Earlier this month, Elizabeth Weil wrote a compelling article in the New York Times entitled "The Unexpected Bat Mitzvah." In it, she discusses how she, a "Jew-ish" woman, and her non-Jewish "California surfer type" husband decided to raise their children as ethical without religion. She was completely unprepared when her twelve year old daughter Hannah requested a bat mitzvah. The request threw Weil into a soul-searching spin. To her great credit, she took her daughter's desire seriously, speaking to many friends and searching out real options for Hannah.
When I was growing up, the daughter of two affiliated Jews, I went to religious school AND to Jewish summer camp. Still, when I asked my parents for a bat mitzvah, they assured me that I would have a "Sweet 16" instead. In their defense, that's just what most Jewish girls did back then. Weil's friend Taffy advised her to give in to her daughter. "You have to," she told her. "If you make a big deal of it, guess what? She becomes Orthodox!" I went one step further – I became a rabbi!
Weil's exploration took her to a beautiful Sukkot Service at Golden Gate Park with a new San Francisco congregation called The Kitchen, but they dismissed that bat mitzvah option when they learned about a Shabbat service requirement a few times a month. Finally, they found a tutor named Arik who would teach Hannah and create an intimate ceremony for her.
Kudos to Weil for supporting her daughter's desire to connect with her Jewish roots. But a DIY bar or bat mitzvah misses the point. Traditionally, a bar mitzvah was the first time a 13 year old young man would be called to the Torah at synagogue. Standing before his community, he would affirm his commitment to God, Jewish learning and the Jewish community. So much of Jewish tradition is about recognizing that you are part of something much bigger than you. Rabbi Hillel once famously said, "Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – Do not separate yourself from the community." A twelve or thirteen year old is busy figuring out who she is and where she fits in. How can someone learn where she fits in, without knowing to what? Teaching her Hebrew and prayers may be an entry point, but without the support of a community, it is an unsustainable proposition.
A bar or bat mitzvah is a ritual connected to Torah, Tradition and Community. Denying the Community component of the three legged stool creates instability and isolation. Hopefully for Weil's daughter, Hannah, the ritual they devise won't be the beginning and conclusion of Hannah's searching soul. Hopefully, instead, it will open the door to a Jewish world that is waiting to embrace her.