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Life lessons and what you really learn from a bar mitzvah

Bar + mitzvah = life experience

for The Brooklyn Paper

Kids tend to look at bar mitzvah preparation as the Jewish equivalent of algebra. It’s difficult to understand, doesn’t really mean anything, and they think they will never use it again once their ceremony is over.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you or your child is thinking about the bar mitzvah service as a one-time thing — an event where you will read from the Torah, chant a couple of prayers, and learn some throw-away words in Hebrew — then, sure, once you get through it, you’re done. But, by coping this attitude, there’s so much a kid will be missing out on.

As a cantor, I think one of the best ways kids can approach the learning process is to find as many personal connections as possible.

Let’s look at some examples.

The prayers

Wait! Don’t glaze over yet. Take a moment to look at some of the English translations. You will find that the guys who wrote a lot of what we read in the Prayer Book weren’t so different from us. They worried about staying safe, wanted to be happy, didn’t like when others gossiped about them — all those emotions can be found right in the Siddur.

The mitzvah project

Today, many temples require the b’nei mitzvah students to perform some kind of community service project, or accrue a minimum number of service hours. Don’t look at this as yet another requirement some grownup is forcing on you — this is your chance to show everyone what you think is important. Do you like to work with kids? Help out at an animal shelter? Collect supplies for the needy? I have seen kids, years after their bar mitzvahs, who wouldn’t know a letter aleph if they ran over it, but still proudly remember how they played after school basketball with underprivileged youth. And that set the tone for their future acts of tzedakah and other mitzvot. For more ideas, click here, here, here, and here!

The Torah portion

There are some incredible stories in the Torah. In addition to the episodes that are familiar to a lot of people, the Torah is filled with stories of action, violence, romance, deception, and crime that put the Godfather trilogy to shame. All the things that you like to see when you go the movies (sans 3D digital graphics) are present in this one text. Take a close look at what Torah portion is read during your particular bar mitzvah date. You may be surprised that you find it fascinating.

The mistakes

Really? I bet you thought the whole idea was not to make mistakes. Let me be the first to tell you — you’re going to make some mistakes! But how to handle thesef mistakes is extremely important. Speaking or singing in front of people, making a minor error, and then continuing right along, is an incredibly useful life skill. The trick is not avoiding all errors, but learning to handle them like a pro.

The preparation

In my opinion, this is what the whole thing is all about. Even though I see kids and parents running around, stressing out over a very pressure-filled two hours on the morning of the bar or bat mitzvah, I’m much more concerned with the months and months of work that a kid’s been doing to get there. When you first start, it probably seems like an insurmountable hurdle. There’s no way you will get through all that! But little by little, week after week, you chip away at the material and gain some confidence along the way, until you have all of it down. Trust me, when I tell you that this is just one of many such hurdles that you’re going to face. The trick is remembering how you tackled this obstacle, and it will set the “bar” for everything that follows.

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