by Jennifer B. Perlick
Two years ago I realized, “Wow, my daughter’s bat mitzvah is coming up!” Of course, I wanted it to be special. I wanted it to be really meaningful for her – and for me and the whole family – but I wasn’t super-inspired by the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies I was attending at my synagogue. Don’t get me wrong, I love my congregation, Har HaShem in Boulder, CO. It offers the largest community of Jewish families in Boulder, its religious school is extremely well-run, and the rabbi and cantor are both young and hip. But the b’nai mitzvah program was, in my opinion, missing the mark.
I have lived in Boulder for more than 20 years, and I have attended programs at various congregations and Jewish organizations, including High Holy Days retreats for adults, communal prayer services, and several “alternative” b’nai mitzvah programs. I’ve been seeing some creative and inspiring things, and I’ve seen kids deeply moved by a special connection to the process, the clergy, to prayer, and Torah. But I wasn’t seeing it so much at my synagogue.
So, being a squeaky-wheel, I started voicing my concerns with our cantor and rabbi. I didn’t know how they’d react, but I felt like I had to do something. At first, I was focused primarily on my own daughter’s bat-mitzvah. I wanted some latitude to create it how I wanted to see it. But as I worked with them, I realized I was not the only one interested in change. Some other families had similar requests and concerns, and the rabbi, cantor, and school director were already envisioning new approaches to b’nai mitzvah and to our religious school curriculum in general.
In a former life I was a middle school teacher, so the b’nai mitzvah age-group is near and dear to my heart. I am particularly aware that this is the time to get them interested and open to the wonder of spirituality and Jewish connection. Otherwise, how are we to capture this special window? In my teaching career, I saw extraordinary results with programs that employ multi-age, expeditionary, and project-based learning. These modalities give kids a stake in their education, making it real and meaningful to them.
I see this direction now taking shape at Har HaShem, and I am excited. We are developing a pilot curriculum that employs all of these modalities, including in-depth study of Torah with the rabbi and individualized options for students to present and express their d’var Torah. My daughter is currently part of this pilot. She is now five weeks away from her bat mitzvah date, and I must admit I am pretty inspired – but the real test is her continued involvement. It shouldn’t stop at b’nai mitzvah. It should be the launching pad for a more connected Jewish adult life.
Of course, Har HaShem also feels this way, and so this summer, our congregation applied for the URJ’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution (BMR) program. When we were accepted, I raced to volunteer. In November, I traveled with Har HaShem to the BMR national conference in Maryland and met with delegates from 14 Reform congregations all pursuing their own paths in re-evaluating what b’nai mitzvah and Jewish youth education means. Each temple is developing its own approach, but we all know we are part of something big – and it’s giving me a sense of meaning and purpose. A few months ago, I was a squeaky wheel; now I am helping my congregation explore major change. This is the first time I have been involved as a lay leader in my congregation, and I am thrilled to be a part of a much larger institutional and national dialogue.
Being part of BMR is exciting to me on so many levels. My participation has allowed me to be more deeply connected to our staff, cantor, rabbi, and school director. I have made new friends with other lay leaders on the project, and I have felt intellectually stimulated and nourished by the opportunity to contribute from an area of my expertise which has gone untapped for many years. Given that my children are the first round of ‘subjects’ in our new experiment, I am extremely invested in the process and outcome. I look forward to working with our congregation’s students, staff, and other families to create something both long-standing and totally awesome!
Jennifer B. Perlick is a member of Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, CO, and a lay participant in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint project of the Union for Reform Judaism and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute for Religion. Learn more about the project at bnaimitzvahrevolution.org.