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Embracing Jewish maturity after the bar mitzvah

Let it bloom

for The Brooklyn Paper

I am a cantor that helps tons of kids prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs. And shortly after a bar mitzvah service is completed, I always picture re-enacting a post-Super Bowl interview:

“Hey Jeremy! You just finished your bar mitzvah. Where are you going now?”

And Jeremy looks right at the camera and shouts: “Disneyworld!”

In reality, we’re not quite sure where Jeremy is going, but chances are it’s not back into a temple. The unfortunate truth is that kids and families view bar mitzvah preparation as a long process ending with the service. We Jewish professionals, on the other hand, would certainly disagree with that kind of mentality. All the material that students learned over the course of those difficult months is meant to be a jumping-off point.

Look at it this way: if a kid stops embracing Judaism as soon as he’s done with his bar mitzvah, he will go through his entire life with the Jewish education of a 13-year-old. He’s essentially frozen his Jewish-self.

Instead, here are a few ways that parents can help a bar or bat mitzvah actively engage Judaism after the big day.

Step one: Relax

Make sure that you and your kid take a break after the bar mitzvah. Don’t do much at all.

Huh? Isn’t that the exact opposite of what I’m trying to say?

Yes, but just for a short time. The long road to the bar mitzvah, followed by the extreme stress of the big day, can be comparable to running a marathon. Everyone needs to take a break after it’s done and recuperate. If you force your child to stay engaged at such an intense level, they’re likely to experience burnout. And then they will be less likely to ever come back to Jewish learning and life.

Step two: Continue community service

No, this isn’t a court sentence, but it’s a good idea. A bar mitzvah kid most likely undertook some mitzvah project or other tzedakah (charity) hours during their preparation. Why stop now? If they have already created a relationship with some worthy organization, then this is a perfect time to stay involved. This could mean anything from earmarking a small percentage of money earned at an after-school job to volunteering within that organization.

Step three: Have them act like an adult

The most significant part of becoming bar mitzvah is being treated as an adult in Jewish life. Part of this responsibility includes being counted as one of the ten required Jews that make up a minyan, or the minimum number of people needed to recite important prayers. Synagogues commonly have services during the week, and unlike on Shabbat, they’re often very short. It’s a great, easy, and no-stress way for a parent and child to pop into services and really help a young person continue their Jewish education and involvement.

Step four: Don’t forget they’re still a kid

This sounds more appealing, right? Many temples affiliate with teen youth groups, like USY, BBYO, or NFTY. These groups are popular for one simple reason: they’re fun! Kids get together and plan enjoyable (mostly non-religious) activities and get to spend time together. A youth group member can easily maintain his Jewish identity without having to think about it much.

Step five: Keep them in school

Don’t let your child drop out. A student should keep coming to Hebrew school, if for no other reason than it’s fun to be around his Jewish friends, and it lends a lot of support when those kids have their own b’nei mitzvah. Also, look for ways to add even one more Jewish tradition or ritual into your regular routine — whether it’s fasting on Yom Kippur, donating to charity, or lighting Shabbat candles — the months and years after the bar mitzvah are a perfect time to try new things.

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