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The length of bar mitzvah lessons

A matter of time

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

My temple sees kids for bar mitzvah lessons for 30 minutes a week. How can that possibly be enough time to learn everything? Wouldn’t an hour a week, or even 45 minutes, make a lot more sense?

— Do you have the time?

Dear Time,

Fellow Jew, Albert Einstein, taught us that all time is relative. I used to think that meant that time tends to slow way down when we’re with family members … especially in-laws. In reality, as Einstein figured out so many years ago, it’s all about perspective and how you look at things.

First, a lot depends on how much your temple expects kids to do at the bar mitzvah service. In some cases, a student will lead a couple of prayers and maybe chant a short Torah reading. Other times, bar mitzvah kids might be expected to prepare the entire service, a long haftarah, as well as Torah readings. So there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for lessons.

Second, I’ve got two very important words for you: attention span. I imagine that most lessons take place after school. In a perfect world, a kid sits eagerly in the cantor’s office and enthusiastically basks in the joy of Jewish learning. “More!” he exclaims. “I want to learn for hours!”

The reality? It’s hard for kids to sit still in school all day, and then concentrate in an intense one-on-one setting for 30, 45, or 60 minutes. This isn’t to say that we cantors and parents shouldn’t expect kids to attend lessons and pay attention. Rather, we should be aware that kids often start to fade a bit as the clock ticks and the minutes pass. A lot of the learning takes place during the first part of the lesson, so much so, that I’ve often wondered exactly when my voice starts to sound like one of the adult characters in the Peanuts comic strip: “Mwa mwa mwa mwa…”

I’m sure it’s not long after 30 minutes.

Third, and probably the most critical point, is that you need to acknowledge exactly what you think lessons are all about. Most parents reasonably believe that bar mitzvah lessons take place so that their child can sit with the cantor or bar mitzvah tutor and learn the material. Actually, that’s not exactly the case.

Sure, during lessons your son or daughter will likely be introduced to trope (the musical symbols that tell us how to sing the Torah or haftarah). The cantor will explain how certain pages get sung, when to bow or move, and a ton of other important material. But the bulk of the learning takes place at home!

I think of myself as a coach or advisor when I give bar mitzvah lessons. I expect my students to prepare the material at home by practicing regularly. Then, in my office, I can correct some mistakes or give hints and strategies that will improve some things. The reality is that I don’t do a great deal of “teaching” during lessons. But I do help, advise, encourage, correct, and otherwise guide the students in their own learning.

The bottom line: don’t worry about how many minutes the lesson lasts. Practicing at home will be time well spent.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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