A bar or bat mitzvah is a time to focus on your child as he or she prepares for an incredibly meaningful journey. But what about the parents? What can moms and dads gain from the experience besides considerable joy from watching their son or daughter reach this milestone? Parents should be able to mine the experience for their own personal journey, while providing coaching, love, and support for their child.
Indeed, going through this process might prompt parents to reflect on their own Jewish identity, to engage more deeply with Judaism, and to connect with their families in new and different ways. During this important time, parents often revisit their Jewish education and become interested in learning more about Torah studies or about Jewish culture, history, and politics. Adults can take this chance to become more engaged with their synagogue, their Jewish community, or Israel. Many will decide to foster enhanced connections with their families surrounding the Jewish holidays or during Jewish rituals.
It’s also a perfect opportunity for parents to reflect upon what it means to have a child who is gearing up for this major life event. It’s often hard for parents to believe that their child is reaching this point of adulthood in the Jewish tradition. The adolescent years may be fraught with conflict as children reach for independence while parents try to hold on to those magical moments of childhood, so it’s important to take the time now to forge connections through shared experiences, to convey your family’s values to your child, and to build upon this experience by enhancing and modeling your own Jewish learning, spirituality, and commitment.
To help you get started, here are some practical tips about how to make the most of the time for strengthening your Jewish identity and deepening your connections to your family before your child’s simcha.
Share Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah Experience
If you celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah yourself, this is a wonderful opportunity to bond with your child over a shared experience. If possible, compare your Torah portion with your child’s, discussing how each relates to your lives. Try to recall your feelings at the time of your bar/bat mitzvah. Discuss how you prepared and studied, and reminisce with your child using the photo album from your celebration. You can even discuss your relatives and friends who attended—who knows what laughs clothing and hairstyles from the past might bring!
Interview Older Generations About Their Experiences
With the child who will soon have their bar or bat mitzvah, speak to family members about their mitzvah experiences and memories. Older grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins often tell fascinating stories about their lives as young people. Ask about how they kept a Jewish home and whether they encountered any obstacles along the way, then create a scrapbook of family photos with annotated notes to memorialize their stories.
Become More Active In Your Synagogue
Join your synagogue’s religious school committee to stay informed and make positive contributions to your temple. Think about ways you can help make your child’s religious education more experiential; perhaps ask other parents to demonstrate Jewish cooking, Jewish songs, or Jewish arts to the students. Work with your religious school staff to find adults who can volunteer for field trips to observe Jewish rituals or history. Here’s a timely one: Start a committee for parents going through the bar/bat mitzvah year to provide support, advice, and practical suggestions for one another leading up to the special day.
In the same spirit, start attending more synagogue services as a family. It will help you become more familiar with the songs, the prayers, and the order of the bar/bat mitzvah service. Also, attend special holiday services or other special events offered at your synagogue.
Celebrate Shabbat, Festivals, And The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Period
Invite family and friends to festive meals to celebrate Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. In particular, include the families with whom your child may be sharing the bimah for the bar or bat mitzvah simcha. Start a mitzvah club with your friends or through your temple and get together monthly with the families celebrating around the same time. It can be purely social to strengthen the ties within your community or you can add an element of Jewish study or culture to the occasions. You can either meet at someone’s home or at a famous landmark restaurant such as Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side.
Engage With Jewish Culture And History
Participate in adult education classes to further your own learning. Both The JCC in Manhattan and 92nd Street Y are wonderful spaces for classes, lectures, and community events, and most synagogues also offer adult learning opportunities to their members. Learn conversational Hebrew or delve into Yiddish. Join a Torah study class at your synagogue or form your own study group.
I also highly recommend attending Jewish film festivals. Presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, The New York Jewish Film Festival takes place every January and highlights movies from around the world that deal with issues of Jewish identity. In Westhampton Beach every August, The Hampton Synagogue, in conjunction with the Hamptons International Film Festival, presents the Westhampton Jewish Film Festival.
For the musically inclined, attend concerts featuring Jewish musicians. Try the annual Sephardic Music Festival or the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on its next visit to New York. Attend a klezmer jam in your neighborhood or join your synagogue’s choir to participate in music-making yourself. Get involved with the Kulturfest International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts, which is currently slated to take place in 2015.
If you want to get social, involve your neighbors and friends in finding Jewish cultural opportunities. My family and I recently read and discussed My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, and then saw the novel come to life in an Off-Broadway production. Start a book club with your friends and read Jewish-themed books. Hold your discussion group over a dinner of brisket or chicken soup. Or start a parent-child Jewish-themed book club to make meaningful connections with your family through reading.
Or wander through Jewish historical areas like the Lower East Side and Ellis Island. Visit Jewish museums like The Jewish Museum of New York or The Museum of Jewish Heritage. Take in Jewish art either at museums and galleries or search online for Jewish artists such as Pissarro, Chagall, Soutine, and Modigliani.
Finally, learn more about the contributions Jews have made in fields such as the arts, sports, science, and politics. There are many good books filled with fun tidbits about prominent Jews and their contributions to their societies. Read about a Jewish topic that interests you. Become an expert in Israeli politics or Jewish literature.
Perform Tikkun Olam With Your Family
Volunteer at your synagogue’s Mitzvah days or for other Jewish causes through the UJA, JNF, or other Jewish service organizations. Join an organization like Hadassah and get involved in the wider Jewish community.
Consider visiting Israel with your family or going on a volunteer mission for adults. Otherwise, try to visit a local synagogue or JCC when you’re out and about in general, to get a sense of the Jewish community in that area.
Melissa Stoller is the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, parentchildbookclub.com) and has written numerous articles about family life.