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Popular questions people ask about Judaism and coming-of-age ceremonies

Boost your Jewish IQ with b’nai mitzvah FAQs

for The Brooklyn Paper

There’s a set of frequently asked question for almost every subject matter from using Facebook to the becoming a member of the British Goat Society (our favorite question: “Is goat’s meat tough?”)

So, you’d think a milestone as significant as a bar or bat mitzvah would also yield some quick and simple answers. Look no further! Here are some FAQ’s answered by Cantor Matt Axelrod, the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide,” that are sure to put your and your kid’s mind at ease:

What does bar or bat mitzvah mean?

While the term literally means, “son or daughter of the commandments,” it simply signifies that a kid is considered old enough to take on the obligations of the Jewish religion. Before reaching the age of 13, a person is considered too young to be held responsible.

I want to get my daughter bat mitzvahed. How do I do that?

Feed her and keep her breathing until she turns 13. A child becomes bar or bat mitzvah automatically upon reaching that age.

If that’s the case, why study at all if it happens automatically? Can one opt out of the bar mitzvah ceremony?

Technically, yes. But one of the most important goals of the bar or bat mitzvah year is instilling a sense of responsibility into a young person’s identity. Preparing and having a ceremony gives a 13-year-old an introduction to Jewish values that can be used and built upon throughout their life, which will enrich who they are and their life experience.

So why is there a huge ceremony?

There doesn’t have to be. The bar mitzvah service merely commemorates the fact that your child has reached this important age that kick-starts their life of Jewish learning. Usually, that means that a kid will get to lead some of the prayers, read from the Torah, and chant a haftarah. Some people just feel that when a child is officially old enough to do these things it’s a moment worth celebrating.

Do you have to belong to a synagogue to have a bar mitzvah?

It makes the whole thing a lot more convenient, but definitely not. When you’re a member of a congregation, a lot of the behind-the-scenes work is done for you, like getting assigned a date, and then, a number of months beforehand, your son or daughter will begin lessons with your cantor or some other bar mitzvah tutor linked to your synagogue.

If you are not affiliated, you will likely need to find a competent tutor, and then find a venue where you’re able to have a service.

What sort of things will my child be learning?

It varies among different temples or if you hire your own tutor. The basics will likely be learning how to read the Torah and perhaps a haftarah, using special symbols called trope. A student might also learn parts of the service so they can get up and lead a portion of that service. It’s also common for kids to prepare a short speech, called a d’var Torah, which explains some of what they’ve learned and how it might relate to their own lives.

We’re not very religious. It feels like we’re being hypocritical making our son learn all this material when we don’t believe most of it ourselves. What should we do?

Don’t look at this as some kind of religious indoctrination. Even secular Jews can appreciate that their kids are getting older and will be capable of taking on more responsibility and making mature decisions about what’s important to them. The most effective decisions are those made from a position of knowledge. It’s also fine to share your personal feelings about Judaism or religion in general with your child. You’ll feel much more comfortable not pretending to be someone that you’re not.

Any tips on keeping the catering bill down?

Do you have any contacts at the British Goat Society? Otherwise, good luck with that!

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