By Rabbi Sharon Litwin
One of my favorite things to say to the parents of my middle school students is, “Would you give your kid a scalpel and ask her to cut open a patient? A law license and argue before a judge? A driver’s license and tell him to go get the groceries? An ATM card and manage the family finances?” Well, no, of course not. So, why do we think that our 13-year-olds are ready and able to go out into the world as fully formed Jewish adults?
Bar/Bat Mitzvah is just a stepping point, a milestone to mark our children’s entrance into the journey toward adulthood. Yes, they can be counted in a minyan, but would we make them the synagogue president or defer to them to make major decisions about how they will live their lives in the future? No way! One friend of mine, a mom with a 13-year-old son, often says, “How can we expect them to be fully cooked? They don’t even have a pre-frontal cortex yet!”
So, why do so many kids stand up on the Bima at their Bar/Bat Mitzvah and express their commitment to the Jewish people and the next day decide for themselves that this is the end of their Jewish education? We don’t let them drop out of middle school even though the answer to every question they have is on their phones; and we push them hard to become critical thinkers, organized learners, and compassionate friends.
At Congregation B’nai Israel, we know our middle school and high school students have tons of competing activities and are pushed to their limit at school. But, we also know that the connections they form with each other and to our tradition are really valuable. These connections will be the foundation for how they chose to live as Jewish adults. We focus on understanding Judaism in the 21st century and also knowing where we came from. Our core course is designed to create Jewish literacy while keeping the students involved in discussion and answering whatever questions they bring to the classroom. We want them to know something about our history and we want them to care about being a part of our future.
If you have any questions or want to discuss this topic further I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at 973-379-1134 or email.
Rabbi Sharon is Director of Congregational Learning and Education Director of the Blanche Bayar Religious School at Congregation B’nai Israel.