Alternative Bar Mitzvah?
March 11, 2014 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Kid BlahLaLa's getting to be around bar mitzvah age and I want to know what alternative, newfangled options there are out there. Is there any kind of modern bar mitzvah movement happening? Alternative bar mitzvahs? Hipster bar mitzvahs?

We're culturally Jewish but aren't affiliated with any temple. I'm not looking for temples that allow non-members to participate in their regular prep programs. I'm looking for something…different. Does that exist? (We're in Los Angeles, but I'm open to any suggestions.)

I guess what I'm looking for is the opportunity for him to learn a bit of Hebrew, participate in a process, gain a basic understanding of the religion and culture, and have a sense of achievement/"coming of age."

What I don't want: the whole, big temple rigamarole; a massive expense; the "typical" modern bar mitzvah party costing a bundle and designed to impress. I don't want to be pressured to join a temple or attend services regularly. I don't want to be shamed for not having attended services, or not sending my kid to Saturday School.

I hope this doesn't sound offensive -- I'm trying to find the middle ground where I/we can hang on to the bits of Jewish religion/culture that I enjoy and respect, while avoiding the parts I don't want to be caught up in.
posted by BlahLaLa to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Check out the Society for Humanistic Judaism sounds like exactly what you're looking for.
posted by brookeb at 9:56 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are itinerant Rabbis out there, as well as rabbinical students or just plain Hebrew teachers.

The Rabbi who married us presided over Congregation Etz Chiam which held services in our UU church on Saturdays.

I'd for SURE check out the folks at the link above though.

I see NO reason why Kid (soon to be Man) BlahLaLa couldn't read his torah portion in the back yard, with a family and friends barbecue after.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:12 AM on March 11, 2014

Response by poster: Society for Humanistic Judaism sounds so interesting…and then I click through the links and see that one of the requirements for bar mitzvah is two years of Sunday School with an 80% attendance rate. So that's basically not going to work for us.

And agreed - torah portion in the backyard sounds perfect.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:15 AM on March 11, 2014

You might try reaching out to the Reboot community- they are focused on modern sabbath, but are very much about this sort of thinking.
posted by Mchelly at 10:18 AM on March 11, 2014

Maybe try your local Workmen's Circle? Here's a detailed description of the bar/bat mitzvah celebration at my local one.
posted by nonane at 10:30 AM on March 11, 2014

Also, technically speaking (as far as Jewish law is concerned), the day your son turns 13 he becomes a bar mitzvah, whether you do anything about it or not. All it means is that he has come of age and is considered to be an adult in the eyes of Judaism. So he can participate in religious rituals that only adults are permitted to do.

So if you wanted to teach him the Torah blessings on your own, you can do that, go into any synagogue, and ask the gabbai to give your son an aliyah. He'll be called to the torah, get the mitzvah, and can have whatever party you want at home afterwards. Just don't mention the words "bar mitzvah", and you can dodge their requirements (When they ask you, is he a bar mitzvah? You answer the truth: Yes, he is, he's 13). Or if you don't feel comfortable with the subterfuge, go to a Conservative or Orthodox shul. If you have a local Chabad that can be even better in some communities. They'll announce it as a bar mitzvah and sing mazal tov after he's done. But that means signing on for an Orthodox service and separate seating and you may not be at all comfortable with that.

I don't see how you would be able to arrange a full-on torah service in your back yard realistically, unless you already own a torah or are willing to buy one. But the torah service itself isn't necessary to bar mitzvah. Many kids do a community service project (often within the Jewish community) over a period of months, then give a speech about that at the party.

Have you asked your son what Judaism means to him, or spoken with him about what it means to you? That seems to me to be the heart of whatever you choose to do - he is about to become a full-fledged member of the Jewish people, with all its joys and baggage. What does that mean? If he can find a meaningful answer, that's more bar mitzvah training than most kids get in the end of years of religious schooling.
posted by Mchelly at 10:42 AM on March 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was older (15) and a dumb punk rock teenager, but I had my "quinceañera" at my mom's house. We ate pizza and drank beer and I wore a discounted wedding dress from the mall and we followed like zero traditions and I regret nothing. So, if you're worried your son's gonna be like "WHY DID I HAVE A COOL PARTY AND NOT A TRADITIONAL BAR MITZVAH?" when he grows up, I wouldn't.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:46 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you click through some of the other links on the SHJ you'll get to the Association of Humanistic Rabbis and you might find an individual rabbi who will meet your needs and take care of your backyard bar mitzvah desires.
posted by brookeb at 10:47 AM on March 11, 2014

Have you considered a family trip to Israel? I'm not sure about the expense, but when I was growing up, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah "big temple rigamarole" could cost upwards of $15K, and a family trip to Israel would certainly be less than that. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has an entire site devoted to this topic:

Even if you're not interested in getting him into Sunday school, joining a shul, or identifying with any movement, if you want a coming-of-age thing that helps tie him to the bits of culture you love, a trip to Israel is pretty boffo. You don't even need him to read a Torah portion or anything, though I guess you can arrange for that if you want.

I attended a Sunday school at my local JCC for eight years, and didn't end up having a Bat Mitzvah. I still feel pretty connected to the cultural parts of Judaism, and identify as Jewish. It sounds like the JCC in Silverlake has educational programs that might fit the bill for you:
posted by juniperesque at 10:52 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

One more thought: You could reach out to your local havurah group. These vary in religious affiliation, though they're generally on the Conservative end. But they're definitely more hippy/backyard/DIY/laid back than most synagogues, and could have some good suggestions. You might even enjoy attending their services (which often take place in living rooms and who knows, in L.A., possibly backyards).
posted by Mchelly at 10:59 AM on March 11, 2014

We felt the same way, sort of. What we decided to do was to take each kid on a week long trip on or around their 13th birthday to a place they felt had significance. Significance was theirs to define. One child chose to go to Israel and do sort of a history tour that included a brief prayer ceremony at the wailing wall although I can tell you no preparation was necessary. THe hebrew read was done phonetically. Another chose to go to England and the other to Turkey.

We thought it important for them to do a lot of the planning of the daily activities and to talk about why they wanted to go to each place and do each activity. To us, that was more symbolic of coming of age than some lavish party planned to impress their/our friends.

When I was 13, I was opposed to being bar mitzvahed. My parents required it. I agreed only if there was no party or anything other than the religious ceremony. In hindsight, I am happy with both the way I wanted it and having done it.

To me, it is similar to the "put the Christ back into Christmas" thing. For our family we wanted to put the meaning back into it and not have the focus be on partying or some contrived ceremony.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:11 AM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

You may be looking for IKAR Los Angeles. Part of becoming a bar mitzvah is becoming part of the Jewish community and they are definitely doing it in a non-traditional way. Although you may not want to attend shul or send your son to Saturday/Sunday school, this might be a community of which you can become a joyous participant in the parts that feel right to you.

You might also want to check out the Green and Just Guide for Bnai Mitzvot
posted by Sophie1 at 11:18 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really want to underscore Mchelly's first comment, as it captures everything I would suggest as advice for this. The "big rigamarole" at the synagogue isn't the actual bar mitzvah, but rather the coming of age and being called to participate in the Torah service is -- THAT'S the actual bar mitzvah. That said, there are many reasons people join synagogues, and being part of a mutually supportive community to share in life cycle events is definitely one of them. Our son's bar mitzvah was two weeks ago, and we are still aglow from it -- it was a wonderful coming together of family and community to welcome our son into "adulthood". He put in the work and actually studied pretty hard for this, and because of this work I believe the event was very meaningful to him, not in a "now he's closer to God" or even "now he's a man" sense of things, but rather because he undertook a series of tasks and responsibilities and saw them through to completion. It was a process, and he definitely benefitted from taking that process seriously and working hard to get it right and see it through to the end. Big smiles all around -- we were/are extremely proud of him, in large part because of what he did and how he carried himself, not because we threw a big party and got to show off.

If you do roll your own bar mitzvah service, be sure to set the bar high enough so that your son has to put in some serious effort to accomplish the goals you set. If you make this too easy, or dilute it too much, it loses a lot of its mojo. FWIW, we are Reform, and I personally vacillate somewhere between atheist and agnostic...and I am still incredibly proud of the way my son learned Hebrew and led his bar mitzvah service. It's a ritualized tribal induction ceremony, and these rituals have meaning and resonance beyond what we may realize.

I wish you and your son the best on your journey down this path, whatever that may be and wherever it takes you. The journey is every bit as meaningful as the ultimate destination.
posted by mosk at 11:39 AM on March 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

Mazal tov Mosk!
posted by Sophie1 at 12:18 PM on March 11, 2014

Not trying to be flip, but this : the opportunity for him to learn a bit of Hebrew, participate in a process, gain a basic understanding of the religion and culture, and have a sense of achievement/"coming of age."

This is exactly describes the modern process of Hebrew school and the Bar Mitzvah for many many Jews. You don't have to have a big cheesy party with a DJ. But it sorta sounds like you want Hebrew school. I'm not sure there is a shortcut.
posted by gnutron at 12:36 PM on March 11, 2014

YES you can absolutely make it happen for your son. The siblings in my family all did variants on what you are asking for for our bnai mitzvah (including one in a park!), and we are planning on doing the same for our children.

We all had bad experiences with hebrew school and Sunday school where we live (found it more like daycare to be honest) and dropped out when we were young. Instead, for 6 months to a year before our bnai mitzvah, we learned biblical hebrew with tutors independently, learned conversational hebrew, worked with a rabbi and/or jewish intellectual to discuss and debate, found someone who had a torah and was willing to lend/rent it to us, learned the parts of the service and their significance, independently analyzed the torah portion in depth including all kinds of historical and textual analysis and scholarship, interviewed family members on their coming of age in Judaism, wrote personal speeches, learned about different traditions from around the world, and more. We were musically inclined, so that was a big part as well.

Since we were doing it on our own, many of the learning steps we did together as a family with the bar/bat mitzvah leading the way and educating the family. The experiences for each child were different and emphasized the parts of the process that meshed with our unique personalities and values. Many of our Jewish friends who were in hebrew school were envious and all agreed we were as prepared to be a Jewish adult as they were. You can make this a positive, personal experience for your child and aligned with your kind of Jewish life.

Please memail me if you would like more details and advice or just to discuss our experience!
posted by harmonia at 1:07 PM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you might want to first spend some time thinking about what Judaism means to you as a practice and what you're looking to do as a family here.

What you're asking on the face of it is very much like the student showing up the day before the midterm and asking how much he can learn between now and tomorrow, and of course the answer is going to be not that much. I mean, if he's twelve, you can sign your son up for Hebrew lessons but (assuming he's coming in knowing nothing) the most you can probably hope for is he'll learn the alphabet and memorize his portion phonetically and learn the first lines of a couple other prayers, and get a similarly in-depth knowledge of four thousand years of culture and history.

But if you think about what parts of Judaism are important to you in your life, I think you'll find that these aren't the important bits to you either. So why make him do it? Why pretend like reading Torah is a big deal when you don't think it is? If what's important to you is (say) that Judaism is a connection to your relatives and your past, then make him spend some time doing genealogical research and talk to relatives about their history, or go on a family trip to Ellis Island. If what's important to you is celebrating some of the the holidays, have him lead a Passover seder this year and talk about what the bits mean. If it's some nominal moral foundation, then have him pick a community service project and do it as a family.
posted by inkyz at 1:16 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding juniperesque's suggestion about having a bar mitzvah in Israel. I have relatives who did that.

I went to Israel when I was 14 and it was amazing. I felt so much more connected to Judaism during and after that trip.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:04 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had my Bat Mitzvah with an organization in LA that sounds perfect for you - Sholem. It's secular, Jewish, and progressive. It is also not a temple. There were no religious texts involved, which may be a downside for you. Instead, we studied and wrote a report on an aspect of Jewish culture we were interested in. The ceremony was a community event shared with three other kids and overall a great experience.

Feel free to PM me with questions. I went there about 20 years ago, but it looks like the program is still the same.
posted by JuliaKM at 3:51 AM on March 12, 2014

I'd second Ikar.
posted by judith at 6:30 AM on March 12, 2014

My cousin-in-law who is a rabbi and who is very plugged in to the rabbinical world also suggests IKAR.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:44 AM on March 13, 2014

I had a relatively conventional Reform movement bat mitzvah, spent a fair amount of time Conservative movement camps and institutions, and said Kaddish for a year at more or less a modern Orthodox shul. I saw a fair amount of variations on b'nai mitzvah. At the most traditional synagogue, it was common enough for it to be a Monday or Thursday morning thing, the kid says the blessings, chants part or all of the already shortened Torah portion, the family sponsors a weekday breakfast (lox and herring!), and presumably there's some private celebration that evening or weekend.

My conclusion from all of this: what makes the B'nai Mitzvah ceremony meaningful is the kid taking on adult ritual responsibilities in his community. Before, they couldn't say a bracha, now they can. Before, they couldn't chant Torah, now they can. Before, they couldn't count in a minyan, now they can. And the expectation is that they will, because they are a valued and *necessary* part of the the shul life now and in the future. They will continue to show up for minyan, continue to chant brachot, continue to read Torah, continue to do their part to keep communal religious life moving. That's what I find really beautiful and meaningful.

By all means your kid should learn some Hebrew and some Yiddishkeit if he's interested. But that can and should be a life long project, and if you're not into it, why would you expect him to be?

My idea of a meaningful Bar Mitzvah experience: I would think about who is your community (Jewish or not), what does it mean to be an adult with adult responsibilities in it, and what can your kid do to gain the skills to do that, and maybe do ceremoniously the first time, but as a matter of course from then on?

To me it seems kind of like getting your eagle badge or writing your doctoral thesis: it's putting in a ton of work and effort to build the skills to contribute to your community, having all of that recognized and celebrated, with the expectation that you will continue to put the skills you've earned into practice.

If you don't have a community (not necessarily religious!) for your son to come of age in, then that could maybe be a great project for you as a family to develop.
posted by Salamandrous at 3:26 PM on March 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

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