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

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. 

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