the differences between b’nai mitzvah celebrated in synagogues and those held beyond their walls. This study focuses on the largest slices of local populations, those affiliated with the Reform Movement and those unaffiliated, as they could supply the largest percentage of potential participants. Though in some cases, area teens who belong to a synagogue choose to participate in an alternative program for b’nai mitzvah, all of the teens in this study who became b’nai mitzvah outside of a congregation represent unaffiliated families. The participants in this study consist of teens equally split between the congregational group and two non-synagogue-based alternative programs. One congregation is in an urban area and the other in a suburban setting, though most of the congregants live in the suburbs.

Fifteen students in total were interviewed. All of the participants were either entering eighth grade or in eighth grade, with the exception of one ninth grade girl who became bat mitzvah in eighth grade. Seven of the participants were from the alternative programs and eight were from the Reform synagogues. Of the fifteen participants, all were female with the exception of two. Interviews were conducted from June through October 2017 and lasted between 45 minutes and an hour. Each interview began with some general questions and chatting, to establish rapport with the participant, followed by a semistructured interview protocol allowing for the participants to tell the story of their b’nai mitzvah. In addition, the teens brought an artifact from the experience and shared why they chose it. They were loquacious and required little prompting to address the questions.

Conclusions

This study is a portrait of the experience of teens in becoming b’nai mitzvah. It reveals that for the teens who are at the center of this ritual, b’nai mitzvah is compelling. It also shows that teens recognize and appreciate that others have helped them along the way. They feel proud of what they have done and they value the pride in them expressed by others. Being famous for the day is about being acknowledged for overcoming fear and working hard and being congratulated by all those who were part of the experience. Given the weight that the teens place on the mentoring role tutors, clergy, and family play, practitioners have the opportunity to capitalize on these relationships to help young people grow and experience a greater sense of communion to others, and to Judaism.

For practitioners whose time is focused on crafting this ritual, and parents who hope their child gains something from the experience, it clearly demonstrates the relationship between choice and impact. While this study did not explore the long-term effects of choice in bar mitzvah, it is clear from the narratives of the teens in the study that having agency over aspects of the ritual resulted in a stronger alignment with rites of passage, in which the initiate feels changed by the experience and a greater feeling of communion with Judaism. While introducing more choice into the bar mitzvah service makes balancing the tension between the public and private nature of bar mitzvah more complicated, hearing the benefit that the young people derive from having agency should give synagogue practitioners pause. It is not just about what a family wants, but also about what a young person learns about Judaism and gains from the experience. Increasing teen agency offers an opportunity to deepen young people’s Jewish learning and growth, and ultimately helps them further see that a Jewish ritual has the power to change them for the better. Alternative programs should take this finding seriously and consider ways in which they might include more choices in their programs. For both synagogue and alternative programs, what are the areas in which there should be choice and what kind of choices should exist? Which adults are best poised to aid teens in making these choices, and how are they trained and educated as part of the b’nai mitzvah system?

This study will help guide those who wish to invest in b’nai mitzvah and in the growth of Jewish teens. One aim of this research was to illuminate the pockets of religious life that are cropping up outside of formal institutions. This study adds to that literature by going into those pockets and demonstrating that adolescents do not need a synagogue-based b’nai mitzvah to come of age. The b’nai mitzvah experience has left the teens in both groups feeling different as a result of the experience. One answer to Oppenheimer’s (2005) question about why people bother is because it holds this power.

References

Bryfman, D. (2016). Generation now: Understanding and engaging Jewish teens today. The Jewish Education Project. Retrieved from https://www.jewishedproject.org/sites/default/ files/2017-01/Generation%2BNow—Understanding%2Band%2BEngaging%2BJewish% 2BTeens%2BToday%2BApril%2B2016%20%282%29.pdf

Herring, H., & Leffert, N. (1997). Analysis: A new Jewish identity in formation. Agenda: Jewish Education, 9(9), 8–12 Retrieved from https://www.policyarchive.org/handle/10207/ 17900

Kadushin, C., Kelner, S., Saxe, L., Adamczyk, A., Stern, R., & Brodsky, A. (2001). Being a Jewish Teenager in America: Trying to make it. Maurice and MMarilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. Retrieved from https://bir.brandeis.edu/handle/10192/22989.

Oppenheimer, M. (2005). Thirteen and a day: The bar and bat mitzvah across America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
 

Updated: Aug. 18, 2020
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