An Open Letter to Bar/Bat Mitzvah Students
Dear Bar and Bat Mitzvah Student and Parents,
The tradition of Bar and Bat Mitzvah, by which we celebrate your passage into the Jewish religious and ethical responsibilities of adulthood, is one of the most enriching experiences you will ever have. The Bar and Bat Mitzvah service marks the occasion when you begin the process of becoming an adult. Along with your family, friends and extended family here at Congregation Beth Israel, we celebrate your official entrance into the "adult" Jewish community.
We believe that Judaism is a way of life and a religious heritage worthy of serious adult understanding. Therefore, the learning, experiencing, and identification that we ask of you is designed to lead you to mature linkages with our people and our faith. Participation as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is one important step along that road. It is, of course, not the only step. Our Congregation firmly believes that Jewish education is a life-long journey. We encourage all our students to continue their Jewish education by participation in our popular High School program and Confirmation program. Congregation Beth Israel also offers adult education to inform, challenge and inspire you all the years of your life.
As you become an adult member of the Jewish community, we look forward to you joining with us in our people's journey. May this new chapter of your life be fulfilling, rewarding and enlightening.
Rabbi Michael Berk and Rabbi/Cantor Arlene Bernstein
For additional information, please contact us at 858-535-1111, ext. 3110.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah: Its History, Meanings and Customs
The term Bar or Bat Mitzvah (literally, "son or daughter of the commandments") is a title given to all Jews reaching their 13th birthday to signify that they are now prepared to take personal responsibility for their own religious actions and moral behavior through performing the mitzvot (commandments). It is equivalent to reaching the age of legal majority. No ritual is necessary to establish this status.
Listing the stages in a Jew's life, the Mishnah (Avot 5.21) tells us that "thirteen is for Mitzvah." That is to say, traditional Jewish law holds that it becomes incumbent upon a thirteen-year-old male to fulfill the 613 commandments. From this time unto the day of his death, the Jewish male is a Bar Mitzvah, a "son of the commandment." Additionally, in Reform tradition, a young woman becomes a Bat Mitzvah, a "daughter of the commandment," at 13 years of age. According to Jewish tradition, each Jewish adult is tied to the moral and ritual laws of Judaism as a child is tied to his parents.
Sometime during the 4th century, it became the custom to mark this stage of life by permitting the young man to be one of eight adult males privileged to make ascent (aliyah) to the reading desk on the Bimah on a given Shabbat soon after his thirteenth birthday. He would read some verses of the Torah scroll. Blessings thanking God for the Torah were recited before and after the reading of those verses.
By the 16th century, it became custom to follow this first public ritual appearance with a party sponsored by the Bar Mitzvah's family. This was held in the synagogue or at the family home on the Shabbat during which the young person ascended to the Torah. The very next morning, the Bar Mitzvah resumed his seat in his Talmud class in the community religious school, where he continued to study.
Over the past few centuries, the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Service has emerged as a wonderful way for a 13-year-old to demonstrate a commitment to Judaism. Before their congregation, family and friends, the young person accepts the privilege of reading from the Torah (Five Books of Moses) and Haftarah (Books of the Prophets), and leading worship. In this way, the congregation says to the 13-year-old: you are now a participating adult in our religious community. Thus the Bar or Bat Mitzvah service bears witness to the future and continuity of a Judaism embodied in a new generation of committed Jews. For these reasons, the beginning of a young person's transition from childhood to responsible Jewish adulthood is a time of celebration.
At Congregation Beth Israel we continue this age-old tradition of marking a young Jew's passage into adult Jewish responsibility through the celebration of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Such privilege is available only to students who have been enrolled in our Religious School for the equivalent of at least four full years. Candidates must also be enrolled and attending our Religious School at the time during which they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For older students who transfer to our School, prior participation in an equivalent program of Jewish study is acceptable.
The Bar or Bat Mitzvah occurs as part of our Shabbat morning or afternoon service. The student leads the congregation in Hebrew and English passages from the siddur (prayerbook). Each Bar or Bat Mitzvah also reads or chants from the Serer Torah, a hand-lettered parchment scroll which contains the five Books of Moses. The student chooses a section of the weekly portion and explains it to the congregation, demonstrating his or her understanding of the text. The blessings before and after the reading are shared by family and friends.
After the Torah is read, the young person reads a passage taken from one of the prophetic books of the Bible. This selection is known as the Haftarah (completion) and contains either a thematic reference to the Torah reading or a reference to an event in the Jewish year. In addition, our Bar or Bat Mitzvah prepares and delivers a D'var Torah, literally a "word of Torah" or short sermon based on lessons from the Scriptural reading.
Other participants, including members of the congregational family, are honored with roles in the Torah service. Parents offer prayers of thanks and expressions of joy and pride.
Congregation Beth Israel is very proud of our B'nai Mitzvah students and of the commitment to Jewish life and learning that they make on Shabbat through this wonderful Jewish tradition.
Criteria for Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Beth Israel
1. Your family is a member-in-good standing of CBI
2. The student is enrolled in CBI Religious School or another Jewish Religious School or Day School approved by the Rabbi and has been attending regularly.
3. The student will have completed four years of religious education prior to the date of Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
4. The student will be at least 13 years old according to the secular calendar at the date of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
5. Families understand that each student will be evaluated approximately one year prior to the chosen date and that, if in the opinion of the staff, the student has not acquired the necessary Hebrew skills, the date may be postponed.
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Process at Beth Israel
Rabbi Michael Berk has an introductory meeting with all Bar and Bar Mitzvah candidates and their parents nine months before the Bar or Bat Mitzvah service. He also meets with candidates during their final preparation in the weeks leading up to the Shabbat Service in which the family will participate.
The Ma'asei Mitzvah Program
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah student will meet with Rabbi/Cantor Arlene Bernstein on an ongoing basis to work on Hebrew, chanting and preparing for the service and with a B'nai Mitzvah Program Tutor who has been assigned by the Rabbi/Cantor. The tutor works with the student until all of the prayers, Torah and Haftarah portions are understood with fluency. Rabbi/Cantor Bernstein also supervises fulfillment of the Ma'asei Mitzvah program (see below).
Two months prior to the service, the student meets with Rabbi Berk to prepare the D'var Torah (the speech). At this time the roles of various family members will be discussed and planned (e.g., who may be honored with an Aliyah, lifting and dressing the Torah, and more).
The individual B'nai Mitzvah educational process is supplemental to Religious School studies. Each student must remain a student in good standing in our Religious School program. In addition, families are required to attend a series of clergy-led sessions in the semester prior to their celebration of Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Judaism teaches us that when a joyful or celebratory experience occurs, one way we show our thankfulness is by giving to or doing for others. The Ma'asei Mitzvah program, which literally means "doing and performing Mitzvot", is designed to help you learn the importance of Jewish commitment. We ask that you complete a total of 18 mitzvot. Eighteen in Hebrew is spelled Chai. Chai is Hebrew for "life". Our hope is that by completing these Mitzvot one month prior to your Bar and Bat Mitzvah service, you will have a greater sense of God's presence in your life.