Here’s a blog post I wrote after attending the Speakers’ Lab panel entitled, “Is Jewish Education Broken?” Amid all the talk of re-imagining bar/bat mitzvah, I think we need to remember this is one of the few Jewish life cycle events that people still observe. Jewish weddings may or may not happen. Brit milah is up for debate. Jewish funerals occur, but shiva is often truncated. Are we sure we want to mess with this?
At a recent Speakers’ Lab event sponsored by the Posen Foundation, scholars and educators Zvi Bekerman, Benjamin Jacobs, Jonathan Krasner, Tali Zeklowicz and Jonathan Woocher tried to answer the question: Is Jewish Education Broken? The issues raised left me with a surprising conclusion: we need to emphasize bar and bat mitzvah more, not less.
Zvi Bekerman made a compelling case about “doing Jewish.” He pointed out that “Most Jews throughout Jewish history knew nothing about Judaism and were still Jews. It’s about doing.” He criticized liberal Judaism for its emphasis on feelings and beliefs about Judaism. What then is left that helps a Jew act as a Jew in the public sphere? Later on in the conversation, the speakers turned to the topic of bar and bat mitzvah, saying synagogues have been held hostage to preparing children for this ceremony without ever “interrogating” this life cycle event for its educational value. The contradiction jumped out at me—here we are intellectualizing one of the few Jewish rituals that many American Jews still embrace. Yes, there are options for non-synagogue based rituals, but that’s just a testament to the demand for a way to mark this life cycle event in the context of Jewish tradition. People still want to do this. And I mean do it. Not talk about it. Not experience positive feelings about it. Not reflect on it. They want to do it, and they want to celebrate it, and both should be embraced. That is what community is for—bringing people together and acknowledging significant steps on a collective and individual journey.
But where is this journey headed? Currently, bar and bat mitzvah is a big dead end. The problem is not primarily what comes before, but what comes after. Tali Zeklowicz made the strong point that everyone in the room had evolved their sense of Jewishness as recently as the last five years. And yet, apart from the occasional reference to college students, the conversation about Jewish education in North America focused entirely on the structures and methods we use to educate children. We cannot keep relying on children to perpetuate Judaism as children. Adults opt out of Jewish life, by and large, until they have children, and then they focus on a Jewish education and context in which to raise their children. Judaism is a sophisticated and robust culture, theology, philosophy, outlook and way of life for adults.
Reflecting on my own role models, I realized I watched my mother prepare for and celebrate her bat mitzvah (in 1981), as well as my college roommate (in 1991) and a graduate school friend (in 1998). Now I’m watching my husband prepare for his, to take place in 2013. That means since I was 9 years old, every 10-15 years I have seen an adult (when I was a child) and a peer (as an adult) embark on a course of serious study and mark it with a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. How about this as a model? Every 13 years, an adult engages on a new course of serious Jewish study and marks it publicly. She or he experiments with incorporating new Jewish practices. As a community, we celebrate and acknowledge adult Jewish learning, and we hold up individuals as examples.
Currently the demand for high quality, sustained adult Jewish learning in the liberal Jewish community is pathetically low. If we want to fix a broken Jewish education system, we need to start with ourselves.