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When the B’nai Mitzvah Student Doesn’t Speak Hebrew
February 20th, 2024

When the B’nai Mitzvah Student Doesn’t Speak Hebrew

When the B’nai Mitzvah Student Doesn’t Speak Hebrew

By Drew Isserlis Kramer

 

In some families, children are exposed to Hebrew from birth. For children of those communities, speaking and reading the ancient language of Judaism begins early and often, making preparation for B’nai mitzvah much ado about nothing when approaching age 13. In more secular circles, the first exposure to the ancient language of Judaism might come in middle childhood when enrolled in a formal Hebrew school program. While Synagogue Hebrew schools have a tried and true system for Hebrew language instruction, each year, there are always a few children that make it to b’nai mitzvah season without the skills necessary to read the Torah. If your child is struggling to learn Hebrew, fear not. Below is a guide to getting your child in gear with whatever time you have left before the big day. 

 

Trust the Hebrew School System

 

While some kids might be behind due to temple mischief and too many other commitments, most kids after several years of regular instruction will learn the letters and how they form words. At Westchester Reform Temple, the youngest Hebrew School students begin to learn letters and words through movement. Through playful word exercises, Kindergarten through second grade students begin to understand letters and sounds, like getting up and down (לקום – לשבת – לקום). In middle childhood, 3rd, 4th and 5th graders will begin to study prayers, which helps them to understand common melodies and phrases. When the child reaches 6th grade and begins to really focus on b’nai mitzvah preparation, the clergy will have had many years to assess and understand your child’s capabilities and unique learning style. Even if the clergy doesn’t expressly ask you to share your child’s learning style, be up front with any known learning issues that might create challenges for b’nai mitzvah preparation. The clergy understands how to reach students across a broad spectrum of capability.

PsstTop 10 B’nai Mitzvah Gifts that Also Support Israel 

Find A Chavruta 

 

A chavruta is a partner. In traditional Talmudic study, scholars will pair off with a rabbi or form a small group to interpret and debate Torah portions. Many synagogues provide 1:1 tutoring with clergy in their b’nai mitzvah preparation plan. However, some students might require additional help to prepare for the main event. Some families seek private tutors outside of their synagogue’s Hebrew School program to ensure the b’nai mitzvah student’s success on the bema, or pulpit. For students that have unique learning styles, it can be helpful to have private 1:1 instruction that is tailored to those needs. It also ensures that students carve out time in their busy week to devote to practice. 

 

Check Your Expectations

 

A child reaches b’nai mitzvah just by reaching the age of thirteen. The tradition of reading from the Torah or Haftorah is not necessary to honor the occasion. In Reform temples, there is often openness to read transliteration or abbreviated materials. Even in a more traditional setting, temples will adapt the b’nai mitzvah’s participation in the ceremony to suit the needs of the child. In more observant communities, clergy will adapt the child’s participation in the ceremony to suit the needs of the child and the observance of the congregation. Not every child can lead a service, but perhaps the child can do the blessing before and after the torah is read. Many families choose to meet their child where they are, finding other ways to honor their children’s transition to adulthood in synagogue.  Not every child can lead a Saturday morning service. Rather than a torah portion, some children opt to do the blessing before and after the torah is read. If your child is truly struggling to prepare for the big day, give all of yourselves a break and figure out what is reasonable for your child to feel included in the ritual of the ceremony. If you are open to reframing your child’s participation on the bema, the experience could become less stressful and more meaningful. 

 

Remember the Purpose 

 

Even if the ceremony looks different than you imagined, remember the purpose of the b’nai mitzvah is not a perfect prayer. However you choose to ceremonially mark the transition from childhood to adulthood, the most important piece is to inspire a positive Jewish identity and to foster a sense of belonging. Whether or not the child demonstrates fluency in Hebrew at b’nai mitzvah is not the goal, but rather a commitment to community and a lifelong expression of Judaism. 

 

When the B’nai MItzvah Questions God 
February 13th, 2024

When the B’nai MItzvah Questions God 

 

When the B’nai MItzvah Questions God 

By Drew Isserlis Kramer

Is he an old bearded man in the sky? Or is she an all-powerful arbiter of good or bad, life or death? Is it a life force within all of us, an energy connecting us to the birds, the trees, the afterlife and our iPhones? As I say to my five-year-old when he asks tough questions about God, in life, there are many mysteries without definite answers. I tell him God is a loaded subject. Not everyone chooses to believe. And not everyone’s belief in God looks the same. At the heart of Judaism is a commitment to worship a single God. Humans fought and died for differences in that spiritual interpretation for thousands of years. To many modern-day people, the bloodshed over this unseen metaphysical power is enough to abandon God entirely. As a result, belief in God across all organized religions is on the decline, particularly among young people. 

Still, according to a 2020 Pew research study, half of American Jews who were raised Jewish or had at least one Jewish parent say they had a bar or bat mitzvah. The devotion to the coming-of-age tradition, which asks for acceptance of God’s covenant, continues. In spite of that family commitment, some young b’nai mitzvah scholars struggle with their responsibility to study when their belief in God waivers or is non-existent. If you are a parent devoted to the b’nai mitzvah tradition but your child is questioning, I invite you to create debate. 

Psst… Top 10 B’nai Mitzvah Gifts that Also Support Israel 

 

“Tell me about the God you don’t believe in,” responds Senior Cantor Amanda Kleinman of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. In her twenty years of cantorial work, Cantor Kleinman counseled many pre-teens struggling with their reason for being in a b’nai mitzvah program. When I asked how to approach such a student, Kleinman suggests you learn how the child defines God. Some children do not relate to the concept of an all-powerful Oz, lording over humanity. For children who have experiences of loss, they grapple with how God could exist when good people get sick and accidents happen. We live in a complicated world. It is hard to reconcile pain and suffering with the presence of an entity that can change all of that, but doesn’t. 

 

In his book Bad Things Happen to Good People, famed author and Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, “I believe in God. But I do not believe the same things about Him that I did years ago, when I was growing up or when I was a theological student. I recognize His limitations.” Kushner goes on to explain his choice to look at God as limited by the laws of nature and human free will. He stopped holding God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because for him, he “gained little and lost so much” when he blamed God for those things.” In Judaism, there are 100 different names for God. God is so many things. Sharing other conceptions of God can help the child to see outside of the King of the Universe narrative and explore other interpretations that may open the child’s mind. 

 

Or not. 

 

For children that choose to continue questioning, God is always there. At different phases of life, one might feel differently on the topic. It is OK to feel doubt about things we cannot sense with anything, but our intuition. However, there are more reasons to maintain tradition beyond spiritual order. To be Jewish is an identity that goes beyond divine belief. Judaism is an Ethno-religion, a classification for people who share a common ancestral heritage and religious affiliation. As Jewish people, we are linked to a rich culture and historical experience, which, as our story of persecution reminds us, cannot be taken off by renouncing theological beliefs. Speak with your child about your favorite parts of being Jewish. Summer camp, bagels and lox, finding the afikomen, being lifted on a chair during the horah–like a b’nai mitzvah, being Jewish is joyful. A child who wrestles with God might love noodle kugel. Explore your family’s traditions in the context of your ancestral history. Share that Bubbie’s cholent recipe came off the boat with her from Russia to Ellis Island. Connect your love of tradition with your gratitude for the people that gave you the freedom to live Jewishly–and those still fighting for it today.

 

Whether or not the child believes in God, the b’nai mitzvah is a celebration of Jewishness. It is a statement of commitment to the future of this tiny group of people with a unique legacy and spiritual life. While your thirteen-year-old might not see it today, Jewish identity ebbs and flows. Judaism is always there to help explain the many magical mysteries of life and offer meaning and purpose when it gets hard. If b’nai mitzvah occurs during one of your child’s seasons of doubt, keep demonstrating its joy and light, and say, “Because I said so!”

What’s in a Hebrew Name? A B’nai Mitzvah Call to Action
January 15th, 2024

What’s in a Hebrew Name? A B’nai Mitzvah Call to Action

What’s in a Hebrew Name? A B’nai Mitzvah Call to Action

By Drew Isserlis Kramer 

 

In a Kindergarten school yard, my son heard a rumor that he is not really Jewish if he does not have a Hebrew name. Shocked, he returned home demanding to know his own religious moniker. With shame, his father and I admitted that he didn’t have one–yet. Typically, a Jewish boy receives his Hebrew name at his bris, the ritual circumcision occurring eight days after birth. A Jewish girl receives hers at a baby naming ceremony during her first year of life. Since our boys were circumcised by doctors in the hospital, we never got around to the business of naming. Now, with a fire lit by peer pressure, we sought guidance from our home synagogue. Do we just pick one? Raised without much religion, I didn’t have a naming ceremony or a b’nai mitzvah to inspire selection. Finding faith later in life, I still feel like a bit of an outsider at Jewish life events that reference a Hebrew name. At my wedding, I felt a touch of embarrassment when I signed my ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract) with my English name. At b’nai mitzvahs, I feel a twinge of envy when I hear a child called to the Torah by an alias ringing with culture and family history. If your child is gearing up for a b’nai mitzvah without a Hebrew name, read on to understand the significance of the naming tradition and how to select one before the big day. 

Connecting Generations of Family Long After the B’nai Mitzvah 

An Ancient Tradition

In Judaism, names are more than a way to distinguish one person from another. The Torah and its interpretations teach us that the name is key to the soul. Names tell a story–our story. As Jews, our story begins with a sense of separateness and belonging. A Hebrew name unites us with our people and our history, but also reflects a distance from the mainstream society that surrounds us. As a result, the Jewish practice of double naming, selecting one from the Jewish tradition and one from the surrounding non-Jewish culture, has ancient origins. First evidence of the practice came from the region that is present day Israel. During the time of the Second Temple (140 BCE to 37 BCE), when Greeks ruled the region, Jews of the day put their Hebrew name first and a Greek name second. As control of the region changed from dynasty to dynasty, and Jews fled to other territories, the double naming practice continued, while naming conventions shifted. 

Today, Jews typically select a Hebrew name that honors a deceased relative. The child will take the whole Hebrew name or the parents will select a new one with a similar sound. In some cases, the parents will also choose a secular name that uses the same letter or sound as the person honored. For example, my son’s name Harrison is after his grandparents, Herbert and Helen. His Hebrew name Haim, meaning life, reflects his passion and energy, but also roots him in his family history. 

 

A Ritual Purpose

Hebrew names serve a particular purpose in Jewish prayers and ritual. Whenever Jews are called to read from the Torah, they are identified by their Hebrew name and that of their father (and occasionally mother). Using the the word “ben” or “bat,” meaning “son of” or “daughter of,” Jews link the Hebrew name of the individuals that brought them into Jewish life. For example, my son Harrison will be called Haim ben Osher, his father’s Hebrew name. The reference to family lineage creates a link on a chain to ancient times. In daily prayers, and during Jewish life cycle moments, this intergenerational Hebrew name plays a part. From bris or baby naming to b’nai mitzvah to a wedding Ketubah to prayer for recovery from illness to marking a grave to honoring the anniversary of the deceased, the Hebrew name calls these souls from our lips to God’s ears. 

 

A Name for Interfaith Families

Naming becomes complicated when one parent is not Jewish or the family and/or child converted. Traditional circles would not use the name of a non-Jewish parent in a Hebrew name. Rather, they would select biblical names for themselves and their parents. For example, the child might be Ruth bat Avraham v’Sarah because Ruth is the daughter of Sarah and Abraham in the Bible. This is not to exclude or insult the child’s biological parents, but to connect her to Jewish history. That said, in some Reform congregations, the synagogue will honor a non-Jewish parent’s name in the naming structure.

 

A Name Fit for a Teen 

When naming a baby, only the parents have a say. For a rising teenager, there is another extremely vocal cook in the kitchen. Include your tween in the selection process. Are there relatives your child wishes to honor? Are there biblical characters with stories that resonate? Talk about the sentiments that went into choosing the English name, and whether those same qualities are important or observed in the child today. Work with your clergy and temple personnel to select a name with meaning. Once chosen, honor the decision with a blessing at a Friday night or Saturday morning service. This is also an occasion to mark with celebration.  

 

If your family neglected to select a Hebrew name, remember that it is never too late. Once the b’nai mitzvah milestone passes, the name is a gift that continues to give. In Judaism, reciting the name created from the combination of sacred Hebrew letters is a spiritual call. In my Jewish journey, I’ve come to learn that a Hebrew name is a conduit of connection to a higher power. As I created meaningful names for my children, I took the opportunity to select one of my very own. Today I am Tzpora, Hebrew for bird and the free-spirited, fearless mother of Moses’ two sons. Her story connects with my spirit animal and links me to the long and fascinating history of the Jewish people. If you have the unique opportunity to pick a Hebrew name for a child entering adulthood, give the gift of a title rooted in family history and a prophecy for the future. A name is a story–-a call to arms.

When the B’nai Mitzvah Theme is Family Feud
December 14th, 2023

When the B’nai Mitzvah Theme is Family Feud

When the B’nai Mitzvah Theme is Family Feud

By Drew Kramer

Psst…Check out A Culture of Study: The Jewish Value of Education Prepares for B’nai Mitzvah

Don’t let the Instagram photos fool you. No matter how happy a b’nai mitzvah appeared on the Internet, all family gatherings provoke a wee bit of drama. Family is complicated. It would be lovely to imagine a world where feuds fizzle in the context of shared family simcha, or joy.

However, in reality, family events like a b’nai mitzvah can become a forum for old fights to flair. When a child reaches b’nai mitzvah, it comes in the context of the family’s story–and all families have their warts. Whether your child’s milestone comes in the wake of a divorce or a fight over granddaddy’s fortune, the event can become loaded by the coming together of people for whom the fine line between love and hate skews hostile. For the teenager facing the stress of public speaking in a foreign tongue, the added anxiety of a public airing of grievances among strained relations can become too much to bear. If you are feeling anticipatory anxiety about a family fight at your child’s b’nai mitzvah, begin with a deep breath and take steps to prepare yourself and your child for the emotional weight of the day.

No matter the magnitude of the past slights, center all family members around the shared support and love for the child. If possible to address the sources of tension directly without igniting warfare, remind the most contentious players that love and light is the theme of this event. After gently setting settable expectations, set yourself up for success. Create seating arrangements that allow for space between difficult people. If giving one relative the honor of giving a blessing will create animosity with another, spare yourself the headache and invite all or none to publicy wish the child well. 

If there are friends or family members who are notoriously toxic and unable to control their behaviors, consider keeping your guest list small. While grudge holding is not a behavior anyone wishes to hand down, save reconciliation for another time and place. It is OK to keep the room filled with only the people that lift you up. In the event that a challenging individual cannot be omitted from the celebration, grit your teeth in a smile and do whatever it takes to keep the energy warm and inclusive. Just because negative people are in the room, doesn’t mean that their energy has power. Good vibes begin with the hosts. Set aside your own differences for the day and pretend like nothing happened. Greet the whole room with open arms. You can do it. 

While I hope this would be enough to create a drama-free family event, one has to prepare oneself for the event of a dramatic scene. “It’s natural for emotions to be heightened during the special day, especially if it doesn’t look like how you once expected it to,” acknowledges Lauren Tetenbaum, a Westchester-based mental health therapist who provides cognitive behavioral therapy and coaching to women. She adds, “If emotions run high, try to regulate your stress through mindfulness exercises, including deep breathing.” If your buttons are pushed, do not give in to the urge to react. Walk away. Shift your attention to your child and the pleasure of celebration. As Tetenbaum encourages, “focus on celebrating with the friends and family who bring you joy.” 

The big day will come and it will go. It will never be perfect in its execution. The food might be cold. Your aunt will snub your husband’s cousin. Someone will fall on the dance floor. In the aftermath of this long anticipated event, the lows will hopefully fade into funny anecdotes that made the day more memorable. Only the highs are preserved in photographs. What your child will remember is the love of family and friends coming together in the unified celebration of this coming of age event in Jewish life. At this nexus of childhood and adulthood, let the b’nai mitzvah celebration be a model for forgiveness and empathy–even if just for one night.

The Anxiety and the Ecstacy of Becoming a B’Nai Mitzvah
December 12th, 2023

The Anxiety and the Ecstacy of Becoming a B’Nai Mitzvah

The Anxiety and the Ecstacy of Becoming a B’Nai Mitzvah

By Drew Isserlis Kramer

Psst…check out Connecting Generations of Family Long After the B’nai Mitzvah 

Anxiety is part of the Jewish experience. As if intergenerational trauma from centuries of antisemitism wasn’t enough, children approaching adolescence must grapple with the anticipation of the public spectacle of becoming a B’nai Mitzvah. While the coming of age ceremony is an important right of passage in Judaism, for many young people, the pressure of chanting Hebrew in public and sitting at the center of a large, elaborate party is enough to call for smelling salts. As a shy, but intellectually curious child, I enjoyed the history lessons of my first year Hebrew School.

However, the stress of performing at a Bat Mitzvah service and celebration prompted my decision to quit at the tender age of nine years old. While some children are born with the confidence of a Hollywood leading lady, most rising teenagers suffer from the same angst and awkwardness that stunted my Jewish learning. If you sense your child’s dread for the milestone that means so much to you and your family, fear not. With the right coping strategies, your child can rise to the challenge. 

Anxiety is Normal

According to child and adolescent therapist Julie Schnur, an LMSW based in Westchester, “when preparing for b’nai mitzvah, it is important to remember that feeling anxious is totally normal!” While it may seem like other children feel excited to select party dresses and the latest Air Jordans, Schnur reminds that “most kids feel nervous about leading a service.” She urges parents to “normalize that being in front of lots of people and speaking and singing in Hebrew can feel scary.” Resist the temptation to dismiss anxiety. Rather than push it away with assurances that all will be fun and fine, Schnur advises parents to “allow the child to feel nervous” on the path to accepting that fear. 

Being Empathic 

Family members can show empathy and model resilience by “sharing their own stories of how they felt at their own b’nai mitzvah.” Doing so will create connection by “relating to their fears and making them feel less alone.” Sharing one’s own vulnerability “keeps lines of communication open” and builds trust, which is particularly important as this age group struggles to assert independence and separateness. By sharing the details of the parents’ own experience, “children see that these are feelings that are OK to feel and safe to express.”

While it may feel better to avoid excessive discussion of the triggering event, it is important to set the child’s expectations and include them in the planning of the details of the day. Schnur suggests working with the child and clergy to “create a day that best fits the comfort level and personality of the child.” While this might not reflect the vision for the rest of the family, it is important to create a program that prioritizes the child’s comfort and sets them up for success. Even in more traditional temple environments, clergy are often very willing to design a service that suits the child’s unique needs. The goal is to create a positive experience that welcomes the child to Jewish adulthood with warmth and love.

Strategies for Anxiety

While it is important to meet children where they are, there will still be anxiety as the big day approaches. Accepting that anxiety comes with developing coping strategies that will make the child feel prepared to meet the challenge. Schnur recommends “breathing exercises, visualizations, and (quiet) fidget toys that can be used on the day of to manage the anxiety in the moment”. Armed with these strategies, “the child can feel like they have a toolbox to utilize to navigate stress in the moment.” Additionally, Schnur recommends carving out time in the days and weeks leading up to the event to relax and shift focus. Journal writing or physical activity can be extremely useful in reducing anticipatory anxiety and controlling negative thoughts. 

Importance of Mindfulness

The ability to control one’s anxiety through mindfulness and acceptance of what we cannot control is a lesson that will serve all individuals well throughout adulthood. While the b’nai mitzvah milestone challenges children to study and overcome the stress of the day, it is a right of passage that teaches resilience. In everyone’s life struggle and anxiety will come. Through that struggle comes strength. That in and of itself is the most important lesson of all. 

A lot of Pediatric dentists like to promote sedation for fillings. 

A Culture of Study: The Jewish Value of Education Prepares for B’nai Mitzvah
December 12th, 2023

A Culture of Study: The Jewish Value of Education Prepares for B’nai Mitzvah

A Culture of Study: The Jewish Value of Education Prepares for B’nai Mitzvah

By Drew Isserlis Kramer

Psst..check out Going to a B’nei Mitzvah: A Guide for the Non-Jewish Guest

Judaism is a religion of study. At the center of Jewish study is the Torah. The Torah is the name given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Directly translated to English, Torah means “to teach.” The Torah’s stories of creation, the covenant and the struggle to keep it guide the reader to live with meaning and purpose. For thousands of years and to this day, its teachings help people manage through times of triumph and tragedy, as well as navigate the regular challenges of everyday life. In doing so, Jewish people gain a framework for living that creates ritual and regularity in a world of chaos. In addition, it cultivates a devotion to education and thoughtful debate that promotes a culture rich with intellectual curiosity. 

Within the Torah, the Mitzvah of Chinuch, or the duty to educate the next generation, begins before B’nai Mitzvah. The term chinuch, or “training,” is used because it is learning that comes before reaching Jewish adulthood. Without assigning adult responsibility to children, chinuch is an “inauguration” or an initiation to Jewish customs, values and faith. Early exposure to Judaism through school and family life gives children an association between the warmth of tradition and community that will foster enthusiasm and intellectual interest into adulthood. The intention is that the pride and connection to Judaism will establish a commitment to study as they approach preparation for the b’nai mitzvah–the ceremonial transition from childhood to adulthood at the age of 12 or 13. 

Preparation for a b’nai mitzvah requires dedication. Learning Hebrew and memorizing and interpreting a Torah portion requires real work. Students often struggle with reading Hebrew and understanding ancient texts, especially with a loaded academic and extracurricular life outside of religious school. The b’nai mitzvah becomes an effort of both time and substance. If your child is grappling with the academic pressure of an approaching B’nai Mitzvah, several Jewish traditions can help to inspire achievement. 

Understand the System

To support your children in their preparation, it is essential to understand the scale of the task at hand. When a B’nai Mitzvah reads from the Torah, the undertaking is not just to read the ancient Hebrew characters, but to chant the words in the melodies of the religion’s oral tradition. Students of Torah must learn the words and the melodies like singers learn sheet music. Like in music, Torah comes with a notation system that indicates the “flavor of the reading,” or trope. Trope, also known as Hebrew cantillation, dots, dashes, jagged zigzags above and below the words are the punctuation symbols our ancestors used to conduct their ancient songs.

To complicate matters further for the young Torah student, the punctuation symbols are not written in the Torah scroll text itself. Students must memorize the melodies, using a complex system of symbols and colors. While many b’nai mitzvah candidates begin to understand this system early in childhood, for more novice Torah students, this is an immense task. 

Personalize Learning

According to Rabbi Sasha Baken at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, preparation for b’nai mitzvah is not a one stop shop. When preparing a child for b’nai mitzvah, Baken emphasizes that “each student is different. What works for one child may not work for another.” As a result, every cantor or rabbi must cater to the unique needs of every student. Even without a documented learning difference, families of b’nai mitzvah students should connect with clergy to discuss the child’s learning style, preparing a more visual or oral approach, depending on preferences. Many cantors will record the torah portion so that students who prefer to learn by ear can better connect sound to symbols and words. Depending on the requirements of the congregation, some synagogues will allow students to read from the portion from a copy with the trope symbols, or even phonetically written words. Speak with your child’s academic school teachers to better understand what works for that student in the classroom.

Seek a Havruta: Learn in Pairs 

Jews rarely study alone. Traditionally, Talmudic study is a social and even communal activity. At many synagogues, cantors and rabbis will tutor students on their Torah portion, holding weekly face-to-face sessions to map trope onto the hebrew letters and chant together. These regular meetings with clergy will give the child the necessary 1:1 attention, educating the student about the system and meaning for the portion.

Tutoring sessions with clergy are essential, but not the only practice required to succeed on the bimah. Encourage your child to seek a “havruta” or a partner in Jewish learning. When paired with a peer, the pair can help each other dissect their Torah portions, learning its meaning and applying it to their own lives. Judaism values lively discussion and debate, making the material come to life through opinion and opposition. While weekly tutor sessions with clergy is important, the student might feel embarrassed to question or give a full opinion to someone with more experience and age. The additional support of a peer offers the freedom to make mistakes and question, which could create confidence and more thoughtful interactions with teachers later. 

For parents, Rabbi Baken encourages them to “study the Torah portion with their children, if they’re interested.” If parents cannot read hebrew, “support kids with writing the speech, helping to interpret the lessons of the portion and draw similarities to modern teenage life.”

The Sum of Study 

While preparing for a b’nai mitzvah can feel like an intimidating commitment, recall that students are studying well before 13. Chanting the four questions and Hanukkah prayers, young children begin to learn trope. From family services to Hebrew school, they string letters into words, growing to decipher blessings and prayers. A childhood connection to Judaism gives Jewish youth the skills and commitment to learning, as well as an appreciation for the beautiful oral tradition handed down to the Jewish people for centuries. In the Mitzvah of Chinuch, children learn the nuts and bolts of a lyrical language that they will use to announce their call to adulthood, but also their commitment to Judaism and ensuring the future of this tradition.

Connecting Generations of Family Long After the B’nai Mitzvah 
December 7th, 2023

Connecting Generations of Family Long After the B’nai Mitzvah 

Connecting Generations of Family Long After the B’nai Mitzvah 

By Drew Isserlis Kramer 

The modern American family is nuclear. A parent or parents live together with their children until the children leave the nest and often the state. Once upon a time, in a shtetl in Eastern Europe, extended families lived in tight-knit, close communities, collaborating in home and business life from cradle to the grave. As daily life became more global, extended families spread to far corners of the world, seeking freedom, fortunes and fulfillment outside the family unit. Leaving behind old traditions and old connections, modern Jewish families look to life course milestones to come together.  Today, a b’nai mitzvah is one of the few occasions in Jewish life for long-lost aunts, uncles, and cousins to resurface in celebration of life and family. After the blessings are read, the chairs are lifted and the dance party fades to the airline gates, many extended families wonder how to keep the magic of togetherness alive in our modern era of connected disconnection. Below is an overview of how many families strive to maintain the closeness in an increasingly distant world. 

Check out 100 Years of Bat Mitzvahs in America

The most obvious solution requires the Internet. Depending on the technological literacy of the group, choose a platform that will be accessible to the masses. A Facebook group, an Apple Photo Stream, or an email list serve might not be sexy, but it is an easy way to keep the generations in touch. Use the platform of choice as a forum to share photos and videos from the b’nai mitzvah, keeping the good vibes of the weekend alive once everyone is back in the swing of their regular lives. When the kvelling and kibitzing dies down, revive conversation by regularly sharing content. Surface old photos of relatives long gone but not forgotten. Tag relatives in amusing outtakes from the b’nai mitzvah event. Drive discussion of old stories and family legends. Engage in analysis of who from the youngest generation resembles Papa and Bubbie. May their memories be a blessing. 

 

When photo and text exchanges aren’t enough, turn to Facetime and Zoom for face-to-face interactions. Since Jewish tradition brought the family together in person, use the calendar of Jewish holidays to ensure a regular reason for deeper connection. Before beginning your offline family meal, all can log into Zoom for a collective blessing over the challah or wine. If your family’s observance allows for screens, Shabbat can become a weekly occasion for bonding. The Shabbat tradition has long been considered a mechanism for sustaining the 4,000 year-old religion. As the founder of cultural Zionistm Ahad Ha’am famously said, “more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Likewise, Shabbat serves as a regular pause for families to unite.

 

Other platforms exist to make sure that photos and stories remain alive. Use Ancestry.com or Geni.com to connect through family history. Use Storyworth to preserve and share family stories for generations to come. Gift gorgeous bound photo books of your event photos with Artifact Uprising. Today there are so many ways to keep memories, stories, and relationships alive, if you care to invest the time. 

 

If you want your extended family to stay connected long after your child’s b’nai mitzvah, take the lead and show them how it is done. Be the person who is willing to spend time making the plans, coordinating the schedules, implementing the technology, sharing the pictures, and cooking the meals. The Jewish tradition gives families numerous opportunities throughout the year to gather and remember, but without one member taking the initiative, momentum and relationships will be lost. If you are still reading, that individual must be you. Teach your family members to value their history, their faith, and their traditions by modeling this commitment. Now more than ever, in the wake of the terror attacks in Israel as worldwide antisemitism rages, family and tradition feel more important than ever. While it takes work to keep relations alive, the sense of stability and security that it promotes is worth the effort. The investment in family nurtures the soul, developing emotional well-being and a sense of identity and belonging that transcends time and place. 

Photo: Photo by Askar Abayev, pexels.com

Going Up: An Aliyah is a B’nai Mitzvah Honor for the Whole Family
November 14th, 2023

Going Up: An Aliyah is a B’nai Mitzvah Honor for the Whole Family

Going Up: An Aliyah is a B’nai Mitzvah Honor for the Whole Family

By Drew Isserlis Kramer 

A b’nai mitzvah, the celebration of a child’s entrance into Jewish adulthood, is an important lifecycle moment for the entire community that raised the child to the tender age of thirteen. The b’nai mitzvah service allows for family and close friends to share in the simcha, or joy, with special acknowledgment at the bimah, or pulpit. Across all denominations of Judaism, an Aliyah is when a member of a Jewish congregation is called to read the blessings before and after the Torah reading. Aliyah specifically means “going up.” This refers both to the physical movement of the person to the bimah where the Torah is read and to the spiritual uplifting associated with participation in this honored ritual. At a b’nai mitzvah ceremony, the family is able to select the 4-6 honorees who will participate in the service. If you are planning a b’nai mitzvah for your child or received notice that you’re in the hot seat for an aliyah, below is an overview of all you need to know for this high distinction. 


Selection: The first and second aliyahs are easy to assign. The b’nai mitzvah will read, as well as the proud parents. The third is typically reserved for grandparents, while the fourth is a roundup for aunts and uncles. In very small families, the family can choose to honor friends and other relatives. In most synagogues, to have an aliyah, one must be Jewish and have reached the age of bar mitzvah. Traditionally, only men could be called for an aliyah, however, today women are also called to the Torah in non-Orthodox communities. 

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The Reading:  The clergy will show you where the Torah reading begins and ends. After you read or chant the first sentence, the congregation will respond with the second sentence. You repeat the second sentence and then continue the blessing. Follow the lead of the clergy. You will be fine. For families throwing b’nai mitzvahs, confirm whether your family will be reading Hebrew, phonetics, or an English translation. Make sure your aliyah honorees have a sense of what they are doing ahead of time.

 

Customs: In some congregations, the aliyahs will be called by their Hebrew names. Take the shortest route to get there, expressing an eagerness to approach the Torah. You may be asked to wear a tallit, or a prayer shawl. Traditionalists use the fringe of the tallit to kiss the spot of the Torah where the reading begins. After the blessing is recited, the b’nai mitzvah chants the Torah portion. During the portion, the aliyah keeps the right hand on the right handle of the Torah scroll. When the chanting is completed, the honoree “kisses,” the end of the portion that has been chanted, and recites the blessing after the reading. 

 

Honoring Interfaith Relatives: If a family wants to include relatives that are not comfortable reading Hebrew, many choose to have the relatives read a blessing in English. Speak with your clergy about ways to bring them into the ceremony in a way that feels meaningful. 

 

How to Exit The Bimah: Depending upon the custom of the congregation, you may shake hands or hug loved ones on the bimah and then return to your seat, or be asked to remain on the bimah while the next portion of Torah is chanted. After the aliyah, stand on the right side of the bimah until the end of the following aliyah (or, until the Torah is raised). When returning to your seat, do not use the shortest route, savor your moment. Upon returning to your seat, congregants may shake your hand and offer you the traditional greeting, “yasher koach,” done with strength.

 

To be given an aliyah is a great honor on any occasion. When the call to the Torah comes in support of a loved ones’ b’nai mitzvah, it possesses the additional honor of acknowledging the inner circle of Jewish adults guiding growth and identity from infancy to this moment. When the opportunity to extend or accept this honor comes, embrace its meaning and spiritual significance. By “going up” together, the family demonstrates its shared commitment to shepherding this child into adulthood with the values and traditions that give him a sense of belonging in this local community and among the Jewish people throughout the world. In this time of great uncertainty for the Jewish people, know that your inclusion in this ceremony elevates your contribution to the future of Judaism, handing down commitment to the covenant through declaration and action. 

Today’s B’nei Mitzvah Generation Reacts to Terrorism in Israel 
October 31st, 2023

Today’s B’nei Mitzvah Generation Reacts to Terrorism in Israel 

 

Today’s B’nei Mitzvah Generation Reacts to Terrorism in Israel 

By Drew Isserlis Kramer 

Growing up Jewish, children learn the complicated history of their people young. It begins in preschool, learning the origin stories of the holidays. Two year olds in Temple Early Childhood Centers understand that we celebrate Passover because Pharaoh was mean to the Jews. In some Jewish Day Schools, kindergarten-aged students start to learn about the Holocaust from the few survivors we have left. Others learn the horrific history later, as they approach B’nei Mitzvah, but the phrase, “never again” rings loudly in their ears before they can even begin to understand what that means.

 

Today, Jewish parents and educators grapple with a new difficult conversation. While the conflict over Israel is thousands of years old, the Hamas terror attack on October 7, 2023 brought global attention to new violence for being Jewish. Again communities must navigate how to include children in the discussion, while remaining age appropriate. At a certain age, it becomes difficult to shelter and filter this information. As tweens approach B’nei Mitzvah, they are accessing violent imagery on social media, facing friends with misinformation and learning of acts of anti-semitism here in the United States. Like Jewish adults, the children are scared.

 

Much has been written about how to talk to children of all ages at this sensitive time. Below is an overview of what it means to be a tween or teenager, coming of age in this inflection point for the Jewish people. The children are listening – and they have a point of view. 

 

Concierge Rabbi Rebecca Keren Eisenstadt educates children for B’nei Mitzvah in private one-to-one sessions. In her capacity as private Rabbi and teacher, she observes firsthand the weight parents and children are carrying as they prepare for the B’nei Mitzvah milestone during a moment of violence. Asked about her students’ reaction, Rabbi Eisenstadt reports that “parents and children want to talk about it.” To begin discussion, Eisenstadt reminds that “every child and family is different.” Some 8 year olds are extremely sophisticated. Some families have personal connections to people in Israel, while others do not feel as connected. She cautions that you “have to find the right on ramp to talk about it with each family, but every person needs facts.”

 

Everyone’s reaction to the truth is different. Some children want to go deep on information and activation, changing their B’nei MItzvah speeches from calls for peace to validating the need for defense. Kids who were not focused on current events, now feel they must discuss when they approach the bima as a B’nei Mitzvah. B’nei Mitzvah students shift their Mitzvah Projects from other respectable causes to raise money for Israel. Like adults, many Jewish children feel the need to act now. 

 

For other children, the bombardment with information is overwhelming. Even with efforts to shield children, they do not live in a vacuum. They see images of hostages on posters. They get email alerts about security risks. The police presence on school campuses is palpable. They know that parents are on high alert. They know more than you think. In Rabbi Eisenstadt’s practice, one child locked herself in the bathroom to avoid religious instruction. Through text message, Eisenstadt was able to glean that “the child felt anxiety and overload with information about her Jewish identity.” She just couldn’t do it. 

 

Outside of adult earshot, many Jewish middle schoolers relate to the tragedy of the moment through activation. One Westchester thirteen year-old described the current climate among her peers as proactive. Asked how her generation reacted to the terrorist attack on Israel, she notes, “people want to contribute and do whatever they can. My friends are making and selling bracelets to support Israel.” In a school district where a third of the population is Jewish, “kids want to show their peers they stand with Israel.” Proudly wearing their bracelets and posting support on Instagram, today’s B’nei Mitzvah students understand the magnitude of approaching Jewish adulthood at this inflection point in the Jewish story. She adds, “becoming a Jewish adult and taking on more responsibility in the Jewish community feels more significant now. We want to feel connected.”

 

Across town at the district’s high school, another student considers the youth response to the Israeli conflict. Isabel Block, a junior raised within the town’s close knit Jewish community, reflects on her lifelong relationship to Judaism, beginning her studies at the Reform temple preschool and continuing through her B’nei Mitzvah and confirmation. While many of her generation do not continue with Jewish learning past the B’nei Mitzvah milestone, she remains an active participant, serving as a youth liaison on the temple’s social action council. She concedes that many of her friends don’t know of her continued commitment to Jewish life. She points out, “after B’nei Mitzvah, many families become distanced from the temple,” moving on onto more secular commitments as teenagers shift focus to college aspirations. Following the attacks, Block notices a “silent conversation happening on social media.” Among her peers, she sees alliance with Israel, with many posting “I stand with Israel” to their Instagram stories. Although a considerable Jewish community exists, “it can feel risky to discuss the attack.” Jewish teenagers understand that the history of the region is complicated and fear inciting conflict at school. Isabel describes a “sense of isolation” in her generation of Jewish youth. Turning to social media for information, she describes the climate of fear: fear of news sources spreading misinformation; fear of the hurtful antisemitic rhetoric spread by celebrities; fear of the celebration of atrocities on college campuses. With wisdom beyond her 16 years, she adds, “people are so quick to turn on the Jews.” 

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Recently she felt encouraged by a poster at her high school messaging open hours with a Rabbi for students seeking Jewish community at this time. At the same time, B’nei Mitzvah students organize car wash fundraisers. Preschool children decorate cards to support Israeli soldiers. College students solicit home Rabbis for advice in increasingly hostile university environments. Families long delinquent in lighting shabbat candles are showing up for services in record numbers. In a climate of fear and confusion, people young and old return to Jewish institutions to feel connection. There is safety in numbers. There is power in perseverence.

Grieve for Israel with Jewish Joy: A B’nei Mitzvah Story
October 24th, 2023

Grieve for Israel with Jewish Joy: A B’nei Mitzvah Story

 

Grieve for Israel with Jewish Joy: A B’nei Mitzvah Story By Drew Isserlis Kramer

The Jewish people are in mourning. The world is in conflict. Since Hamas attacked Israel on  October 7, 2023, the atmosphere hasn’t felt very celebratory. In the United States, Jewish Americans must grapple with how to grieve and cope with anxiety, while still embracing everyday life. For those who have been studying and planning for a B’nei Mitzvah, the celebration of entrance to Jewish adulthood, families ask themselves how to embrace joy in this tragic moment. 

 

In Judaism, our sacred texts offer guidance on how to grieve. According to Amanda Kleinman, Senior Cantor from Westchester Reform Temple (WRT) in Scarsdale, NY, families grieving a loved one are instructed to “avoid public parties and large celebrations for a period of time following the death.” However, “the community is instructed to continue in its joyful Jewish observances.” She offers the example of Jewish festival holidays. When a death overlaps with celebratory milestones in the calendar year, “the shiva is either postponed or canceled entirely, depending on the circumstances of the death.” She explains that this is because “we are commanded to rejoice during our festivals, and that commandment takes precedence.” To Kleinman, this tradition reinforces the importance of observing meaningful Jewish milestone moments as a way to bring strength to our community.

 

In that spirit, Jewish people across the diaspora have taken to social media to showcase their commitment to living a beautifully Jewish life. Shabbat candles sparkle through content feeds, declaring that our light will not be extinguished. Likewise, as families choose to move forward with their B’nei Mitzvah plans, parents announce their commitment to Judaism in the face of violence and antisemitism, the way they have for generations. 

 

At WRT, the temple and families discuss the opportunities to pray and acknowledge the significance of the moment. If you are hosting a B’nei Mitzvah in this complicated time for the Jewish people, Cantor Kleinman has a few words of advice to feel the poignancy of the moment, while preserving the joy of the occasion for the family and child. 

 

  • Include a prayer for Israel as part of the B’nei Mitzvah service.
  • Add a Mi Shebeirah prayer for healing in the service or another prayer for peace.
  • Take an opportunity to acknowledge those killed as a part of the Kaddish prayer for the dead and grieving.
  • Incorporate Israeli melodies into the service and celebration.

 

For Hailey Genicoff, a Long Island teacher and mother to a recent B’nei Mitzvah, canceling her daughter’s B’nei MItzvah scheduled for October 14, 2023 was not an option. While the decision to move forward with the milestone came with some guilt, the family decided to move forward with their plans. On October 13, 2023, with the Hamas call to followers for “a day of rage” against the Jewish people, guests felt some anxiety to attend the Friday night service that traditionally precedes the Saturday morning service. While some gave in to nerves that evening, everyone came to celebrate the milestone moment and Jewish joy on Saturday. During the ceremony, the clergy acknowledged the conflict in Israel. Both Jewish and non-Jewish guests alike appreciated the call for peace and prayers for hope. Despite the guilt and apprehension that preceded the event, in hindsight, Genicoff says, “what better time to celebrate Judaism than now. 

 

Without an end to the conflict in sight, the Jewish people and its leadership must help Jewish youth find meaning and purpose in the now. In their mentorship of students now preparing for B’nei Mitzvah, both Cantor Kleinman and concierge Rabbi Rebecca Keren Eisenstadt encourage them to think about supporting Israel as part of their Mitzvah project. One child decided to contribute a percentage of her monetary gifts to an organization supporting Israel.  In response to the crisis, WRT’s B’nei Mitzvah students opted to develop bake sales and car washes to raise money to help their sisters and brothers living in the Jewish homeland. 


Now more than ever, the B’nei Mitzvah milestone is an opportunity to strengthen ties with Israel. Sadly, for families organizing a pilgrimage to Israel for a B’nei Mitzvah, many will change their plans for safety. In Rabbi Eisenstadt’s busy international practice, she observes many families pivoting from celebrations in Israel to meaningful locations with calmer shores. 

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In the current climate, the messaging and destination might shift, but, as Rabbi Eisenstadt puts it, “you don’t stop praying.” There is no greater resistance to terrorism than continuing on with simcha, or joy. At Jewish weddings, we remember destruction when we break glass under the chuppah. For thousands of years, the Jewish people combated struggle with joy. The B’nei Mitzvah is a precious moment that we won’t let anyone take from us.