By Ted Merwin
Isaac Soloway may be a fairly typical Los Angeles Jewish teenager, but his bar mitzva was anything but the standard Jewish coming-of-age ritual.
The event did not take place in a synagogue, required no rabbi or cantor and included few prayers or readings. Instead, his parents rented a former automobile showroom-turned-party space where Isaac staged a play, dressing up his relatives with camel ears to perform a story based on that week’s Torah portion.
The traditional bar mitzva ritual, in which a boy is simply called to the Torah for the first time to celebrate his 13th birthday, dates back to the 14th century. Seven centuries later, that ritual maintains its centrality in Jewish life to mark a young person’s coming of age. Yet many Jewish families, whether or not they are affiliated with congregations, are taking a new approach to this tradition, transforming the rite of passage in ways that speak to deep changes in Jewish life.
Leading the reinvention of b’nei mitzva in this country is Amichai Lau-Lavie, a former Israeli high school teacher who in 1999 founded Storahtelling, a theater troupe that uses drama, video, photography, painting, dance and music to reinvigorate the ceremony. Five years ago, Lau-Lavie launched Raising the Bar, which helps families design and perform their own b’nei mitzva rituals by working with tutors trained by Lau-Lavie. More than three dozen of these celebrations have taken place so far, from Los Angeles and New York to London and Jerusalem.
Most exciting for Lau-Lavie is to see Jewish heritage refracted through the eyes of a child on the cusp of maturity. “We hand over to them the wheel of our sacred storytelling, giving them the responsibility to make sense of the past for us and tell us who we are,” he said. For example, at a recent bat mitzva in New York, one of his students took her portion from Leviticus about the induction of the ancient priests into the sacrificial cult and crafted a performance piece about her own initiation into adulthood.
Lau-Lavie puts the emphasis on the entire family, not just the 12- or 13-year-old. As demand for his services grows, he is shifting away from an individualized model toward one of working with cohorts of families whose children are all preparing for the ceremony at around the same time. Once a month, the parents convene to examine their own coming-of-age and Jewish identity issues. For Lau-Lavie, “coming of age is a family affair—you don’t just drop off a kid and not do any work yourself.”
Isaac Soloway’s mother, Jill, is a comedian and playwright best known for coproducing and writing the HBO series Six Feet Under. She met Lau-Lavie at a California conference sponsored by Reboot, an organization that uses culture to reach out to a younger generation of Jews. “Hearing him speak was like water in a desert,” she said. “I told him, ‘Whatever you say Judaism is, let’s do it.’” She was enraptured by what she called Lau-Lavie’s “do-it-yourself, direct, locally grown” way of doing things. “In the past, it was always how expensive, how fancy, how beautiful, how big can we make it. But for him, it’s how real, how deep, how meaningful, how authentic can we make it.”
“I got to decide what parts I wanted in my bar mitzva,” Isaac recalled. “I decided what the rituals meant, which are necessary and which are not.” His rite of passage continued with an initiation ceremony at a Reboot retreat a week after his bar mitzva. He was blindfolded by a man in an ape costume and taken up to a canyon where the men and older teenagers sat in a circle and, in Isaac’s words, “talked about a bunch of different ideas about what it means to be a man.”
Two-thirds of the families that Lau-Lavie works with are unaffiliated. “Even families who are completely off the Jewish grid do b’nei mitzva,” Lau-Lavie said. His organization charges a comparable fee to the cost of synagogue membership and Hebrew school tuition, which is between $7,000 and $10,000 in most congregations. At the same time, Lau-Lavie works with families who belong to synagogues and whose rabbis are open to experimenting with the traditional ritual.
While only a third of his b’nei mitzva have taken place in synagogues, Lau-Lavie sees potential for transforming congregational life, too. Among what he calls “beachhead” synagogues whose staff he has trained are Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York, known for its vibrant musical services and forward-thinking clergy.
However, the noncongregational approach causes concern for many pulpit rabbis. David Steinhardt, senior rabbi of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida, noted that an increasing number of b’nei mitzva ceremonies take place in backyards, country clubs and hotels. He said, “I tell all my b’nei mitzva, ‘Look out to the congregation and realize that you are part of them and they are part of you. This is about your connection to both the past and future generations of the Jewish people.’” He sees a bar or bat mitzva outside the synagogue context as inimical to the concept of the ritual, which traditionally marks the entrance of the celebrant into the Jewish community.
According to Rabbi Mordechai Finley, spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, affluent and unaffiliated Jewish families often want to do something different for their children’s b’nei mitzva—and they want a rabbi to do it. “I get calls all the time from Hollywood people asking me to do something nontraditional for a handsome price,” he said.
Finley, however, sees little need to depart from the traditional ritual. “I know how to frame a bar mitzva in a very inspiring way,” he said. “Why provide the accoutrements of something special, when the rabbi is already special?” Like Steinhardt, Finley emphasizes the importance of the communal context. “What makes a person Jewish is their connection to a community,” he said. “It’s not about simply getting your needs met.”
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL (National Jewish Center for Life and Learning) and a Jewish leader noted for his out-of-the-box thinking, disagrees. “The idea that the synagogue provides a community is a myth,” he said. “The bar or bat mitzva family brings its own community to the synagogue for the day, and they tend to face hostility from the 15 percent or so of the regular members who are there for the Saturday morning service.” Lau-Lavie’s approach represents what Kula calls a “fundamental challenge to the American synagogue,” which relies on the Hebrew school as its financial engine.
The reason b’nei mitzva remain so important in Jewish life, Kula said, is because they fill what he calls a “lacuna” in our culture. “In America, we have no coming-of-age ritual other than, perhaps, getting a driver’s license,” he noted. But he said that the synagogue’s long-standing “monopoly on life-cycle rituals and holidays” is dissolving as Jewish innovators come into the picture.
Michael Siegel, senior rabbi of Congregation Ansche Emet in Chicago, suggests that synagogues need to strike a balance between maintaining their standards and accommodating the desires of families to do something different. “We can’t create dividing lines that will drive families out of the synagogues,” he said.
He is working on a d’var Torah with a girl whose family decided to have a destination bat mitzva in Napa Valley, flying in a rabbi from another congregation to perform the ceremony.
“I’m happy they’re doing something,” he said, “even though it is not here in the synagogue.”
Indeed, some rabbis believe that the farther away from the synagogue a bar or bat mitzva takes place, the better. Jamie Korngold, who calls herself the Adventure Rabbi, served a Conservative congregation in Calgary before moving to Boulder, Colorado, and developing Jewish wilderness rituals. One memorable double bat mitzva took place on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where the group prayed while watching seals sporting in the waves. Another group put on snowshoes and hiked up a mountain; the ceremony took place in front of a fireplace in a cabin, in the middle of a raging blizzard. In such a situation, Korngold said, the celebrant comes to a powerful realization that Jews rely on each other for both physical and spiritual sustenance.
Korngold tells families that the ritual is an “individual journey that the boy or girl has undertaken, but now we’re going to take that last step together.” Being in a natural setting, she said, “makes it easy to get the sense that there is something greater than yourself in the universe. We need to take that feeling and make it Jewish.”
While Lau-Lavie and Korngold use the Torah portion as a springboard, other ceremonies, even those that take place in congregations, dispense with the Torah entirely. For Peter Schweitzer, a secular humanistic rabbi who leads the City Congregation in downtown New York, a bar or bat mitzva is “not about taking on the mitzvot,” he said. “It’s about [the boy or girl’s] self-assertion and self-definition.” In lieu of studying Torah, students in his congregation interview family members and learn about their beliefs, values and commitments. The students then choose role models, from Paul Robeson to Barbara Walters, and write about them in papers that are posted on the congregation’s Web site.
Working with an adult mentor from the congregation, each student then devises a project related to Jewish history and culture, which is presented to the congregation as part of the bar or bat mitzva in the form of a speech, slide show or video. Among recent topics were the development of klezmer, the affinity between Judaism and Buddhism and the relationship between Jews and ice cream.
Kaela Walker, the daughter of two psychologists who live on the Upper East Side of New York, had a secular humanistic bat mitzva last April at a dance club on the Lower East Side. Her ceremony, which included songs from Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, was almost entirely in English, which Kaela believes set it apart from those of her friends who belong to more traditional congregations.
“People were able to pay attention better and to have their own thoughts and opinions about what they heard since they understood the language,” she pointed out.
Then there is the bar or bat mitzva that takes place in Israel, traditionally at the kotel. Today, such ceremonies are held all over the Jewish state. Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Synagogue in St. Louis, Missouri, conducted her nephew’s bar mitzva on Kibbutz Sdot Yam, fulfilling her late mother’s dying wish that the youngest of her 11 grandchildren, whose family did not belong to a synagogue, have his ceremony in Israel.
While Talve believes that a bar or bat mitzva is a “gift to the whole community that gives a kid the feeling of being bigger than themselves,” she also recognizes that there are many paths into the tradition, and not all of them involve synagogue membership.
“More is always more,” she said. “If people have a meaningful experience, I don’t care how they get it. I’m not worried about the future of the synagogue. If Amichai [Lau-Lavie] and others are challenging the institutional Jewish community to be more creative, then that will be good for all of us.”
Coming of Age in the Jewish State
Sivan Maas is the first secular humanistic rabbi in Israel. Seven years ago, she founded an organization called Temurah to combat what she sees as a growing trend among Israelis to “feel comfortable with their Israeli identity and indifferent or even hostile to their Jewish identity.” Temurah reaches out to secular Jews and tries to involve them in Jewish life.
Calling Israel a “noncongregational society,” Maas notes that Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Israel Museum and Israeli National Library were all founded as “new temples” of secular Jewish life. Families seeking a b’nei mitzva ceremony for their children, Maas says, want it to reflect their view of Judaism as a culture rather than a religion.
After demonstrating how rabbis throughout history have engaged in creative questioning of the Torah, Maas begins the process by escorting each family to the Israel Museum. She shows them the diverse forms that Jewish buildings, objects and texts have taken throughout history, from Hellenistic mosaics to medieval illuminated manuscripts to the Cochin synagogue from India. “They leave the museum with the impression that this Jewish treasure belongs to them, and that it is up to them to tell the story in a way that they find relevant,” she says.
One of her most memorable bat mitzva girls was the introverted daughter of divorced parents; the mother had converted from Christianity before the marriage and, according to Maas, “there was a lot of hope for the ceremony to bring about healing in the family.” The girl was most excited by the museum’s extensive collection of menoras, made from precious metals, beads and other materials.
The girl decided to create her own ceramic menora, with each candle holder standing for a Jewish heroine, including the biblical matriarchs, Golda Meir, her mother and both her Jewish and Christian grandmothers. The only thing that she was missing was the shamash, the candle that lights all the others. “She cried,” Maas recalls, “when I told her that she is the shamash; it is her job to give light to all the other heroines.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 edition of Hadassah Magazine.