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How To Prepare For My Son's Bar-Mitzvah?

11/18/2016 11:13:28 AM

Nov18

Dear Rabbi,

My husband and I are feeling nervous. Our firstborn son turns thirteen in 18 months, and we have no idea how to prepare for his Bar-Mitzvah. We've never done this before, and we want to do what's right and best for him.

Please help us - where should we begin?

Signed – A First Timer
 

Dear A First Timer,

Thanks for your question, and my compliments for reaching out for guidance. You've already begun to do what's right and best for your son!

The true significance of Bar-Mitzvah is something which is getting lost with many Jewish families today. Allow me to clarify and few things.

Bar-Mitzvah is the age and milestone when a Jewish boy graduates from being a ‘Jew in training’ to a ‘Jew for real’. This doesn’t mean that a young child is not considered Jewish. It’s just that due to their youthful and immature state of intelligence and character, they don’t yet carry the responsibility of the Jewish mission. But once a child turns thirteen, Jewish Tradition considers them ready to leave the sidelines and to join their team on the court.

(Parenthetically and briefly, we can make two interesting observations: 1. A lesson in parenting – as parents we ought to set goals that ensure that our thirteen-year-old child will indeed be sufficiently educated and trained in Jewish Tradition, 2. A lesson in gender distinction - a girl becomes Bat-Mitzvah at age twelve, because girls and boys mature differently. Knowledge of this is critical when raising our sons and daughters.)

The Bar-Mitzvah graduation occurs simply by virtue of the child’s age. Whether you choose to celebrate the Bar-Mitzvah locally or in Jerusalem, or whether you’re planning a lavish or modest affair, or whether you choose not to celebrate it at all, a thirteen-year-old boy becomes Bar-Mitzvah. The words Bar-Mitzvah simply mean ‘responsible for fulfilling G-d’s mitzvot and for living in accordance with Jewish Tradition’.

So how should one prepare for and celebrate a Bar-Mitzvah?

PREPARATIONS:

The most important preparations are the ones which will best ensure that your child will be ready to live as an informed and active Jew when they turn thirteen. This includes both educational and experiential components.  

Spoiler alert: Learning how to sing the Torah portion is not the most important skill in Jewish life. It is certainly a good skill to know, and will undoubtedly enhance one’s appreciation for the Torah, but there are other, and more necessary, skills to learn. Like studying the laws and customs of Jewish life; like learning Jewish history; like learning how to read and understand a passage from the Torah, the Prayers, or the Talmud; like learning about foundational Jewish beliefs, morals and ethics.

Children who study in Jewish Day Schools, or attend Jewish Studies programs, are obviously further ahead with these studies. But either way, each child needs a personalized curriculum that will teach them what is most appropriate for their level.

In addition to the education element, your child also needs some hands-on training. Bring them to the Synagogue for prayers and seat them next to you; have them share a Dvar-Torah or sing a Jewish song at the Shabbat table; take them to meet your Rabbi to create a connection; take them to visit a patient in hospital; include them in your ‘adult’ discussions; and encourage them to take on a mitzvah campaign that will benefit the needy.

To be sure, it is also a beautiful accomplishment for a child, who prior to turning thirteen could not participate in the Prayer services, to stand up proudly and lead the Prayers as a chazzan, or chant the Torah portion. It is a remarkable statement to the congregation that says, “Hey, I’m one of you guys now!”

So ideally your son’s preparations should be multi-faceted, and include 1) education about the skills and essentials of Jewish life, 2) experiences that help them practice these skills, 3) and preparing to chant from their Torah portion and/or lead some of the Prayers.

These preparations are often achieved by a partnership between yourselves – the parents, a Bar-Mitzvah teacher, and perhaps others as well, like your Rabbi, or school teachers. Besides for these criteria, other important things to look for in a Bar-Mitzvah teacher is someone who can connect with your child and give them a fun and pleasurable experience. For everyone’s benefit, do your best to ensure that Bar-Mitzvah lessons are the highlight of your son’s week!

Another thing: Show your child that you are interested in their studies. Sit with them once a week to review what they have learnt. In fact, have them teach you what they have learnt. If your child will perceive that you are genuinely interested, they will value the process even more. They will realize that you want them to make the preparations not because that’s what everyone else does, but rather because you genuinely feel that this is what’s best for them.

You mentioned that you are eighteen months away from the Bar-Mitzvah. This might be too late, or perhaps too early, to begin preparations. One the one hand, Bar-Mitzvah preparations begin as soon as a child is born. Their surroundings, the things they see or hear, the people they meet and befriend, and the lifestyle they are brought up in, all affect a child tremendously. That being said, I normally suggest that children need about 8-12 months of actual ‘Bar-Mitzvah lessons’. The timeframe will depend on your child’s background, abilities, and ambitions. Deciding on the amount of time, and setting the preparation goals, should be decided together with your Rabbi or the Bar-Mitzvah teacher.  

The next things to discuss are:

  • What date is my child’s Jewish birthday?
  • What is my son’s Torah portion?
  • How-When-Where should we celebrate the Bar-Mitzvah?

I will address these questions in a follow up response.

In the meantime, good luck with the Bar-Mitzvah. Please keep in mind that a Bar-Mitzvah is a simcha, meaning it is a time for happiness, gratitude and celebration, so don’t let it become too stressful or burdensome. I’ll explain more about this in the next response as well.

Wishing you, your husband and your children all my blessings,

Rabbi Eliezer Wolf

 

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Tue, November 12 2019 14 Cheshvan 5780