Jennie Wolfenson became a Bat Mitzvah at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park 35 years ago, the same synagogue where, next month, her 13-year-old daughter Zoe will be called to the Torah for the first time.
But Jennie Wolfenson sees little in common between her experience and her daughter’s — and she thinks that’s a good thing.
Wolfenson said her own rite of passage was overly formal and that her parents made little more than a cameo appearance during the ceremony. But when Zoe leads services next month, Jennie and Jeff Wolfenson will have major roles. He’s planning to bust out his six string and offer a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” In all, 25 guests are expected to be involved in the ceremony in some fashion.
And, in a sign of the times, Zoe has spent almost as many hours creating a digital slide show of Jewish artwork she plans to present at her Havdalah service as she has on her Torah and Haftarah portions.
“We live in a whole different world,” said Jennie Wolfenson.
Across the region, synagogues are rethinking B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies — indeed, the entire preparation process.
As Jews get ready to celebrate Simchat Torah next week — the holiday that marks the ending and beginning of the cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses that make up the Torah and are meant to provide a guide to Jewish living — congregations are wrestling with how to keep teenagers and their families engaged in Jewish community.
For too long, religious leaders now argue, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs have been treated as a graduation ceremony and a private celebration, rather than an entry point into Jewish life. In fact, many families have viewed the rite of passage as the whole point of their child’s Jewish education.
One national study found that one-third of children do not return to supplementary school after B’nai Mitzvah — and 85 percent drop out before the 12th grade. With such figures, observers say, what is at stake could very well be the next generation of Jewish adults.
Sharon Forman-Toll, director of lifelong Jewish learning at Congregation Brith Achim in King of Prussia, said leaders of her congregation want to look at how “we make this experience one that will propel students forward to leading a Jewish life, rather than being a milestone that you check off the list and move on.”
Bar Mitzvahs, which date back to the Middle Ages — the Bat Mitzvah debuted in 1922 — have of late received plenty of media attention. Last month, a video of a Dallas Bar Mitzvah party featuring Vegas-style showgirls went viral, reviving public criticism that lavish parties detract from the religious significance of the occasion.
Then on Sept. 3 — just a day before the start of Rosh Hashanah — The New York Times ran a cover story focusing on an initiative by the Reform movement called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.
The program, launched in 2012, is a joint project of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education. One of the major ideas behind the project is that there should be an increased emphasis on communal service as part of the B’nai Mitzvah experience.
Keneseth Israel and Brith Achim were the two local congregations selected last year to be among 13 synagogues nationally to take part in this two-year pilot project. Keneseth Israel is one of the region’s oldest and largest synagogues, with some 900 families, though it has lost members over the last decade; Brith Achim, with 275 families, is much newer. These synagogues are testing the waters with experimental changes and tracking the results.
In addition, four other local Reform congregations have joined the project in a less formal capacity, according to bnaimitzvahrevolution.org, a website devoted to the project. They are: Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, Beth Or in Maple Glen, Old York Road-Temple Beth Am in Abington and Temple Sholom in Broomall.
This reassessment is not just happening in the Reform movement. Some local Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues are also forming task forces and committees to examine the issue. These include Tiferet Bet Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Blue Bell, and Or Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation in Fort Washington.
“Everybody is struggling with this to some degree or another,” said Rabbi Selilah Kalev, director of lifelong learning at Tiferet Bet Israel, whose congregation is mulling over a possible B’nai Mitzvah year trip to the Jewish state as a way to deepen participants’ ties to the synagogue and the global Jewish community.
In the Times story, Reform leaders sounded almost apologetic for decisions made in the past, arguing that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah had been used primarily as a way to build membership and pay the bills. One rabbi who was quoted called the current system the “religious school industrial complex.”
Another national Reform leader, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, told the Times that synagogues “sent the message to families that if you want to be a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, you have to join the synagogue.” What the parents understood, he explained, was “ ‘When you’re done, you can leave the synagogue.’ ”
Rabbi Lance Sussman of Keneseth Israel thinks some of those criticisms are overblown. He argued that in the past, synagogues created the best model and experience that they could, but what worked well in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s is now out of date.
“We know it is not working,” the rabbi said. “We know that the number of kids involved in Jewish education is diminishing. We know that the private Bar Mitzvah is on the rise.”
The re-examining of the B’nai Mitzvah experience, he continued, “is part of a larger assesment that is taking place of all of Jewish life in this country in this point. It is very clear that the post-World War II patterns of Jewish life are not going to continue.”
Some radical ideas are being considered nationally, such as deemphasizing Hebrew and perhaps even dropping the Torah reading, long considered a central part of becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Instead, the focus would be on community service.
Already, mitzvah projects are standard in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues. But critics contend that many teens do them simply because they are required, and they fail to gain a deeper connection to the Jewish people or develop a sense of the Jewish value of helping the less fortunate.
For the pilot project, Keneseth Israel is specifically focusing on how to make the mitzvah project more meaningful. They also hope to start the whole process earlier. The congregation this year is offering its sixth-graders the opportunity to volunteer for a synagogue-wide social-action project.
The idea is for the child to work closely with synagogue members of different ages and gain a sense of what the congregation does outside of religious school. Administrators would evaluate whether this volunteer project ultimately has any bearing on weather kids remain in religious school after their B’nai Mitzvah.
Ethan Wolfenson, a Keneseth Israel sixth-grader and Zoe’s little brother, chose to work in the synagogue’s Mitzvah Garden, which donates the produce it grows to the food program at the Klein JCC. His family, including his sister, pitched in and has spent the last few months working there.
Ethan said he’s learned that “if you don’t do mitzvahs as a kid, you don’t do them as an adult.”
Zoe, who chose the garden as her Bat Mitzvah service project, said working there “has kind of changed my perspective on things.” She said she’s found a new appreciation for her fellow congregants and the need to give back.
And while she said she is anxious to show her family and friends how hard she worked in preparing for the ceremony, she’s also looking forward to the party that comes after.
Brith Achim, the other local synagogue that’s formally part of the Reform movement’s pilot group, is busy interviewing current religious school families about what they want out of the experience.
“For too many, B’nai Mitzvah preparation entails mastering a skill that will soon be discarded,” said Forman-Toll, the synagogue’s education director.
“For a lot of our kids, it doesn’t mean anything. They have read a code but they don’t know what it means,” she said. “How do we get them to recognize that it is one Torah portion out of 54, that this is a guide to how we lead our lives?”