Jewish professionals’ bar mitzvah experiences

An inside look

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Everyone always loves to get an inside, behind-the-scenes look at something. There are often TV specials that take us backstage at major events, or show us rooms or areas that are otherwise off limits.

As a cantor, I’ve found that a lot of people are really interested in how we “professional Jews” deal with our own children’s b’nei mitzvah. It’s one thing for members of the congregation to get their kids to practice, and plan for all of their friends and relatives to attend the service. But how do cantors and rabbis do it? Is it easier for them?

Oh, how we wish.

Here are some typical comments that my colleagues and I have heard when planning a bar mitzvah, along with my responses, giving a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of professional Jews:

“Good thing your son already knows all this stuff.”

The one major assumption that many people make is that our kids somehow already know all of the material. I find it amusing that because I’m a cantor, my sons should naturally be experts in the Hebrew language, chanting a haftarah, or leading the prayers. Maybe it’s a DNA quirk or something.

The truth is, rabbis’ and cantors’ kids are just like every other student you know. They might end up attending services a little more than the average kid, but they still need to learn all the same material as everyone else. And that’s on top of the usual list of activities that keep them as busy as all of their friends — sports, music lessons, homework, dance, and on and on.

“Is your son having bar mitzvah lessons?”

Sure, isn’t yours? I don’t choose to home school my kids, so I also required my kids to participate in the system of learning at synagogue. That means participating in all of the educational programs leading up to the bar mitzvah, and engaging in formal, structured bar mitzvah lessons. Sure, I could have taught my sons a few times a week sitting at our dining room table, but it made a lot more sense to have real lessons in my office, in the same environment as all of their friends and my students.

“Do you have to invite the whole temple?”

That can certainly become an awkward situation. It’s hard enough for the average family to send out invitations — you have no problem inviting family members or close friends. But sometimes there are borderline families. Do they get an invitation or not? It’s pretty difficult to navigate that whole minefield without offending at least someone. Now, what if you’re the cantor or rabbi and you are particularly friendly with certain families in the congregation? Do you just invite those families but not others?

In fact, most clergy will sensibly avoid this problem by extending an invitation to the entire congregation, often at considerable personal expense. They might host a simple lunch for everyone in attendance after services, and then plan a different party or reception later for their own smaller circle.

This is also one reason why a lot of rabbis and cantors travel to Israel for the bar mitzvah. It’s a lot easier to avoid all the potential pitfalls about whom to invite when you’re thousands of miles away.

So if your cantor or rabbi is in the middle of planning a family bar mitzvah, remember that they probably have even more to worry about, and that their kids are just like everyone else’s — mistakes, cracking voices, and all.

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Reader Feedback

Sheldon Levin from Edison NJ says:
Great article but what is that picture ???
Oct. 14, 2013, 4:59 pm

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