Advice on hiring a bar mitzvah tutor

The tutor tango

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

In addition to my son’s lessons at temple, I want to hire a private tutor to help my son prepare for his bar mitzvah. Is this a good idea or a waste of money?

— To Tutor or Not to Tutor?

Dear Tutor,

I can’t say for sure without knowing your son — there may be some unusual learning issues or other factors going on in your house, which might make things more complicated. But I can give you some general perspective.

Usually, the lessons that your son will get at temple should be adequate. During those sessions, your son will be sitting one-on-one with the cantor or other teacher and going over the melodies and texts that he has to learn. Each week, your son will be told what to practice (and also how to practice), and in this way, he will slowly but surely make his way through the material.

You might be worried that your son won’t be able to prepare completely for lessons, and will fall behind. A private tutor, you might reason, would be able to sit with your son between lessons and concentrate on specific parts of the service or Torah reading so your son can keep up.

Here are a couple flaws in that thinking.

It’s sending the subtle message that your son can’t get through the bar mitzvah training on his own and needs special help. When I sit with a student in lessons, I’m fully aware that some kids move faster while others struggle with the material. What I really want to see is that we’re making a little progress every week. How fast we move isn’t as important to me as seeing that my student is learning a little bit more each time.

That leads us into another problem — assuming that every student must learn at exactly the same pace. Not every bar or bat mitzvah kid needs to be a precise copy of each other. I’m sometimes happy to cut back on certain prayers so we can spend more time working on other things. It all depends on the individual student and his capabilities.

Finally, who is the tutor you’re looking to hire? Is he a professional bar mitzvah tutor? Or maybe a high school kid who happens to be good at Hebrew? Does he know all the same melodies? If you have a tutor who generally knows a melody but sings it a little differently, it can really add to the level of difficulty for kids who are struggling to learn a certain tune. Kids will have trouble if they start hearing the same words sung in various ways.

All this being said, there is one time where I would certainly encourage you to look into a tutor. If the bar mitzvah will take place in the fall, and your son is going to Jewish sleep-away camp during the summer, you may have the option of having a tutor sit with your son once a week. This is a great way to make sure that his bar mitzvah stuff doesn’t sit completely untouched for a couple of months.

The bottom line, however, is save your money. My guess is that your son will do just fine with your temple’s regular lessons.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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